Mitchell had already earned her first screen credit before graduating from Auckland University in 1979, with a Bachelor in Fine Arts. She designed costumes for David Blyth’s edgy feature debut Angel Mine (1978), a movie whose outfits include fetishistic PVC, sailor suits and in some scenes, not much more than the emperor’s new clothes.
In the early 80s Mitchell spent four years working in the theatre — “Theatre Corporate was my training ground”, she says — punctuated by study trips in London, and a stint with the Australian Opera Company. Back home, she also helped paint the backdrops for Gregor Nicholas dance short Bodyspeak.
Then she applied for a job as a costume designer with TVNZ, where her habit of drawing and painting designs would be put to good use. Mitchell’s first show at TVNZ was BMX adventure series Steel Riders. The kidult series introduced her to future Gloss producer Janice Finn, who invited her to Wellington to work on Seekers.
Featuring early turns by actors Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Temuera Morrison, the style-heavy Seekers revolved around a search for enlightenment. The show was designed with a strong emphasis on certain key colours, and Mitchell’s designs won her positive attention. She also costume designed the classic Walkshort: the 10-minute short required her to sort costumes for the multitude of characters brought to life by Front Lawn talents Harry Sinclair and Don McGlashan.
Next came the kind of “fantastic” gig a costume designer simply doesn’t get every day: cult "glitter soap" Gloss. Based around a wealthy family who run a high fashion magazine, and awash with stilettos, shoulder pads and intentionally “over-the-top” costumes, Gloss reflected an 80s pre-crash era of high-spending flamboyance and new-found "here we come and we are sailing" confidence.
Behind the scenes Mitchell and fellow costume designer Enid Eiriksson oversaw a busy team of TVNZ cutters, pattern-makers and milliners. Though the vast majority of the show’s outfits were made in-house, supportive hands in the fashion industry meant some outfits were borrowed from local designers. Mitchell worked on three series of Gloss, becoming TVNZ’s principal costume designer in the process. The show’s successful run finally ended in 1990, followed soon after by the closure of TVNZ’s wardrobe department.
In 1990, the same year Mitchell won a Benson and Hedges Fashion Award in the Lifestyle section, she launched the Liz Mitchell label. She was now freelancing as designer and stylist across a variety of fields, including knitwear, theatre, and television commercials, plus working behind the scenes on the Fashion Awards show itself. She also found time to work on episodes of early South Pacific Picures drama series Marlin Bay and Red Delicious, Garth Maxwell’s over-the-top short whose cast included Adam, Eve and Mike Mizrahi as the worm.
In 1994, with another Benson and Hedges award in the bag, Mitchell opened the Liz Mitchell Atelier in Auckland, which won the Wools of New Zealand interior design award the following year. These days her retail and design operations are located in Ponsonby.
Mitchell’s Pacific Fire collection has been displayed in the Dutch city of The Hague. Garments from her NZ Fashion Week collections Kiss of the Dragon (2003) and Night Flowers of the Pacific (2005) were purchased by Te Papa for their permanent collection of New Zealand fashion. Te Papa are also in the process of conserving an archive of her costume designs for theatre and screen.
Mitchell has also been called on to dress public figures for a number of official ceremonies. Not for the first time, Prime Minister Helen Clark wore a Mitchell-designed number for the 2003 international premiere of The Return of the King. Clark’s slate-coloured full-length gown was paired with a chain mail wrap made by Weta Workshop.
Mitchell also designed the outfits worn by Weta Workshop commanders Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger, for the triumphant 2004 Academy Awards ceremony. Fellow Kiwi Oscar nominee Keisha Castle-Hughes was also dressed in a Liz Mitchell gown.
In 2005 Mitchell was appointed a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for her services to the fashion industry.
These days she masterminds the creation of ready-to-wear, bridal and couture clothing for her high-end fashion label Liz Mitchell. She also wholesales an affordable range to Farmers department stores, under the label Mitchell by Liz Mitchell.
Liz Mitchell website. Accessed 9 April 2015
Angela Gregory, Orlando Bloom’s T-shirt not for sale - New Zealand Herald, 3 December 2003
'Interview with fashion designer Liz Mitchell' (Video Interview), NZ On Screen Website. Director Clare O’Leary (Uploaded 24 October 2008). Accessed 17 September 2010