Denise L’Estrange-Corbet is a dame in both word and spirit. In New Zealand, she is as celebrated for her contributions to WORLD, the fashion label and concept stores that she and her now-ex husband, Francis Hooper, created to bring their unique vision to a discerning (but colorful) clientele as she is for her considerable efforts for a variety of health-related charities. The title of her autobiography, All That Glitters, should tell you all that you need to know.
Born in New Zealand and raised in London, Dame Denise was inspired by the early days of Sir Terence Conran’s Habitat, where design had the power to brighten every aspect of one’s life. The clothes that she and Hooper design mix the understated, all-black palette favored by a certain corner of the country with the fearless quirkiness of the Kiwi spirit. Lovers of antiques, design and fragrance, they’re not afraid to sell antique crucifixes and vintage Vuitton luggage alongside minimalist Aesop products in their boutiques.
As Dame Denise puts it, it’s all personal: “There is no division between us and our stores and lives. Our house is like one of our shops, filled with an assortment of everything we love to look at and have around us.” It reflects the company’s founding mission: To be amusing. “Francis and I never sat down and decided to create a brand, like all brands do today,” she explained with her perfect British enunciation. “We started a brand as we were bored and wanted to bring more to the people, and everything we make and sell is just an extension of our very large personalities!”
What are some characteristic traits unique to New Zealanders and the way they create, dress and live?
New Zealand has a very defined style, particularly in parts of the lower South Island, which embraces the color black. It is a very Dunedin and Otago way of dressing.
Due to our climate and the amount of open space, everything is geared towards outdoor living, particularly in summer. You can’t beat a house with a garden here. I recently built a vegetable garden, which I never thought I would ever embrace.
You and WORLD both embody a very urbane sophistication. What can you tell us about urban culture in Auckland in particular and New Zealand cities in general? And what does a perfect day in Auckland look like?
When Francis [Hooper] and I opened WORLD in 1989, New Zealand was a very different place. Shops closed at 1 p.m.on a Saturday and remained so until Monday morning. So for those who worked, you only had a few hours to shop on the weekend. It was also impossible to find a matching duvet cover and pillowcases, which just blew my mind. I was coming from London in the 1970s, where Sir Terence Conran’s Habitat was the place to go for your homewares. I felt I had landed in a backwater.
What WORLD offered was so unique to New Zealand, and we gathered an enormous following for what we did and received many accolades along the way. This was before Instagram and influencers, a word I hate and what it stands for. It was true, legitimate, groundbreaking design that people wanted, and we gave it to them.
New Zealand has such incredible, awe-inspiring and diverse landscapes. Which are the most inspiring to you? What are your favorite weekend escapes?
I particularly love the water and the beaches in New Zealand. Perhaps it’s because I am a Pisces. My perfect day is on a boat with friends. We stop at a secluded white sandy beach and have lunch and play games and chat. The sun is shining, the sky is the bluest of blues, the air is warm, the water is warm. We jump off the boat and swim and frolic around. That is heaven for me, right on my doorstep.
Where will your next vacation be?
I have no idea where my next vacation will be now. COVID-19 has changed everything about everyone’s day-to-day life: who we visit, where we socialize, where we can travel to, what we can do. It is all in the lap of the Gods.
Currently, in New Zealand, if we travel, we have to go into two weeks of isolation on our return, and usually that is the amount of time I can be away from work, if I’m lucky, so for now, I am staying put!
The thing you can’t travel without?
My passport! I found this out in March this year, when leaving London, and trying to rearrange my suitcases into the car, I managed to do this, and headed to Heathrow. When I was unpacking the car at the airport, I suddenly realized my hand luggage case was missing. I froze, as cold panic overtook confusion, and the realization came to me that I had left it on the pavement outside the hotel! Of course, that particular piece of luggage has everything in it that you need to board an aircraft! I called the hotel, and luckily, someone had taken it in, in the early hours of the morning, sitting on its lonesome on the pavement. So back to central London, pick up the case and passport, and back to Heathrow. Will not ever be doing that again!
When were you happiest while traveling?
When I turned 40, Francis took me and our daughter Pebbles to New York for a holiday. It was an actual holiday — no work — and it was a blissful time. Pebbles was 11, so she was easy to travel with, and we did so many fun things, and would flop on the bed exhausted every night. The museums, shops, art galleries — it was all so incredible. It was the year 2000, which was not just a new year, but a new century, and I am a Leap Day baby, so we were able to celebrate my actual birthday, February 29, which is always so special.
If you could live at any hotel, which would it be?
Claridges in London. Having been brought up and schooled in London and have all my family and so many friends there, the minute I land back, it is like I have never been away. It is very hard to know the actual culture of a country until you have lived in it for a time, and I love everything about the upper class establishment of England, and also the very working class culture, which I was brought up in. In London, the two can mix in various ways; you can zig-zag across cultures. To be there when Thatcher was Prime Minister and the coal miners’ strikes and union unrest at its peak was scary, but looking back, history-making. Traveling to work during the Brixton riots, when the train would just whizz through Brixton station and not stop, I really began to understand the divide between rich and poor. You would then arrive in Bond Street, and it was as if Brixton, though only a few miles away, was in another country. The upper echelons of society just carried on as if nothing affected them. I always have lunch at Claridges when in London, and they always remember you. One day I was sitting at a table and next to me was a woman who had the same table, every single day, for lunch and dinner (I mean, seriously?), talking very loudly to a Fleet Street reporter about Boris Johnson, who was not yet Prime Minister, and all these other people that I knew of. It was mind-blowing stuff! I didn’t want to even chew my food in case I missed a word! The upper classes can be so indiscreet!
The place or trip that challenged you most?
I am a bit of a chameleon, and can adapt to whatever environment I am in, but the most challenging and utterly ridiculous on my part when I look back was when I was on my way to Tanzania. We had to spend a day in Nairobi, where I decided to go wandering around the markets. Suddenly I found myself in a street, and I realized it was somewhere no woman on her own should ever be. The realization that I could disappear at any moment was so real, and nobody would ever know what had happened. I was in unchartered territory, due to my own volition and stupidity, but I got out alive, and I won’t be doing that again!
What is your room service indulgence?
I am a very plain eater. I have been a vegetarian for 47 years, and the most exciting thing I order from room service is a toasted cheese and tomato sandwich with fries. I never, ever have this at home, only when I have room service — and in front of the TV. Bliss!
The strangest place you’ve spent a night?
Hotel Esmerelda in Paris. We had booked and confirmed our room, and when we arrived, they had no knowledge of our booking, so we all slept in separate rooms on the first night, and in the morning, we were then taken out of the hotel, around a side street, and up these incredibly worn concrete spiral steps into a back part of the hotel. We were given the most beautiful room, with enormous double-hinged windows that opened onto Square Viviani, which has Paris’s oldest tree, which is over 400 years old, and Notre Dame Cathedral. This was when Pebbles was a child, and we went to a bookstore around the corner and were chatting to a staff member, and they asked where we were staying. The staff member told us we should buy the book “Monet’s Garden,” as the girl illustrated in the book is in the actual room we were staying in, and she is looking at the tree. We bought the book, and took a leaf from the tree and put it between the pages.
That night, I felt a person standing at the end of the bed. The person had an enormous presence, and it woke me up. I thought it was Francis, and after a while, even though I had opened my eyes fleetingly to see a large shadow, I said, “What are you doing standing there? Get into bed!” I turned over and realized Francis was fast asleep in bed, and I shot up. I woke him up and said someone was in the room. He murmured and went back to sleep.
In the morning, while showering with the bathroom door open, I distinctly heard Pebbles’ voice coming from the other side of the shower curtain, and she said, “Mummy, Mummy, look at me!” I said, “What are you doing?” She said it again, and I said, “Either come into the bathroom or shut the door.” I whipped back the shower curtain and she was not there.
I quickly got out of the bath and walked over to her bed to tickle her and tell her she was cheeky, but she was in deep slumber, and a chill went down my spine. I woke Francis up and told him our room was haunted. I went down to reception and asked the concierge, “Is our room haunted?” He looked surprised and said, “Non, non, Madame.” I said, “Yes it is, I have felt a ghost!” And he said, “Oui, it is haunted Madame. Oui, I am sorry.”
What is your favorite market in the world?
I do not have a favorite market per se, but from the age of 13, I visited Portobello Road market every week with friends, as I loved the antiques and the very feel of the place. It was a special time.
What are your showoff spots in your hometown?
Well, the WORLD stores obviously are a must-see, but also I love Arrowtown in the South Island (who doesn’t?), and the nature we have in New Zealand. The beaches, scenery, everything. You have to go far and wide to find anything better than a sunny day in Aotearoa.
If you could travel to any place in any epoch, which would it be?
Well, being a lover of English history, I have always wanted to travel back to the 16th century and the Court of Henry VIII. I would love to see how their clothes were made by hand, how they dyed the fabrics and stitched everything, as you could not just buy fabric off a roll; you had to have it made, and only the very wealthy could afford the velvets and silks. Their food also fascinates and sickens me all at the same time. Only royalty can eat swan, and they would stuff a swan with a smaller bird, and do this five times, with five different birds, so when the roast was cut, you had five different meats.
Which places would you happily spend a weekend, a week, a month, and a year and why?
Anywhere with extreme cold — and I mean extreme — but not extreme heat. I would happily spend time on a Russian icebreaking ship in the Antarctic as it ploughs through the thick ice sheets. Or sledding through Lapland in the dusk, being pulled by reindeer at Christmas.
Where are you embarrassed that you’ve never been?
Italy! Each time I want to go, I somehow end up in the U.K., as the pull of family and friends is too great!
Carlos Huber is the Director of Membership at PRIOR. An architect, preservationist and fragrance designer, his experience in architectural history and design led him from his native Mexico City to Italy, France, Spain and the United States, based in New York since 2006. This diverse background, and his love of travel, is represented in the evocative fragrances he’s created for the ARQUISTE Parfumeur collection as well as for other world-renowned brands.