by Helen Martin
Born to English parents in Salisbury (now Harare), the capital of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Myra Fowler struggled at school because her dyslexia, a condition undiagnosed at the time, greatly hindered her learning. As Myra explains “Nobody really knew about dyslexia. I was obviously intelligent but couldn’t read or write.” Luckily, staff at Myra’s Junior School saw her athletic potential and with their support she began the successful athletics career that helped her channel her energy and built up her self-esteem to the point where she eventually competed as a pentathlete for her country – and some of her records still stand. The peak of her career was trying out for the 1968 Mexican Olympics. But, because there were sanctions against Rhodesia, which had declared independence from Britain in 1965 and was continuing the Rhodesia Front Government’s policy of white majority rule, a Rhodesian team was not permitted to attend the event.
As someone with high aspirations, Myra says she found entry into adult life quite daunting. She tried university – her mother read the textbooks to her – but with no institutional support she took herself off to teachers’ college in Bulawayo, a move that opened doors when a staff member interested in dyslexia took her on as a case study. This led to a job, teaching pre-school children, and the discovery that having had to teach herself to read, she had a very good understanding of how to teach the basics of reading to others. Looking for excitement, Myra entered the Miss Rhodesia beauty contest “for something to do” and was astonished to win. One result of her success was the offer of the job of lingerie buyer with the prestigious South African fashion retailer Truworths. “Being ‘the knicker lady’ for three years was super fun,” she says, “and having to learn the process of having the lingerie made gave me really good experience for my hat-making later.”
Marriage to Les Lloyd and the birth of their son David was followed, when the political situation in Rhodesia became very tense, by the family’s emigration, first to Switzerland, then to England, where daughter Nola was born. Myra retrained and became the manager of a Montessori nursery school, a position she held happily for 18 years. “It was the very best type of education system I could work in, because it facilitated my particular strengths,” she says. “The school was very strong in the arts and I made sure there were games and athletics opportunities as well.” Reading about creativity and how the brain works, at around 40 Myra took up drawing, then painting, as an outlet for her own creativity. She continued jogging regularly, despite the English weather. “I thought, either the English weather gets you or you get it. I decided I wouldn’t allow it to get me down. So, no matter what the weather did I’d run in the morning, even if it was pouring with rain. I still think that. The more it throws at me, the more I think, “here I come!”
With Myra surviving breast cancer and with she and Les looking for a more relaxed way of life away from Europe’s overcrowding and pollution, the couple emigrated to New Zealand when Myra found work with the Dore programme, an exercise scheme for children with dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD. Next came retirement, and the move to Helensville followed. “Coming here was pretty impulsive. We didn’t want to be in a suburb, so we drove up here, stopped at a real estate agent’s and bought the third house we saw,” she says. “We didn’t know anything about Helensville and we knew no-one. But we’ve never regretted it.”
That was nearly ten years ago. Myra has always loved fashion and has always worn a hat of some description – she thinks it’s because for her wearing a hat is “a spatial thing”, giving her a sense of being completed – so in Helensville she turned her creative attention to making hats. She now runs the very successful business Marmalade Hats, named for her lemon marmalade-for-breakfast habit. She started from scratch. A course in millinery at the London School of Fashion proved inspirational and Helensville librarian Sally provided the useful list of contacts, which included Kaukapakapa’s Sharon Dooney, who showed Myra how to felt from wool. It took 18 months, but after much trial and error Myra finally produced a hat she was pleased with.
While Myra sells her beautiful hats alongside clothes by local and overseas designers at The Shelter in Ponsonby, her main interest is in being creative, producing the same endorphins she generated as a first-class athlete. “I’m still learning and experimenting with different materials and techniques. Making a hat takes a lot of energy. My discovery process is that I keep going until it breaks. I’m looking for the diamond – the bit that works. I love high fashion and Marmalade Hats is about forward design with reference to an elegant past - I feel I’m wearing my art piece on my head every day. That’s almost enough for me.”
Myra loves New Zealand and is very happy with her move to Helensville. She enjoys walking in the bush, running (“it’s my meditation time”) and working out at the local gym. “We love living so close enough to the city it’s easily accessible but surrounded by countryside. And we love the fact that there’s a good mix of people and everyone is very obliging. Helensville people have facilitated me every step of the way. I love the can-do attitude here, where nothing is impossible.”
by Helen Martin