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www.waikatotimes.co.nz SATURDAY, MARCH 17, 2012 C5
SMALL BUSINESS FOCUS
Tamahere Market springboard for designers
Quality comes first for this pair of Waikato fashion producers and their two The Wardrobe stores, writes Ali Tocker.
Phoenix rising: Aroha Wikotu’s fashion and retail business has taken off despite the global financial meltdown.
Photo: Ben Curran / Fairfax NZ
‘‘We want to support local designers because we know how hard it is coming up through the design industry.’’Aroha Wikotu Fashion designer
Waikato fashion designer Aroha Wikotu has world financial turmoil and the Tamahere market to thank for the growth of her small business. When the United States sub-prime mortgage debacle sent financial shockwaves around the globe, retailers throughout New Zealand stopped stocking her designs almost overnight. As a fashion wholesaler, she lost 50 per cent of her retailers when shops closed or dropped suppliers. In desperation, she turned to the Tamahere market, between Hamilton and Cambridge, to sell her clothes. Locals liked what they saw. Sales took off, and people encouraged her to open her own store. ‘‘The Tamahere market saved me. I was selling my clothes cheaper in the market but I was still getting more than I did from the retailers. That made me realise I should start retailing for myself.’’ The 32-year-old Hamiltonian opened her first store, The Wardrobe, in Taupiri, two years ago in partnership with Waikato designer Sheena Waretini. Waretini left after about a year to have a baby and continue designing from home, and Wikotu is now in partnership with Hamilton designer Seema Singh, 39. Sales have gone so well for Wikotu and Singh that the pair decided to open a second store in Hamilton East. They drew on help from family and friends and worked over Christmas to fit out the store, on the corner of Grey and Cook streets. ‘‘We didn’t have a Christmas holiday,’’ Wikotu says, ‘‘but it was worth it.’’ The Hamilton East store, also named The Wardrobe, opened last month featuring innovative clothes, jewellery and accessories, and business is going well, Wikotu says. ‘‘The most common comment we get is how nice it is to have local designers in Hamilton East.’’ She will not discuss revenue, saying the fashion industry is too competitive. But she believes her financial future is now secure. The first store cost about $6000 to fit out and the second about $10,000, because they did most of the work themselves. Both stores were set up without borrowing any money, Wikotu says. The stores feature Wikotu’s Shikoba label and Singh’s French Curve. Other local labels include Waretini’s Lady Dawn, Tamara Mitchell’s Lolla-Jane, Anyone’s Daughter from Tauranga’s Erika Achilles-Dunseath, and Lecourtois Couture from Raglan designer Dominique Lecourtois. ‘‘We decided we will only stock New Zealand-made. We want to support local designers because we know how hard it is coming up through the design industry,’’ Wikotu says. Her label draws heavily on nature. A dress has a bodice with tui emblazoned across it. A skirt has an appliqued kowhai flower. Natural fibres dominate, including merino and cotton. The daughter of a Maori father and European mother, Wikotu says her parents brought her up to respect the environment. She regularly travels throughout the country, seeking inspiration. Her design book and a box containing fabric samples and ideas go everywhere with her. Wikotu studied at Bay of Plenty polytech, graduating with a two-year fashion diploma 12 years ago. She started the Shikoba label six years ago when she moved to the Waikato. Winning a Maori design award, Miro Moda, in 2010 was a breakthrough moment, enabling her to show her collection at Fashion Week in Auckland. ‘‘Fashion Week is all about exposure.’’ Singh, who studied fashion design at Wintech, says the points of difference in her clothing are simplicity and compatibility with anything in your wardrobe. ‘‘The modern woman is very busy and doesn’t have time to put lots of pieces together to create a look. You can dress my designs up or down,’’ Singh says. ‘‘My biggest inspiration is the environment and people around me, my everyday life. Whether I’m in a shopping mall or having coffee with friends, I might see a colour or a sight that sparks an idea.’’ Business challenges for the pair include finding time to design clothes while also running the stores. Part-time shop staff and outsourced dressmakers are crucial, and the designers have sewing machines on site. The pair routinely work six-day weeks.Another challenge is competing on
price against cheap clothes sold here that are manufactured overseas. ‘‘You pay more for our clothes but our clothes are quality and won’t come apart at the seams.’’ Nor it seems will their business. ‘‘We’re not necessarily going to stop at two stores,’’ Wikotu says.
ali.tocker@waikatotimes.co.nz

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