Aroha means love for the land and its people. Aroha Wikotu could not be better named. She moved to Hamilton for love, has created a business there doing what she loves and operates it with respect for her environment and her customers.
WORDS LIZ FRENCH / PHOTOS SACHA KAHAKI
Aroha Wikotu is a young designer who has been adventurous enough to establish her own label, sensible enough to seek assistance, collaborative in sharing retail space and so aware of the fickle nature of fashion that she never expects anything to stay the same.
Aroha’s label is called Shikoba. Despite her mixed Maori and European heritage she has chosen an American Indian name which means feather but also denotes speed.
“My partner Anaru came up with the name,” she explains. “The native Indians are, like the Maori, a minority race, and Anaru also knew it denoted the feathery blaze down a horse’s nose and had seen it as a race horse’s name. A winner I hope!”
Interestingly the feather motif appears in a bright pinky purple fabric she has spread on her workroom table. There is no deep significance to this. She has chosen it as part of her spring summer range – the vibrant diaphanous fabric will highlight the shoulder area of tops in block colours. Pinks and purples, and bold florals including a delicious rose pattern, are strong components of this season’s range. Classic profiles prevail. She does two collections a year, a major undertaking for one designer, and a logical approach to making fashion more cost efficient for herself and for her clients.
“I am finding women are looking for trans-seasonal pieces, so I work on designs that can be layered and that complement each other. This time I have been inspired by the fabric patterns. It is an interesting departure as I have tended to favour single colours and put the emphasis on texture and applied design.”
Applied design is the integration of self designed – so unique to her label – texturing or prints on plain fabrics. Aroha has drawn on her family heritage and on her love of nature to create textures which include an interpretation of the way the Maori weave the kete. She has created motifs of pohutukawa and NZ native birds which are printed onto fabric, and has had designs especially woven. Thus many of the fabrics the Shikoba customer wears will not be duplicated by any other designer.
A GIRL IN A HURRY
Aroha seems serenely organized and gives the impression that her path to success has been steady and considered. At 34 she’s a bit more mature now but she confesses she’s always been impatient to get where she thinks she’s heading!
She was born in the Eastern Bay of Plenty farming settlement of Manawahe between Lake Rotoma and coastal Matata. When she was one the family moved to Kawerau where her father worked at the mill. Her Maori dad was very much a local with tribal affiliations in the region. On her mother’s side is a mix of European, Scottish and English, her ancestors arriving from Germany three generations ago.
Aroha enjoyed the freedom of life in a small town and attended Kawerau High School until she heard that Trident High School in Whakatane was offering pattern drafting classes. She was already dreaming up designs and manipulating standard patterns. It was an opportunity too good to miss.
She jumped schools. Then, instead of taking her aptitude for Japanese and history into the seventh form she asked to be enrolled in a second sixth form year – this time studying the creative arts, and photography and sewing. She did not finish that year either. “I suddenly felt I’d done enough,” she says. “I’ve never wanted to mark time.” She left school and worked in Whakatane in retail and as a waitress, leaving her love of design on a backburner for a few months until she enrolled at the Bay of Plenty Polytechnic Diploma in Fashion Design and Construction.
During Aroha’s two years study in Tauranga she worked for Arthur Toye fabrics, invaluable for absorbing familiarity with and knowledge about a wide range of fabrics. No sooner had she completed her Diploma than “itchy feet” took her to Australia where she spent the first year travelling before getting a job with a large fabric retail store.
She returned home to the Eastern Bay with a baby daughter, Kharma, and worked for a year in the store and workroom of a plus size designer. She learnt about cutting, construction and machining. “I could do this myself,” she thought. She was already making ball and bridesmaid dresses at home for friends.
By this time her long term friendship with Anaru had became much more than that.
He was working in Hamilton for a fire sprinkler company. She and Kharma moved to Hamilton. “It’s what you do for love,”
she sighs, looking back and appreciating how her strong relationship has given Kharma, now ten, a stable background for growing up. So love is why, in 2005, Shikoba was born as a Hamilton based fashion label.
SHIKOBA TAKES SHAPE
Aroha may have been confident in her ability to create designs and manage their construction but she realized she needed help to make her business work.
She approached the Maori Business Facilitation Service – Te Puni Kokiri (TPK) for advice. They gave her a business plan, helped her set goals and provided her the tools to meet them. They arranged for someone from Inland Revenue to explain her tax obligations. “It was all a bit overwhelming,” she says. “I had to put a lot of energy in and at first it was very draining.” But Aroha knew the statistics on small businesses that fail in the first year.
“I did not intend to fail.” She learnt to manage her finances as carefully as she cut her cloth; to reinvest only what she made.
Aroha was given a mentor when she first sought help from TPK in 2006. Kim Hill helped her with an event to kick start her business and has been a valuable sounding board and advisor ever since, helping Aroha with direct and on line marketing.
Aroha credits Kim with having a huge influence on the success she enjoys seven years later. Shikoba has been used by TPK as a positive example of a Maori owned business that has flourished and Aroha has been invited to speak at functions.
She recently shared a table with Minister of Maori Affairs, Pita Sharples, at a business breakfast. The Prime Minister was at the
It’s not been without its challenges.
Aroha knows by experience the fickleness of the fashion industry. By 2007 she had established a good business base by wholesaling into stores. Then just when she had her biggest collection ready to go out, the recession hit. Retailers either drip fed what they owed or simply couldn’t pay. Several closed. The only solution was to sell the big winter range herself. She thought laterally and joined her textile designer/printer friend Ali Davies who had a stall at the monthly Tamahere Country Market.
The clothes flew off the racks. The customers got a better deal. Aroha ended up with more. When Ali moved to Auckland Aroha kept the stall on, teaming up with another
BOP Polytechnic designer, Sheena Waretini. Both had been encouraged and assisted by Nok Lewis an experienced outworker who shared her years of experience in the industry and did all Shikoba’s sampling and production until 2012. “Nok, who recently retired, was very generous with her knowledge,” say Aroha. “She is Thai and she used to say ‘I have been in this industry for as long as you have been alive but I still learn something new every day’ which put things
in perspective for me.”
The success of the market experiment prompted Aroha to open a retail store.
After two other forays into retail, the second in Taupiri on the road north out of Hamilton (“Good to pick up passing Aucklanders,”
she comments), she teamed up with
French Curve designer, Seema Singh, and found the perfect store in Hamilton East.
On a corner, opposite a park and with excellent parking, an attractive space with French doors to the street. The Wardrobe opened in February 2012. “This is a suburban shopping centre, not a fashion strip, but we’ve proven it works as a destination store.” They have also proven
the power of collaboration.
It may help that they have known each other since Seema came to Aroha for work experience after studying fashion at Wintec.
Each look after the store two days a week, leaving themselves time to design and work on, rather than in, their businesses.
They have a meeting every Friday to keep on track and keep aware of what the market is doing.
Their designs are different but complementary. Seema appears to have chosen an unusual name for a label
designed by a girl of Indian heritage.
Until she explains that French Curve is a template used in pattern making to cut the curves of armholes and necks in fabric.
They also showcase the work of other Waikato designers whose ethos and style works with theirs. And they still have that stall at the market – too much fun and too successful to give up.
THE SUBTLETIES OF SUSTAINABILITY
Aroha is a woman with strong opinions and unassailable values imparted by her parentage. That she aims to run her business sustainably goes almost without saying. However Aroha does much more than pay lip service to sustainability. Her garments are made by local sewers. She questions and she thinks, understands her textiles and looks at the provenance of her materials and is very conscious of cutting to avoid waste. She proudly demonstrates a dress she designed in merino which is basically one strip of material but can be worn ten ways!
Natural merino does not drape well so she uses merino mixed with eco friendly materials such as tencel and model which are both derived from wood. Her linen may have a small polyester component but it is recycled polyester. “Surely it is better to recycle than to create new,” she points out. “The best possible way to dress sustainably is of course to recycle or up cycle (redesign) existing clothing.” She belongs to an Australian network which keeps her up to date with sustainability issues; something she feels is perhaps not addressed as well
in the New Zealand fashion industry.
Aroha accepts the ups and downs of the industry and the pressures that go with it. “But at least as my own boss I’m putting the pressure on myself,” she laughs. She is also very aware that the minute she becomes complacent her business will slide. She knows that change is a constant and that traditional retail has a lot of challenges to face. “Our store turnover has been good over the past year, but static,” she points out. “Our online store turnover has doubled.” This is an area of business she
is watching carefully.
Meanwhile the spring summer collection has just been photographed, featuring her favourite model Mahia (like Aroha she is of Maori and European heritage).
“She’s not only perfect for my brand but so easy to work with.” Aroha has no time for prima donnas! She is already working on next autumn winter, identifying trends, applying her take on them. “I love creating,” she says. “Without it I’d be a sad person.”