Selling stories on Auckland’s Ponsonby and Karangahape Roads

AUCKLAND, New Zealand – Auckland’s indigenous Maori name – Tamaki Makaurau – roughly translates to ‘Tamaki of the Hundred Lovers’.

But falling in love with New Zealand’s largest city, which transcends dozens of dormant and extinct volcanoes, can be a process. Auckland is naturally beautiful, fringed with native forests and two coastlines with strikingly different beaches. It’s less known for its urban areas and commercial treasures, although they’re also worth taking the time to explore.

Karangahape Road – known to locals as “K” Road – was once Auckland’s premier shopping destination. But as Auckland’s commuter spread has expanded outward, more mundane shopping is mostly taking place in suburban malls. Instead, Karangahape Road has become a focal point for independent fashion designers, owner-managed boutiques and vintage clothing stores in the city.

For about a century, the strait was a haven for new migrants from Pacific island nations like Fiji and Tonga; the center of the city’s legal and illegal sex work industry; and a hub for queer nightlife.

Despite waves of gentrification, the marks of its past are still visible amidst pastel-colored Art Deco buildings, many of which bear the names of their original businesses. The so-called Vegas Girl, a huge wooden sign of a naked showgirl from the 1960s, looms over a jazz and cocktail bar. And a zebra crossing with rainbow flags points to the gay nightclubs that still attract many young people.

Crushes, an accessible street boutique for homeware and clothing, seeks to change the conversation about how fashion-forward New Zealanders consume.

“We’re not really in the business of selling things,” said Rose Hope, who co-founded the company in 2011 with Sarah Firmston, in part to connect artisans from across the country with potential customers. “We sell stories, you know, or tell stories.”

A pen made from native rimu Wood, for example, costs NZ$45, or about $30 because it took its 84-year-old maker, Ms. Hope’s grandfather, who died last year, a full day to make it. Multicolored glass mugs (about $40 each) made by Keith Grinter, a glassblower in the northern city of Whangarei, feel heavy and firm in your hand.

“Sometimes I drop mine at home and they don’t break because it’s quality glass,” Ms. Hope said. “I’m not saying anyone should drop them – but that tactile, physical feeling of interacting with these special items is one of my absolute favorite things.”

As a sign of sustainability, the shop’s range of vintage clothing is sourced only from New Zealand, although it might be easier – and cheaper – to ship overseas in £20 bags. “We don’t care too much about used clothes for the sake of used clothes,” said Ms. Hope. “We want to change hearts and minds about the way we consume fashion.”

At Vintage Vixen, sequined cowboy boots and fringed leather vests sit alongside immaculate “party shirts” from dead stock, as their boxes proclaim, stuffed with ice cream pie-worthy ruffles and razor-sharp collar points. Smoove, a little further afield, is a destination for vintage streetwear, including sports brands like Kappa and Adidas.

Ponsonby Road — another major shopping street that borders Karangahape Road — continues the vintage and second-hand theme, albeit at a slightly higher price point. At Tatty’s, a consignment store, you might find pointy leather boots or a yellow-green button-down shirt while browsing. Often these items – maybe even swags from previous seasons in the boutiques of local high-end designers like Juliette Hogan and Kate Sylvester – were once sold new, a few minutes’ walk down the road.

Sometimes a shimmering silk dress in magenta or saffron by Miss Crabb pops off the shelf at Tatty’s. Located on Ponsonby Road and founded in 2004, the label was once the preferred outfitter of fashion-loving New Zealanders. (Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, then pregnant with her daughter, wore a lipstick red blouse from the brand to meet President Obama in 2018.)

Miss Crabb closed shop in 2019. Its creator, Kristine Crabb, said the project has lost its creative luster. “People really just wanted to buy our silk dresses, and that’s why I was so fed up,” she said.

Instead, Ms. Crabb launched Gloria last year. The new label is based in part of a mansion on Ponsonby Road and is named after Ms Crabb’s grandmother. Manufacturing and producing exclusively in New Zealand, like Gloria does, is rare for local fashion labels.

Ms. Crabb usually begins by making a garment with geometric shapes.

“I don’t want to waste any of this beautiful fabric,” she said. By cutting squares or triangles that are tessellated, she can utilize the entire yield. “None of it ends up in landfill,” she added.

Ideally, Ms. Crabb would like these to be clothes that people will wear throughout their lives: clothes that stretch or contract to accommodate pregnancy or size changes, and that work just as well for a formal occasion as they do over swimwear. They’re also typical of New Zealand’s rich creative spirit — and a certain Kiwi nonchalance that’s even present in a pair of bias-cut red silk briefs (about $250).

Less than ten minutes down the road from Gloria is Strandgut und Strandgut, an antique and junk shop that smells faintly of beeswax. Products vary widely — enamel candlesticks ($15) or rough-hewn wooden spoons (about $14) — yet each embodies the same spirit of items with a story.

Old cabinet card photographs, with long-dead subjects gazing imperiously into the distance, can be purchased in collections of six (about $14). An antique linen nightgown sold as a “decoration” still bears the embroidered initials of its original owner: HR ($50).

Established in 2007, Poi Room on Ponsonby Road focuses on New Zealand-made art objects and contemporary jewellery, many incorporating endemic materials such as local wood, stone or seashell.

The shop is named in honor of co-founder Melanie-Jane Smith’s grandmother, a Maori woman who brought her with her when she visited poi, a pair of orange balls on strings used in traditional dance. “She started swinging her hips and moving these magical poi through the air,” Ms. Smith said of her memories of her grandmother’s visits when she was about five years old. accuse woman.”

Many of the items Poi Room sells use materials that have been used in Maori art for centuries – paua, the iridescent purple-green shell of the native abalone, or pounamu, a lustrous greenstone better known technically as nephrite . For the Maori, paua and pounamu are considered taonga, which means that they are valued as treasures.

Many tourists to New Zealand buy pounamu on the black market and leave the country with inferior quality stones that do not benefit indigenous New Zealanders. It’s worth looking for greenstone jewelry with a clear provenance like those sold in the Poi Room – whether carved into traditional fish hooks or set off against gold or diamonds in new and eye-catching ways.

In each of these stores, the items for sale sizzle with narrative. Ms Crabb’s bias cut dresses were originally designed to accommodate her growing pregnancy. In the poi room, a pounamu pendant carved into the shape of an adz by Charlie Marsh, a Dannevirke Maori carver, has a thick, sharpened blade (about $200) and is said to bestow strength, courage and determination on the wearer. And at Crushes, a soothing eczema cream (about $25) made from collected Mamaku Koru, a native fern, is made by three Maori sisters.

Ultimately, it comes down to people, Ms Hope said.

“Rather than just a price tag,” she said, “we explain who’s making it and why they’re making it — a neighbor or an aunt or someone in our community — and how special that is in a mass-produced world.”