Selling Stories on Auckland’s Ponsonby and Karangahape Roads
AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Auckland’s Indigenous Maori name — Tamaki Makaurau — translates roughly to “Tamaki of a hundred lovers.”
But falling for New Zealand’s largest city, which spills over dozens of dormant and extinct volcanoes, can be a process. Auckland is naturally beautiful, fringed with native forest and two coastlines of strikingly different beaches. It is less known for its urban areas and their commercial treasures, though they too are worth taking the time to uncover.
Karangahape Road — known locally as “K” Road — was once Auckland’s most important retail destination. But as Auckland’s commuter sprawl has stretched outward, more quotidian shopping mostly takes place in suburban shopping malls. Instead, Karangahape Road has become a focal point for independent fashion designers, owner-operated boutiques and vintage clothing stores in the city.
Over the course of about a century, the street has variously been a haven for new migrants from Pacific Island nations like Fiji or Tonga; the center of the city’s legal and illegal sex work industry; and a hub for queer nightlife.
Despite waves of gentrification, notes of its past histories are still visible amid pastel-colored Art Deco buildings, many of which bear the names of their original stores. The so-called Vegas Girl, a huge wooden sign of a nude showgirl that dates back to the 1960s, looms ominously over a jazz and cocktail bar. And a rainbow flag crosswalk nods at the gay nightclubs that still draw in crowds of young people.
Crushes, an accessible home wares and clothing boutique on the street, is trying to change the conversation on how fashion-forward New Zealanders consume.
“We’re not really in the business of selling things,” said Rose Hope, who co-founded the business with Sarah Firmston in 2011, in part to connect craftspeople from around the country with potential customers. “We’re in the business of selling stories, you know, or telling stories.”
A pen made with native rimuwood, for instance, costs 45 New Zealand dollars, or about $30, because it took its 84-year-old maker, Ms. Hope’s grandfather, who died last year, a whole day to make. Multicolored glass tumblers (about $40 each) made by Keith Grinter, a glass blower in the northern town of Whangarei, sits heavy and solid in the hand.
“Sometimes I drop mine at home and they don’t break, because it is quality glass,” said Ms. Hope. “I’m not saying anyone should drop them — but that tangible, physical sensation of interacting with these special items is one of my absolute favorite things.”
In a nod to sustainability, the shop’s vintage clothing supply comes only from within New Zealand, even while it might be easier — and cheaper — to ship in 20-pound bags from overseas. “We’re not too interested in old clothes for old clothes’ sake,” Ms. Hope said. “We want to change hearts and minds about the way that we consume fashion.”
At Vintage Vixen, sequined cowboy boots and fringed leather vests sit alongside pristine deadstock “party shirts,” as their boxes proclaim, replete with ice cream cake-worthy ruffles and razor-sharp collar points. Smoove, a little further along, is a destination for vintage streetwear, including sports brands like Kappa and Adidas.
Ponsonby Road — another major retail thoroughfare that adjoins Karangahape Road — continues the vintage and second hand theme, albeit at a slightly higher price point. At Tatty’s, a consignment store, a rummage might yield pointy-toed leather boots or a chartreuse button-down shirt. Often, those items — perhaps even past seasons’ spoils from the boutiques of local, high-end designers like Juliette Hogan and Kate Sylvester — were once sold new a few minutes’ walk down the street.
Sometimes, a glimmering magenta or saffron silk dress from Miss Crabb will emerge from the rack at Tatty’s. Located on Ponsonby Road and founded in 2004, the label was once the outfitter of choice for fashion-loving New Zealanders. (Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, then pregnant with her daughter, in 2018 wore a lipstick red blouse from the brand to meet President Obama.)
Miss Crabb closed shop in 2019. Its creator, Kristine Crabb, said the project had lost its creative luster. “People just only wanted to buy our silk dresses, really, and that’s why I just got so tired of it,” she said.
Instead, last year, Ms. Crabb launched Gloria. The new label occupies part of a mansion on Ponsonby Road and was named for Ms. Crabb’s grandmother. Making and manufacturing exclusively in New Zealand, as Gloria does, is rare for local fashion labels.
Ms. Crabb typically begins the process of making a garment with geometric shapes.
“I don’t want to waste any of this beautiful fabric,” she said. Cutting squares or triangles that tessellate together allows her to use the whole yield. “None of it is going into landfill,” she added.
Ideally, Ms. Crabb wants these to be clothes that people will wear throughout their lives: clothes that expand or contract to accommodate pregnancy or changes in size, and that work as easily for a formal occasion as they do over swimwear. They also typify New Zealand’s rich creative spirit — and a certain Kiwi nonchalance, present even in a bias-cut red silk slip (about $250).
Less than ten minutes down the road from Gloria, “Flotsam and Jetsam” is an antique and bric-a-brac shop that smells faintly of beeswax. The products differ widely from one another — enamel candlestick holders ($15) or rough hewed wooden spoons (about $14) — yet each embodies the same spirit of items with a story.
Old cabinet-card photographs, their long-dead subjects peering imperiously into the middle distance, can be bought in collections of six (about $14). An antique linen nightshirt, sold as a “decorative piece,” still has the embroidered initials of its original owner: H. R. ($50).
Founded in 2007, the Poi Room on Ponsonby Road focuses on New Zealand-made art objects and contemporary jewelry, many of which incorporate endemic materials like native wood, stone or shell.
The store is named to honor the co-founder Melanie-Jane Smith’s grandmother, a Maori woman who, when she came to stay, would bring poi, a pair of orange-sized balls on cords used in traditional dance. “She started swaying her hips and moving these magical poi through the air,” Ms. Smith said, of her recollections of her grandmother’s visits when she was about 5. “It’s my memory of her, basically — this large-and-in-charge woman.”
Many of the items the Poi Room sells use materials that have been used in Maori art for centuries — paua, the iridescent purple-green shell of native abalone, or pounamu, a lustrous greenstone more technically known as nephrite. To Maori, paua and pounamu are considered taonga, meaning they are esteemed as treasures.
Many tourists to New Zealand buy pounamu on the black market and leave the country with poorer-quality stones that do not benefit Indigenous New Zealanders. It is worthwhile seeking out greenstone jewelry with a clear provenance, like those sold at the Poi Room — whether carved into traditional fish hooks or set off in new and striking ways against gold or diamonds.
In any of these shops, the items on sale crackle with narrative. Ms Crabb’s bias cut dresses were first designed to accommodate her growing pregnancy. At the Poi Room, a pounamu pendant carved into the shape of an adz, a thick, sharpened blade, (about $200) by Charlie Marsh, a Maori carver from Dannevirke, is said to give its wearer strength, courage and determination. And at Crushes, a soothing eczema cream (about $25) is produced by three Maori sisters, made with foraged mamaku koru, a native fern.
Ultimately, it all comes down to the people, said Ms. Hope.
“Instead of just a price tag,” she said, “we explain who makes it and why they’re making it — a neighbor or an auntie or someone in our community — and just how special that is, in a world of mass manufacturing.”