Charli from Koha Apparel

Tell me a little bit about yourself and what Koha Apparel is all about?

I was born in the UK and I moved to Auckland 4 years ago. I had a lot of spare time and was trying to figure out how to fill it. Throughout my life I’ve always tried to volunteer where possible and I started volunteering in an op shop in Auckland on a Saturday morning, just sorting and hanging the clothes. The older I got, the more I became aware of the fashion industry and how many clothes there are in the world, yet how many people need support with clothing. The harsh reality is that many people cannot even afford to go into an op shop and buy a top for $3. I saw a gap and decided I would build a platform that enables these people to access quality clothing with no cost associated with it.  

Were you in another job prior to Koha Apparel?

No, I’d done no other job relating to this before I started it. I work for Icebreaker now, so I do work in the apparel industry, but before this and before starting Koha I would actually say I had no idea. I’d always op-shopped, and I was aware of fast fashion, but it’s only over the past few years that it has really become apparent to me and it felt like the right time to do something about it.

Did you always have an entrepreneurial spirit, or know you wanted to do something a bit different?

I don’t think so to be honest. I had always dreamt of buying and selling vintage and I suppose this isn’t really quite it, but it’s somewhere close. 

What’s your ultimate goal for Koha Apparel?

When I started Koha, we started in one location on K Road and we now do 7 locations in a month in and around Auckland. The dream for me is to keep expanding and being able to reach people across Auckland and throughout NZ. It would be amazing to have a central hub in Auckland and build a kind of retail experience with a changing room where people can sit down and have a coffee while they browse. The ultimate dream is to just keep reaching more and more people that need us and collaborating with other Soup kitchens and those doing other amazing things throughout NZ that reach our vulnerable community. 

What does the structure of Koha’s ‘stores’ look like?

We have two rails and pretty much just pop them up wherever. We primarily pop them up alongside Everybody Eats or Life Soup Kitchen as our community is generally going there for a free or pay as you can meal, and we just do the same thing - but for clothing. 

And you’ve got a team of volunteers that work with you?

Yeah, it’s all on a volunteer basis. There’s a team of regular volunteers we have come along to our pop-ups but yes, Koha primarily runs on people’s time. There is a lot that goes on in the background that people volunteer their time and skills to, and we have regular volunteers that come down to our pop-ups. It’s essentially a pop-up retail shop but open to anyone and everyone and all clothing is on a donation basis if you can.

What would you say has been your biggest challenge so far?

I suppose time. Working full-time, I often wonder what I could do if I had a lot more time. I wouldn’t change anything about it, I’m so chuffed with what I’ve achieved, but I suppose time is a big thing. Also, clothing is one aspect of the vulnerable community’s life and that’s really what I’m there to do, but these people are in need for a lot more than just clothing. It’s really hard, you build up such strong relationships with these people and you can’t help but think or worry about them and wonder if they’re okay. From one month to the next a lot might have changed in their lives. In so many ways you’re like, thank god I can see them and connect with them and support them with clothing, but you do wonder how they’re not better supported. 

What have been some of your biggest successes, or most memorable moments within your journey with Koha?

I found Koha with a friend of mine (who is no longer on board) but at that point it was just two people who had seen a gap and asked ourselves how we can help these people. I remember going to speak with Nick from Everybody Eats and he was a bit like, “I’ll believe it when I see it” which made me even more adamant we were going to do this. We started with just one pop-up, and we’re now at seven, and I know that will continue to increase as time goes on. I suppose just making it to two years and building such great connections has been pretty special. The people in our community are beyond special and I’m just forever grateful that we’ve built up such great relationships with these people and they’re friends of mine now. I enjoy going in every week and connecting with our regulars and new faces. For me, I believe clothing is a basic human right and when you get up in the morning and you feel good in what you put on, your day starts completely differently. I suppose the biggest highlight for me is knowing these people can come and select garments from a rack that they want to put on and that they’ll feel good in. 

Have you had any regrets along the way?

No, I don’t think so. I mean, it’s been a massive learning curve for me, but I’ve been so fortunate with NZ brands coming on board and people that are genuinely interested in Koha and want to be a part of it. There are so many people that want to offer their support, whether it be with clothing donations, their time or skills to repair garments or coming to the pop-ups. I believe there is a movement within the fashion industry now and there’s a much bigger focus on this sort of work and supporting the vulnerable and less fortunate. When a group of people come together with a mutual mission the energy just bounces. I honestly can’t say I’ve had any regrets. Maybe at times I’ve overcommitted myself, but I’m still learning. 

Do you have any advice for anyone ready to do the same?

Always keep a good balance and take time for yourself. Koha took up such a huge amount of my spare time, but I knew I'd go through this transition period where I really needed to build Koha and focus on all aspects of it to be able to have further reach and expand. I mentioned before, having a balance between work, Koha (my passion) and time for myself. Everyone struggles with that, work takes over, your passion takes over. Just try and keep a good balance.

Favourite NZ brands?

I’ve always been a huge fan of Kowtow. I love their pieces, they’re worth every cent. I actually live in one of their jumpsuits. I feel my best in it. I never get bored of wearing it. I love op-shopping, you’ve probably guessed as much. I can honestly say Kowtow is probably one of the only new things in my wardrobe. 

Favourite places to travel in NZ?

I got so addicted to going up North when I first moved here. It was just two hours and you were on such a lovely beach with ten other people on it. Coming from England, you can’t even dream of that. One Christmas I went all the way up far North and I was just amazed. Although I will spend more time on the South Island this summer! NZ is paradise, my Dad came over for a month in February and it was so good to tour around with him. 

Check out the amazing work Koha Apparel are doing over on their website.

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