Tell me a little bit about yourself and what ReCreate is all about?
A lot of my background is in volunteering and not-for-profit management, so for a number of years I would travel to Cambodia and was involved in volunteering with an NGO in a community over there. The background of that community is that it used to be a slum in the capital city and around 2008 the government started forcefully evicting some communities just to tidy up the city and make it more attractive for tourism. That whole community of people were evicted out into a rural area and it kind of meant they had to start their lives from scratch again. They lost the little jobs they did have, their kids were pulled away from schools and it was a really difficult time. Each year I’d go back to Cambodia and get involved a little bit more and I saw the community develop over time. They eventually had a marketplace and schools, but there was never really any opportunity for women to get any employment or to support their families in an empowering or healthy way. That’s where the idea for ReCreate came about, to create an opportunity for women to gain a skill and to be able to provide for their kids. So, we set up this sewing centre, and it was never about being a clothing label, but I guess at the heart of ReCreate we always were, and we always will be about providing opportunities for women to gain skills and be able to earn income and be empowered and better themselves and their families. So, that’s really where my motivation lies for ReCreate. I don’t have a fashion background at all but we have an amazing creative director that looks after that side of it so yeah, my job is very much in the business and the social enterprise and how we can use that to make a difference.
What were you doing prior to ReCreate? Were you in a 9-5 job?
I’ve always had a bit of an unconventional life I suppose. I did my degree in business with a major in entrepreneurship. I did quite a lot of travel. But I have also done some conventional 9-5 in not-for-profit management and that type of thing.
Was breaking away from the norm always something that you had hoped to do?
Yeah, I always struggled with the 9-5. I would sit in my office and count the minutes till the end of the day until I just couldn’t do it anymore. I really wanted to work in something I am passionate about and I’d rather work 60 hours on ReCreate than 20 hours a week in the 9-5.
What’s your ultimate goal for ReCreate?
Our vision is very much to transform lives through fashion. So, it’s just about seeing people from whatever background they might come from, although we really work largely with very marginalised people, just to see them empowered in such a way that they can make a lasting change in their lives. For example, some of the students that start with us haven’t even completed a primary school education, let alone secondary school, and come from backgrounds of homelessness and that type of thing. So, it’s just about empowering those people so they can change their life. There’s always the temptation to make it a charity, and we could just get donations and do it that way, but I think being able to produce clothing that people really want to buy has had the biggest impact on our sewing team. Because they see that they’re making something beautiful that people want and they feel that it’s not a charity case. People are a part of that meaningful change.
How do you navigate the lack of educational background, skills and language barriers etc.?
It has been very interesting. When we first started the sewing centre, in the first week of training I realised some of the students hadn’t held a pair of scissors before. We were just like “oh my goodness!” what are we doing trying to teach a whole skill? But we are fortunate to have a really awesome manager, she’s Cambodian and she’s been with us since day one. She really just works with people on a case-to-case basis, helping them with whatever they need to gain that full transformation. So, quite often it could be reading and writing but we try to provide that support wherever people need it. We always try to keep that real local connection and we’ll always have a Cambodian manager and leader, so we don’t just become these people from outside thinking we know better.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
Lots of them! Financially, especially as a small business, it’s a challenge when you set about being ethical and sustainable from the start because there’s always the option of a cheaper way of doing things where it’s going to be damaging to people or the environment. So yeah, just building up a business from scratch, not only a fashion label, but also a production centre, navigating the complex challenges of having cash flow in two places at once and also trying to always make the best decisions for people. It’s been a challenge but six years later I think we’ve finally got a tenuous grasp on what we’re doing!
Is it just yourself and a creative director?
We’ve always been fortunate to have quite a few volunteers within our team. So, in New Zealand, it’s mainly me and Marielle, the creative director, and then we have volunteers in a number of areas as well, in marketing, public relations, print design, photographers. We’re so lucky because people are really giving and love the story behind ReCreate and want to get involved, so we’re really fortunate to have that as part of our business model and it enables us to give back a bit more as well!
What have been some of your biggest successes, or most rewarding moments?
Well I guess it always comes back to the individual stories of people within our sewing team, because that’s really what we’re all about, why we do what we do. We’ve had a number of students now, but one in particular bought a house last year. She has 17 people in her extended family and they received notice that they were getting kicked out of their rented house, so she came actually to us and thought she was going to have to leave ReCreate and move back to the countryside because they couldn’t find anywhere else to live. They thought they’d just see if they can buy a house and went to the bank and the employment with ReCreate was a big part of them being able to get a mortgage. They managed to buy a home for their family, which is just so awesome to see people really moving forward in their life.
You’re giving me goosebumps!
Yeah, me too, it’s really the stories like that of people where it’s a big life change, not just for people that work with us, but their families.
Do you have any regrets?
I’m very much a person who likes to look at every failure as a learning point. I guess the power of hindsight enables us to look back and see that we could have grown a lot more quickly if we’d done this or that. In the beginning we started off doing children’s clothing and babies clothing and men’s clothing and women’s clothing and now we just do women’s clothing. I think it took us a long time just to specialise in the one area we do best. If you shut down a certain thing that you’re doing it feels a bit like failing, but we should have done that more quickly and had a focus on just doing one thing.
Do you have advice for anyone wanting to do the same?
I think my best advice is that it’s all about the people you work with. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and reach out to people, even people you admire that you think maybe won’t have time for you, but so often they actually do. ReCreate would not be possible without having a solid team of contributors and people that have done things way better than us that have lent us some time and guidance. Get a good team of people and that’s the way to go I reckon.
Do you have any favourite NZ brands at the moment?
I really admire Nisa the underwear brand. We worked with them recently on a photoshoot together so that was heaps of fun and another great story of someone who walked away from the conventional life to do something really weird haha! I also really like Chaos & Harmony shoes who are a business with a lot of integrity at heart. I’ve got several pairs of their shoes myself, and we use their sample shoes each season at our ReCreate photoshoots too.
Any favourite places in NZ to travel?
I’ve got to say the whole South Island. I grew up in Ashburton and just no matter what direction you head there’s always something so amazing to see. I’m very much a South Island girl at heart.