January 24 2024 – Tania Rupapera
“Retailer proud to shine light on Māori designs.”
“Tania Rupapera (Ngāruahine, Ngāti Kahu) started Unity Collection in Wellington after studying photography there and noticing a chance to work with fashion designers. The business featured designers from Aotearoa and abroad, including Trelise Cooper, Karen Walker and Vivienne Westwood. Rupapera now has her retail location in the Matakana Village where she showcases Māori creatives from around the country and took home Matakana’s Junction Magazine award for retail last year. Despite being in retail during an economic downturn, she says business has been stable apart from climate and weather events which have brought uncertainty and complications for Auckland businesses.
What is Unity Collection and what’s your role?
I am the director and curator at Unity Collection, an award-winning authentic Māori contemporary gallery curating high quality art, design and fashion from leading Māori creatives. We work to inspire entrepreneurship and connectivity through creativity.
When did you start the business and why?
We started in November 2020 - we opened the doors amidst Covid. Continued below…
Unity Collection’s Matakana Store.
A retail space became available in the heart of the Matakana village which is a rare opportunity in this community. I pitched the kaupapa (topic/purpose) to Richard Didsbury, my landlord. He loved it and backed it to help us open. It was inspired through my coaching company Mana Coaching and my contract with Māori Women Development Inc. I was coaching clients who were looking to expand into retail but had no stockists. With my extensive retail background, I decided to open Unity Collection and support creatives through both my businesses. Unity Collection is the name of my first business which was a high fashion retail boutique in Wellington for 15 years. We stocked high fashion brands, including Karen Walker (our first wholesale account), Trelise Cooper and Vivienne Westwood. We supported established brands as well as start-up brands, like Jimmy D who won the Mercedes Young Designer Award in his first year. I left the business after 15 years and travelled for five years. When I returned home, I relaunched Unity Collection but in this kaupapa and in Matakana Village.
What do you offer through Mana Coaching?
Mana Coaching is partnering with clients in a thought-provoking process that inspires them to achieve their personal and business development goals. I ask questions for clients to learn more about their personal and business development goals. I actively listen to understand a client by observing, not judging, to build awareness about their core beliefs and values. I try to listen at all times with respect while supporting clients with integrity, honesty and sincerity, always working to be present, open and flexible. Coaching is conducted via telephone, Zoom, Skype, Messenger or in-person. All communication is strictly confidential and all records of our coaching meetings are stored in a secure place either electronically or written.
Local Matakana models wearing Unity Collection’s resort wear range, created in collaboration with Māori Mermaid and Ponsonby-based Knuefermann.
How did you get into business?
I am originally from Taranaki and moved to Wellington for photography school where I opened my first business, Unity Collection, which grew year on year. It was successful for 15 years. I saw an opportunity while photographing designers’ work and opened my first retail store. It was very naive but ambitious. As I needed to learn I studied GST, book-keeping, merchandising, buying, HR and everything else. Back then, there were no mentors but I loved what I did and was passionate about it. Fat Freddy’s Drop and Mu did the music for our events and everyone supported us to succeed. It was a great time in life. I opened my second store in Newmarket opposite Zambesi, as we were next to them in Wellington. It was a lovely alliance.
What has trading been like in the last year?
In the past year, turnover has grown and we’re able now to support two full-time and three part-time staff. We’ve grown our suppliers by 75 per cent - we started with stocking products from 15 Māori creatives and have grown to over 60. Foot traffic has been high with locals and travellers from within New Zealand and internationally. We’re enjoying an in-person experience and all the storytelling about our kaupapa and creatives.
Who are some of the Māori creatives you showcase?
Unity stockists include Rangi Kipa, Sofia Minson, Ra Gossage, Māori Mermaid, Jimmy James Kouratoras, Toroa, Aaron Kereopa, Alex Sands, Paora Tiatoa, Aotea Skincare, Oku and Boh Runga. That is just to name a few - there are many more to discover at Unity.
Unity Collection’s gallery features artwork from Māori creatives like Sofia Minson.
What were the biggest challenges for your business?
It’s the weather that has been the biggest challenge. The cyclone, the flood threats and road closures prevented customers from reaching us. Our resilience was tested and built. Our community supporting us to ensure everyone was safe has been awesome. I love this village community and mindset. I managed the challenges by constantly monitoring our stock levels and sales to make sure we were sustainable, and keeping expenses low to ride out the closures and disruptions.
What has been your biggest achievement in business?
This past year, my favourite achievement was winning a Junction Magazine award for retail as voted by our community and its readers. That was an absolute buzz. A Māori owned and operated Māori kaupapa business in Matakana Village winning best retail was a beautiful achievement. In my time in business, I have many achievements I’m proud of and grateful for and this is the highlight of this business.
What advice do you have for other small businesses operating in the current economic climate?
Monitor, monitor, and then monitor. Know your numbers. Look after your wellbeing and your wairua (spirit) to ensure you have the energy to lead your business successfully. Reduce spend where possible and focus on creating genuine relationships with your customers. We have customers visit on a regular basis and one even bought us a crayfish! Those friendships formed through authentic connections become your business whānau.
What are you hoping for from the Government to support small businesses like yours?
Eliminating or reducing GST would be nice. Allow extra cashflow to stay in the business owners’ pockets to support the sustainable leadership of businesses and wellbeing. Growing small businesses who can go on to employ people is good for community confidence and connectivity which is healthy for all of us.
What are you hoping for this year?
To grow our brand awareness and online presence. And with my potential new business team coming on board I feel very grateful and confident we will achieve that. Consolidate the gallery and complete systems and processes for ease of flow which then brings more time for myself and my whānau especially my son and his aspirations.
I am grateful to my team Ngaia, Cherie, Anastasia and Desiree whose Te Ao Māori and generous sharing of knowledge with our customers and community is invaluable. They bring their beautiful wairua every day and aroha for everyone. It’s a beautiful blessing to be surrounded by beautiful people supporting the Unity Kaupapa.”
- Written by Alka Prasad, published in NZ Herald.