This story is part of the Ensemble Wellington edit, thanks to WellingtonNZ
You’d be right in assuming that, like everywhere, Covid put a road bump in Te Whanganui-a-Tara’s retail scene. But it also paved the way for a new guard to come through, a community of shops bringing fresh taste to the capital. A huge five stores out of six on this list were a product of lockdown relocating or scheming, evidence that even in the toughest times, creativity prevails.
Joining the ranks of the city’s more established destinations - the likes of streetwear hotspot Good as Gold, independent fashion stronghold Service Depot, and vintage haven Hunters & Collectors - these varied destinations all bring something different. A superficial analysis of Wellington style often conjures up descriptions like “eclectic” and “quirky,” a word I’d be happy to never hear again in my life. But from Bizarre Bazaar’s sensory overload to Kaukau’s refined selection of fine art and objects, the stores here show there’s more to the city’s style than a thrifted shirt (or public servant suit).
What unites them, however, is the desire to promote independent makers and designers, quality over quantity, and carefully cherry-picked products the owners can genuinely behind. In a way, it’s a bit like the city itself - its compactness is its beauty. You don’t need all the choice in the world to look hot and feel good. Here’s proof.
Tucked in a dark corner next to a cafe on Tory street is Bizarre Bazaar. It’s a place founder Jess Scott describes as a mishmash of influences, “paying homage to everything from Harajuku’s fashion scene to Berlin’s BDSM techno underground, punk-era Vivienne Westwood to trashy Americana and a very specific type of opulent, maximalist campiness embodied by Melbourne’s vintage stores,” Jess says. “A complete and utter, total sensory overload.”
After studying journalism and working as a buyer at a secondhand store, Jess had planned to move to Tokyo or New York to write and flip vintage on the side, and “basically live out my Depop-era Carrie Bradshaw fantasy,” she says. A quick stint in Tokyo saw her work for a startup that designed an electric toothbrush-powered sex toy, then Covid hit. When her partner Rowan, owner of cafe Mystic Kitchen, signed the lease on half sunshiney, half cave-like space, Jess took over the dark corner and conjured up her magic.
The result - which comes complete with a Vivienne Westwood shrine and a car in the middle of the store - is an incredible selection of handpicked vintage, and a raft of young designers doing things differently, including Jess Grindell, Karaoke Superstars and Caitlin Snell. Citing the fashion industry’s tendendancy to be very gate-keepy, Jess instead wants to support young creatives doing things differently.
“I think it’s really important to create space for experimentation, where young designers are able to present their wildest, most avant garde pieces that might not “work” elsewhere,” she says. “It’s incredibly boring how many stores stock the same selection of tried-and-tested labels that all the other stores already stock. Where’s the point of difference? Where’s the sexy, outrageous, weird shit?”
It’s at Bizarre Bazaar.
“We just really wanted to do something really different,” say Nadya France-White and Prakashan Sritharan of Kaukau, a space flooded with natural light and a perfectly curated selection of homewares, clothing, objects and art. Prior to Kaukau, Prakashan and Nadya had respectively had their own successful stores on Ghuznee Street - Nadya with the fashion-focused ENA, and Prakashan with Precinct 35, which honed in on art and homewares.
In 2021, they decided to combine their brains, communities and taste into one place. “We loved parts of what we were able to do with our separate stores,” they say, “but what we really wanted to do with KAUKAU is create a space where you can experience everything in one.”
Recreating what was formerly ENA, they sidestepped the usual gallery go-to of white walls, instead choosing a dusky purple. They also installed a timber structure around the space to make it feel a little more intimate, a little less on display to everyone and their dog. Their name, the Māori word for to swim or to bathe - alluding to the nature of things ebbing and flowing - was also something they wanted to play off. Both in terms of what they stock in store, which are often one-off pieces or goods with very small runs, and with the space itself - with modular, moveable furniture and displays that keeps things fresh for both customers and, crucially, themselves.
Key to Kaukau is relationships. Firstly with the artists and makers they stock, who tend to be people the pair genuinely get along with. Then there’s the Ghuznee Street community of retailers, featuring everyone from Bowen Gallery to good ol’ Steve’s Fishing Shop. People whose support, Nadya and Prakashan explain, extends far beyond just business chat.
“It feels so special and unique to have that connection, all the way through our other stores, that feels so unique to Wellington,” they say. Finally there’s the relationship between them. “At the heart of what we enjoy the most is just working together for a change. It’s nice to tackle the challenges together, and have someone to help you through those times.”
Shopping for underwear at an appointment-only store might initially seem a little intimidating. Only you, a mirror, and a stranger staring at all your wobbly bits. But after a session with Maxine from Underlena, it’s hard to imagine doing it any other way. The space is a cosy, softly-lit room with a very comfy couch, and Maxine’s warmth will instantly set you at ease. She won’t even judge you when you turn up in such a rush that you accidentally have your own underwear on the wrong way (guilty).
Underlena came about after some scheming in 2021’s Auckland lockdowns, where Maxine was living at the time, when she couldn’t find what she wanted in NZ - comfortable, well-made underwear that’s still a little sexy. It turns out she wasn’t the only one. “For a few years we were really bombarded with simple bralettes and full briefs in muted tones, but I think people are reevaluating their relationship with sexiness and sensuality, how they express it and who they are expressing it for,” she explains. As a result, there are more brands - including those stocked at Underlena - that are comfy enough to weed the garden in, and hot enough to fuel a few thirst traps.
Fortunately, Maxine doesn’t do the traditional fittings you’ve probably been subjected to in an exposed changing room of a stuffy department store. She likens underwear to jeans - your size will vary depending on the brand and style. Instead simply turn up, try some things on, follow her sound advice and leave feeling as good as you look. With your underwear the right way round.
For a lot of people with pipe dreams of opening a store, Covid might’ve been a fairly big deterrent. For Hannah Sullivan, it was the nudge she needed. The Wellingtonian had long been wanting to open a store in her home city, and when Covid hit, she thought, “life’s too short.” The result is Sully’s, a boutique she wants to feel welcoming and fresh, “like a dip in the ocean,” Hannah says.
Sully’s offerings lean towards small manufacturers and makers, whose products are often made in the same city the label’s based in. There’s Permanent Vacation, designed and made in Melbourne, New York’s inimitably cool Collina Strada, and closer to home, Wellington Knits, handmade by Kelsey Brown out of her garage in Eastbourne.
Of Hannah’s decision to set up shop in the capital, she points to the people here being open minded with their style, not wanting to conform to any mould. That, and the fact her friends and family are close to hand. “100% I could not start a store without them,” she says. “It's like a baby, it takes a village.”
If you’re shopping for the friend with excellent taste who already has everything, head to Best Wishes - and accidentally pop a few things for yourself in the cart while you’re there. Their selection of crafted homewares, books and more turn life’s simple objects into details to appreciate - think Latvian recycled wool blankets, cutlery from Parisian purveyors Sable, and nail polishes made from natural pigments by Ueba Esou, a Japanese family business that started in 1751.
Best Wishes’ selection reflects the pair's interest in handmade and traditional forms of making, and desire to support small makers. They’re currently only an online store, which presents its own set of challenges - namely not getting as much exposure as traditional brick-and-mortar shops. But they’re nursing dreams to one day open a physical location, citing Wellington’s compact, pedestrian-friendly city centre as what sets its shopping scene apart. So keep your eyes open for that, and in the meantime, get clicking.
Closer to the city’s business district, located in a former Flight Centre, is Luc Store. While it’s a far cry from a fluorescent-lit travel agent, it’s still designed to be something of an escape - full of fresh flowers, natural light and prosecco on Saturdays. The only thing that remains from the location’s past fit-out is a blue sky-covered lightbox, from the cruise ship section. “It just makes me happy, especially after this long winter we’ve had,” says founder Sheryl White, “to look up and see blue skies.”
Sheryl started LUC Store with the intent of bringing together a selection of independent labels and designers not often seen in NZ, as well as a place to house her in-house line, LUC the Label. Primarily conscious of fair worker practices, Sheryl often contracts skilled NZ-based machinists who are often out of full time work due to factory closures. She also uses deadstock fabric where possible, and produces in small runs. “It is important to me that if I am creating more ’stuff’ in the world, that it is well thought out, functional and purposeful,” she says, “and that it will be treasured.”