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Slow fashion: The Clothing Collective

Louise Clark has never worked in retail before, but a desire to fundraise for a cause close to her heart inspired her to open The Clothing Collective. The secondhand store donates 50 percent of its profits directly to the Mental Health Foundation. Elly Strang found out more about the shop that's setting a precedent for slow, not fast, fashion.

October 6, 2015 | News

What's the situation like now for those with post-natal depression?


Watch: A 60 minutes piece about a new maternal mental health service available in New Zealand for those with post-natal depression. Louise Clark shares her experience from 16.19.

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Upon first meeting, Clark’s infectious laugh is immediately noticeable. Nothing about her suggests that she has recently overcome a mental illness.

Clark experienced post-natal depression following the birth of her six-year-old daughter Billie. Billie was a much-wanted child, conceived through a two-year IVF process.

But instead of the joy of motherhood, Clark was filled with anxiety and despair.

“I remember going through it and felt like I was hopeless as a woman because I wasn’t being Mother Earth, or the woman I thought I should be,” she says.

With the support of her mother, the Maternal Health Unit, medication and time, Clark was slowly able to recover.

But the experience made Clark realise how difficult it was to go through mental illness when even discussing it is surrounded by stigma.

“That was a really rough time in my life. I believe that mental health is something we really need to address a lot more,” Clark says.

“People should be able to talk openly about it, not feel ashamed. It hasn’t been recognised as much as other charities. I’m passionate about talking about it and getting it out there so other people feel comfortable talking about it, removing that stigma and moving forward in a really positive direction.”

Clark and her daughter Billie outside the store.

Following her experience, Clark had a strong urge to do something that would give back to the community.

The idea to open a store came about organically, she says, born out of a love for secondhand shopping and a thought to open a store that had been floating in her mind for some time.

“For years I thought, ‘God, if I ever did it, how I would do it?’ I never thought in a million years I would actually do it. I’ve never worked in retail in my life, I’ve just shopped and bought things,” she says.

“I’ve always been a big op shopper, I love secondhand anything. I love the idea of taking something and breathing life back into it. From an environmental point of view it’s great and it’s awesome on your wallet.”

The shop first opened its doors at the Highbury Shopping Centre in Birkenhead in January this year. The vast space was previously home to a Mitre 10 store.

Clark says she decorated her store on a shoestring budget, taking pains to ensure it had personality and warmth.

She began with five racks of clothing provided by family and friends.

Now, the 771 square metre space is being filled up more and more by donations from the local community and further afield.

The shop has also expanded into secondhand furniture, which takes up a big chunk of the space.

In contrast to traditional op shops, The Clothing Collective’s stock is always of good quality and carefully curated.

“That’s our point of difference, as it’s not like an op shop where you search to find that little gem – you’ll look through the racks and find lots of gems,” Clark says.

The store has both paid staff and volunteers who’ve offered their services after hearing about the cause.

A conversation worth having

Retail stores are renowned for hosting intimate conversations.

Friends often venture out to gossip while browsing, and normally-shy shoppers can end up confiding in a shop assistant about private insecurities.

The Clothing Collective takes this one step further, as it’s a place to discuss subjects that are often thought of as taboo.

The walls are adorned with displays with messages like ‘We need each other’ and ‘Treat yo’self’, creating a welcoming, vibrant environment.

Clark says people come into the store and feel comfortable to talk about their own or a loved one’s experience with mental illness within The Clothing Collective’s closed walls.

“It’s quite humbling and very special,” she says.

She says people who identify and get behind The Clothing Collective have experienced all types of mental illness, such as bipolar disorder, depression or anxiety.

Seeing as recent figures released by the Chief Coroner show suicides rates in New Zealand have reached their highest level in the 2014/15 year since records began, the time for talking is now. 

The sharing economy

The word ‘community’ plays a big part in Clark’s business.

She says she named the business The Clothing Collective because the whole venture is community-based.

“I always knew if the store was going to be successful, it was going to involve the community, or communities,” she says.

“I’m of the belief that we need to rely less on Government, there’s no point in waiting for change.

“Lets get out as a community and make this happen - we’ve got so much power and strength in our communities, so lets utilise that.”

Its business model taps into the idea of the sharing economy.

For those unfamiliar, a sharing economy involves businesses built on the sharing of resources.

Sharing goods between family and friends has been common practice between family and friends for some time, but it has recently expanded out to be a profitable business model - think Uber’s ride-sharing model or Airbnb’s accomodation-sharing platform.

With The Clothing Collective, people donating clothes and furniture is one form of sharing, while people volunteering to work at the store is another.

An upcycled furniture piece from The Clothing Collective.

Another form of sharing happened through a woman with a website company offering to make The Clothing Collective’s website free-of-charge.

“She said, ‘I’m a busy woman, but I love what you’re doing and want to get behind it.’ People like that have been getting in touch to offer help, it’s amazing,” Clark says.

Clark eventually wants to have counsellors on site at the store for shoppers to talk to.

She says it may take a bit of time make happen, but she believes they can do it.

“There’s a lot of things we’d love to be doing, community-wise, and that’s definitely one of them because so many people can’t access publicly funded services and can’t afford private counselling. Free or low-cost counselling would be amazing,” she says.

Spreading the movement

Though Clark’s hectic schedule involves juggling two businesses while driving her daughter to and from school and other engagements, she says she loves her busy lifestyle.

“When it’s something you're passionate about it’s exciting and thrilling,” she says.

“When it’s your own business, you always put so many more hours in but it’s okay because you love it.

“I’m passionate about the message we’re trying to deliver: mental health is nothing to be ashamed of and neither is talking about it.”

In the future, she wants to expand The Clothing Collective to other parts of New Zealand, though she balks at the use of the word “chain”. 

"I don't want to be a clone, I want each store to be different and visually exciting," she says.

For now, the focus is on ensuring The Clothing Collective continues to be profitable, and getting the furniture side of the business up and running.

There is also an ecommerce store in the works, which will sell the store’s top-end goods online.

She says others wanting to raise profits for a cause through retail should be passionate about what they’re doing and be prepared to throw themselves into it 110 percent.

If she had to give one bit of advice, she says plan for the worst-case scenario, so if it happens, everything will be okay.

This is something she ensures she has down pat with each business, which may have originated from always having to be prepared, growing up.

“I was a girl guide,” she explains, laughing.

If you’ve got preloved, fashionable clothing that’s in good condition or preloved furniture with good bones in need of some TLC you’d like to donate to The Clothing Collective, the store offers free pickup Auckland-wide.

You can call 0508Donate or email donate@theclothingcollective.co.nz to organise a pick up, or drop into the store at 1 Cnr Highbury Bypass and Birkenhead Ave, Birkenhead.

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