Iko Iko has settled into a new store on Ponsonby Rd and has brought all of its personality with it.
Upon first sight, you’d be forgiven for thinking a beautiful little beach shack had been plonked in the middle of Ponsonby.
Unlike some of the chic, modern buildings or stark white villas you’d find along the main strip, Iko Iko is a baby-blue box adorned with rainbow bunting and a lashing of pastel colours.
The jumble of colours is symbolic of the shop’s inclusive style.
Iko Iko owner Thomasin Bollinger describes it as a gift store that has something for everybody, regardless of age or gender.
“And a shop that makes people smile,” she adds.
Iko Iko’s origins can be traced back to the markets in Wellington in the late 90s.
Bollinger was studying to be an early childhood teacher and selling jewellery at a stall with a friend on the weekends.
But one day, there was bad news for their new hobby: the building was sold and the market was closing down.
Bollinger didn’t want to give up all the fun she’d had selling things at the market, so Iko Iko was born. The first step was to find the store’s point of difference.
“What we envisioned when we started was a shop that wasn’t a gift shop,” Bollinger says.
“A lot of gift shops around were super design-y and a bit intimidating, whereas we wanted a shop that sold interesting things. We wanted kids to be welcome and to be able to touch things, and we didn’t want to be pigeonholed in what we sold.”
The infamous Dixie Cups song, Iko Iko, inspired the name.
Bollinger says it was chosen because it didn’t tie them down to one specific theme or style – they could mix up what they sold and it wouldn’t matter.
The first Iko Iko store opened on Cuba St, Wellington in 1994.
Lots of retailers got their first break on Cuba St, Bollinger says, as it was a cheap place to secure a shop space.
Its original Auckland store on Karangahape Rd followed two years later.
Thomasin says retail is a lot harder these days.
“It’s a lot harder than it even was five years ago. For me, [surviving] is being very hands on and keeping a close eye on how things are,” she says.
The team at Iko Iko decided to cast their eye elsewhere in Auckland for a new space this year, as they felt the business had outgrown the K Rd store.
“The shop is a bit more upmarket than it used to be and we wanted to catch a wider range of people,” she says.
After a long search, a space arose. A jewellery store called Shell Shock that had occupied a Ponsonby Rd premises was leaving.
“We liked the character of the building and there’s really good neighbours, as it’s a bit of a gift strip with The Garden Party and Taylor Road,” Bollinger says.
“We’re all quite different, but having more than one reason for people to come to an area is a really good thing.”
She says losing the K Rd community was one of the biggest losses for the business, as they had formed a close bond after nearly two decades together.
However, it was onwards and upwards.
Bollinger, her husband, Steve Jessup, as well as various staff and friends journeyed from Auckland to Wellington to begin transforming the new footprint.
The fit out took an impressive six weeks, which Bollinger credits to working around the clock.
The card rack, counter and boxes were custom-made and imported up from Te Aro Joinery in Wellington, which had done the joinery for the Lambton Quay store.
Bollinger and her husband got wooden Lundia Shelving for the store second-hand and sanded it back themselves.
They lived, slept and breathed each aspect of the fit out themselves, with the help of a builder.
The process included knocking down walls dividing the space to open it up into one room.
The look of the store was based on the second-newest addition to the Iko Iko family – the aforementioned Lambton Quay store – but with its own unique twist.
Like the Lambton Quay store, the shop decor draws inspiration from a South African culture.
The Ndebele women paint the outside of their houses with colourful, geometric patterns inspired by ancient Ndebele beadwork.
Head merchandiser Anna Wooles does the painting and had just returned from a third trip over to Africa when the fit out begun.
Iko Iko staff bring back different ideas from their travels, Wooles says, as it’s a huge inspiration point for them.
Bollinger says she encourages staff to take extended leave and go travelling, which in turn enriches the business and keeps them happy.
“It’s always hard when you lose people, as retail is a really high-turnover industry,” Bollinger says.
“If you can keep your staffs’ jobs interesting it’s a win-win.”
Wooles created her own pastel-coloured interpretation of the designs on the stairs, plant boxes and counter.
One of the standout features of Iko Iko’s stores is the merchandising, which doesn’t shy away from being quirky or crazy – like the plastic flamingos adorning the entrance.
Wooles describes it as a one big jigsaw.
“It’s ever changing, it’s not like we have one shipment of products every month or so,” Wooles says.
“You get a shipment and do a big change around and with us we’re literally getting new products every day.”
The shop is less a chaotic jumble of items and more of a beautiful collision.
There are sections for Kiwiana; a kid-friendly display with many bits and bobs to grab and touch; Day of the Dead Mexican items, and blow-up animals.
Plant boxes line the upper level on either side of the stairs to ensure no customers accidentally take a tumble.
A lot has changed from the previous jewellery store: carpet and floorboards were taken out and replaced with a polished concrete floor, and some of the windows were boarded up to create more wall space.
Despite the boarding, Bollinger says there was still a challenge with wall space, so staff had to be innovative with where they placed things, like clocks on the beams and plants on the fireplace.
The result is a store that is just as much for adults as is it for kids, despite its lolly-coloured complexion.
Bollinger says Iko Iko has always been very popular with both the young and old.
Wellington High School and Auckland Girls Grammar students frequented their stores, she says, and often wouldn’t have much money.
Because Iko Iko staff were welcoming and inclusive, they’d return as future customers when they were adults, Bollinger says.
Perhaps this is the secret ingredient to Iko Iko’s success – a store that a customer can visit and delight in at every stage of their life.
Kids can play with maracas and toy crocodiles, teenagers can find themselves a silly mask for a dress-up or something naughty that makes them giggle, and adults can find a quirky mug or card.
The store is bright and bold enough to make the grumpiest senior citizen crack a smile.
This story was originally published in NZRetail Magazine, issue 739.