Steve Jobs said “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. You have to trust the dots will somehow connect in your future.” This month’s feature interview is about connecting a collection of ‘dots’ – the unlikely fusion of fashion and science inspired by nature.

Like many stories, it started with a door knock. My neighbour, a grandmother, Leilani, asked if I had a job for her ‘moko’ – 18 year old grand-daughter, Anastasia. I was about to launch the inaugural Maori internship programme, at Scion, in Rotorua.

Ana was recruited as an Intern to study cell walls of fibre plants, like harakeke (flax) to predict the products they might be useful for in future ‘biomaterials’. Ana used fluorescent dyes to colour the fibres and took photographs through a high-powered ‘confocal’ microscope to create images.

Fast-forward seven years: Leilani Rickard and her granddaughter, Anastasia started a fashion label Natura Aura. The melding of technology and tradition has led to incorporating microscopic images with colours, lines and shapes with contemporary fashion to create a rainwear and a collaboration with Blunt Umbrellas. Natura Aura have already picked up the Established Designer Award in the Miromoda Fashion Competition and showcased at New Zealand Fashion week. Their Iwi Creations hosiery line also has been a huge hit with the fashion world. The company now has stockists in the North Island and are currently looking for more in the South.

Who could have predicted those images would have inspired fashion garments selected by supermodel Jessica Minh Anh to represent New Zealand on a floating cat walk on the river Seine, in Paris? Last week I would bump into my old neighbours Leilani and Ana and heard their remarkable journey.

A story that reminds us – you really can’t join the dots going forward.

NZE: How did you come up with the idea to put plant cell walls on rainwear?

LR: I’ve been weaving harakeke (flax) into piu piu (‘dancing skirts’ used by Maori) and designing hosiery for years. Because of Ana’s work at Scion, a visiting German scientist came to look around at the plants. She gifted me a CD of images of the cell walls – like the ones Ana had taken all those years ago.

I’d been working with the outer beauty of this plant for 40 years and here I was staring at its inner beauty – I said to myself – I have to do something special with this. Not long after that I was invited to enter the Miromoda Fashion Design Competition. I thought about our ancestors and how they made pake (rainwear) to protect themselves – so we put together a collection of rainwear. And then the umbrellas just came along.

Natura Aura

NZE: How do you know when you’re on to a good idea?

LR: We won our section at Miromoda and everyone kept saying they were amazing. The prize was to go to New Zealand Fashion Week. Not long after that we were invited by Jessica Minh Anh to represent New Zealand at her Autumn Fashion Show in Paris.

AR: I think when you get a supermodel wearing your garments – that’s a real achievement. There was also a distributer we met in Paris who said the industry needs something like this that can draw people’s emotions but is about the environment.

NZE: How did you survive those early days?

LR: Making piu pius by the galore! I felt so blessed that I had that to fall back on. I don’t know how many times I thought, I’m over this. You feel like you’re just about to get your head above the water and something else pops up. It’s been tough but then another piu piu order would come along so I just kept going.

NZE: How did you end up working together?

LR: Ana’s helped me out for years. I’d pay her to whatu (finger weave) the piu piu. Ana’s got that same passion but a different way of thinking – but we just gel together. I’m no whizz on the computer and she just seems to knows how to sell. One day I said – how about we go into business together?

AR: It’s been a cool project putting my grandmother’s and my ideas together. We’re really different but somehow it works.

NZE: How do you market your products and what advice do you have for others?

AR: People are happy to pay for the quality. They’re high-end so we’ve gone for exclusive stockists like Blunt umbrellas. We’ve show-cased our products in fashion shows and done a lot of social media. It doesn’t make sense to carry stock everything is custom-made to order.

We’ve also just got a website and handle enquiries as they come in.

Natura Aura NZ fashion

NZE: What are some of the challenges you’ve had in business?

LR: We’ve had lots of hiccups – mostly mistakes of doing what other people said we should do. We’ve got our feet much more on the ground now. We’ve had some sticky patches financially but we just had to keep having faith in what we were doing. We also made the decision to focus our range only on umbrellas and rainwear.

AR: Juggling the responsibilities of working full time and getting a business off the ground. It never ends!

NZE: What’s it like representing New Zealand fashion internationally and have you got any advice for others who represent NZ in business?

LR: Oh gee, we hadn’t done a lot of fashion shows – so didn’t really understand the logistics. But working with Jessica (Minh Anh) was amazing. It was great to hear the fashion media talking about New Zealand. One distributor said that there was an emotional connection with our garments because they were inspired by nature. I’d say to people you’ve got to think about what happens beyond the show as well.

NZE: Does it really take money to make money?

LR: Yes! [laughs!].
AR: Yes! Particularly with fashion.

NZE: How important is passion, in fashion?

LR: It’s everything. My passion for harakeke and making wearable arts is what’s kept me going. I’ve always had an eye for beautiful fashion and making things that people love wearing. You can just tell by looking, how much passion people have put into their garments.

NZE: What are the three business skills you would advise up and coming entrepreneurs to develop

Know what your numbers mean and be honest about the money. Do what you can, not what you feel obligated to do.

Get a strategic planner – they’ll help you see what you can’t see.

Learn – go to workshops, do the networking, take opportunities when they come.

NZE: What’s next? What does success look like for Natura Aura?

LR: Harakeke has been a plant that has been used for hundreds of years for clothing. We want to keep connecting the past with the future. Science, nature and fashion – we’re all evolving together, so we’re going to stick with the rainwear and umbrellas but we might do neck ties as well. We’ve got to think about the buyers. There could be a market for female scientists and business women.

AR: Increasing the number of stockists who hold our product, both nationwide and internationally and become a global brand.

Natura Aura on the web: Facebook:

Acknowledgements: Natura Aura would like to acknowledge the CK Design Team, Charles Parsons fabric, Lloyd Donaldson, Nancy Hati from Scion. Photographs in Paris: John Oakley and Douglas McWall from J Model Management Paris.

Interview by Julia Charity

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