Rita Sue Clothing is a quaint little boutique situated inside St Kevin's arcade on K Road, Auckland. Owner Cathy is a bright and bubbly vintage + pinup fashion lover, and selects the best pieces to be displayed inside her store, which includes NZ labels like Retro Resins and Pop that Cassette, along with bigger international labels like Pinup Girl Clothing. For women young and not so young, her pieces are flattering and beautiful for all sorts of special occasions.
I have a little chat with Cathy about how she got started with Rita Sue, and the inspiration behind this New Zealand brand. Plus all the struggles and positives that come with owning and running your own boutique shop in Auckland. Stay tuned to see the full Business Showcase with this month's editorial on some of her amazing pieces available in store.
1. When and why did you first get involved in the alternate fashion + pinup scene?
I was a born in the 60’s and remember the classic styles that my mother and older relatives wore. The classic and feminine styling of the 40’s-60’s, and the beautiful fabrics and designs were always so flattering. I was much older when I happened across Rita Sue, in Point Chevalier and started buying and wearing these styles. Around this time my husband had a serious motorbike accident that stopped him from riding. An earlier interest in classic cars was rekindled, and we became involved in the Classic Car scene. I guess one thing led to another from there.
2. How did you come to own Rita Sue?
Owning Rita Sue happened more by accident than by design. I was a focused on my career as an art educator, but was between teaching positions and feeling frustrated with the education system when Rita Sue came up for sale. With some retirement savings on hand, and although I had never owned a business before, it seemed like the right fit for me at the time. I like to believe it was one of those things that was meant to happen-, you know, fated.
3. What do you love most about operating and owning Rita Sue?
Owning a small business is a new experience for me and has been a huge challenge in many ways. Luckily, I have always been up for a challenge. Mostly though, I love the social aspects of owning a shop and interacting with customers. The best thing is the satisfying feeling when you help someone to find the right style and fit and they walk away happy with their purchase. That is a pretty special feeling. I don’t think I would be happy just running an online business. The other important thing that has happened is that it has given me the opportunity to work alongside my daughter Alicia which is a fantastic experience. We do not always agree on everything, but it is great to have a different perspective from someone that you trust implicitly. I am very lucky to have Alicia as she has a great range of skills in retail as well as expertise in social media marketing and running an online shop. She is also our in-house photographer.
4. What’s the biggest challenge about being an independent boutique owner in AKL?
I guess the biggest challenge as a small retail business owner is that you need to be able to do everything. You need a broad set of marketing, sales and financial skills, as well as creating a point of difference in a competitive market Cashflow and circumstances change from day to day, so you need to be flexible and resilient. Having a retail shop in Auckland City has it’s own particular issues with higher overheads than many of our competitors and because of this our prices can be higher. To compensate for this we work really hard to offer superior quality garments and a more personalised service.
5. How has Rita Sue changed since you first opened, and what is your vision for the brand?
Rita Sue has changed significantly since 2015 when we took over ownership. We knew we would have to change things if we wanted to leave our mark on the business, but we did not want to lose the goodwill that already existed for the brand. No-one really knew us, and I think existing customers were watching us intently when we first took over. Firstly, the existing website was scrapped and we completely started over by setting up a brand-new site. Many hours were spent photographing, cataloguing stock and writing descriptions and the process took a very long time. I think that the beautiful website we have now is a testament to the many hours of work put in by Alicia and her partner Ryan. The second big change was that the use of models for marketing purposes has increased. This was something that just grew naturally. In the beginning, we approached people we knew to do photoshoots with our new stock, and after a while some of the ladies began approaching us. The informal modelling shoots are of mutual benefit to us, and to the models and bloggers wanting more exposure online. Lastly, I think our collection is changing. Rita Sue is becoming less Rockabilly and more of a specialised, dress shop with Classic, Alternative and Pin-up styles. We are trying to source only locally made or ethically manufactured and imported, quality garments.
6. What are your 3 favourite pieces in store at the moment and why?
- A one-off green and pink lurex brocade wiggle dress by Judy Dee’s Curvy Couture designed and made in NZ. Judy made a similar dress for singer Tami Neilson in this fabric. It is stunning and if it fit me I would own it already.
- The Deadly Dames faux leather wiggle dress from American label Pin-Up Girl Clothing is the ultimate little black dress if you are looking for something a little racy. They don’t call it the Moto-babe dress for nothing
- The Fatale Embroidered Tulle Rose Prom dress by The Pretty Dress Company in the UK. This luxurious swing dress is to die for! The perfect “Vintage Hollywood Glamour” party dress for the coming Holiday Season!
7. What’s one tip or piece of advice you would like to give to ladies when shopping?
Give yourself enough time to shop for something that you love. Look for garment quality, comfort and fit before cost. It is better to buy something that will last and that you will wear many times because you feel great in it. Don’t be tempted to compromise and regret your purchases. Have a good look at the range and try on a variety of dresses when you go shopping. Ignore size labels as they are meaningless when it comes to getting a good fit. We support New Zealand brands, but also import from the UK and the US. Sizing is often very different, even when sourced from the same manufacturer. Often fabric stretch and the style and cut will make a big difference to getting a good fit. If something fits correctly, it will not matter what size it is because it will look great. Often I see women give up after the first try of one style; don’t be afraid to try something completely different. Please ask for assistance if you are unsure of what you are looking for and during your fitting. We can help you find the correct size and give assistance such as zipping you into your dress.
8. What advice would you give to other creatives planning on opening a boutique in NZ?
Make sure that you have some Capital behind you as back up when you start up. It will always cost more to start and grow your business than you initially plan for. Try not to copy what is already available, but search for your point of difference.
9. What other NZ designers inspire you and why?
I love watching young aspiring NZ designers that do a variety of styles, not just Vintage Inspired and Pin-up. However, within the genre of classic styling I would recommend Mavis & Bob, Jill & Ang and Judy Dee Curvy Couture. For something with more of a novelty factor Devel Men and Women and Honey L’Amour are great designers to watch. As well as Classic styling, I have always loved the feminine designs of Trelise Cooper, Gothic styling, Japanese Kawai, and the amazing Wearable Art creations at WOW.
10. What’s next for you and Rita Sue?
Our vision for the future is to become a prominent boutique in Auckland for special occasion dresses and elegant classic styling. We would like to grow our customer base by providing beautiful, classic styles that will appeal to a wider audience. A new shop location may still be on the horizon, because as much as we love being in St Kevin’s Arcade, it is limiting for growth. We try to listen to what our customers want but we cannot be everything to everybody. Because we are small we need to become more specialised. We want to be unique and be the very best at what we do.
Photographer. Creator. Dreamer ♥