Sunday, February 25, 2024

Playing Dress Up with Waiheke’s Vintage Visionary – and Why Covid-19 Might Be The End of Fast Fashion

It’s not just luxe wineries and lavish beaches – Waiheke island is also home to a collection of the most finely curated vintage clothing in the country. Sheela Soskin takes us on a day trip to Auckland’s hidden gem of a clothing store.

Stepping into the doors of Greatest Friend is like getting an exclusive peek into your coolest, best dressed friend’s closet. The difference? It’s all for sale, thanks to owner Angela Winter Means, who hand picks every item in her resplendent vintage shop in the heart of Waiheke’s Oneroa Village.

Not one to favour a particular style, decade, or era (although she admits she has a penchant for Laura Ashley and Gunne Sax prairie dresses), the clothes Angela selects for Greatest Friend are meant to inspire. Amongst the racks of on-trend flight suits and impeccably worn-in Levi’s, you’ll also find Twin Peaks-esque tartan wool skirts, candy-coloured floral dresses that might make you resemble a character in The Virgin Suicides (this is a good thing!), and frothy Edwardian wedding gowns. Like a thoughtfully curated museum exhibit, each piece has a story to tell and purpose for being there. 

The Virgin Suicides

It’s undeniable that Angela loves clothes – but more importantly she considers how they make you feel when they put them on. When you’re shopping, she’ll offer tips on styling and walk you through the history of the garment: how it was made, what makes it special, and how to take care of it. The too-long ruffled maxi dress I simply couldn’t go home without? She hemmed it on the spot. I’ve never come across customer service like that, and reader, this is far from my first fashion rodeo. 

The name Greatest Friend comes from the lyrics to the titular song by the 60s folk group The Incredible String Band: “The greatest friend I have in life/has brought me here to dwell.” Indeed, the space Angela has created feels cosy, warm, and welcoming – just like seeing an old friend. You’ll want to hang out, poke around, try on everything, and stay awhile. 

I sat down – and played dress up – with Angela on a gloomy winter’s day for a chat about the future of fashion, showing a collection at New Zealand Fashion Week, and why she’ll never stock Harley Davidson tee shirts in her shop. 

How did your career in vintage clothing start? 
I moved to Wellington alone as a teenager and had to support myself. I always loved fashion, so I would buy cool fabrics at op shops, make dresses, and sell them at markets. My love for vintage started there. Years later, I was living in America and decided to start my own underwear line. I would buy all these amazing vintage pieces for inspiration, and decided to sell them instead of producing my own. I was one of the first sellers on Etsy, and it just took off. I paid attention to what high end designers were showing on the runways, found vintage versions of those looks, and curated collections around them. Selling vintage became my full time job at that point. 

What brought you back to New Zealand after 17 years in America? 
I was living in Philadelphia, running a showroom where I sold vintage to buyers from Urban Outfitters, Free People, and Anthropologie. It was going well, but I was missing New Zealand and thinking about where my daughter was going to go to school. I felt the call from the land, the water—my old stomping ground. So I came back for a visit and as soon as I stepped out of Auckland Airport I could feel in my body that I needed to move back here. So I sold my showroom, moved back, set up shop on Waiheke purely by chance (a friend of mine had a house for rent here), and the rest is history. 

You differ from other vintage shops because you focus on natural fibers. What do you look for when you’re sourcing?  
Mainly good structure, timeless silhouettes, and yes, quality fibre. I love natural textiles. Wool, linen, silk, leather, cotton—but it’s hard to find them in New Zealand because we’ve imported so many synthetics in the last 20 years. 

What is the definitive New Zealand style?
That’s a tough one. I would say farmer chic. (laughing). You know, gumboots, jeans, a woolly jumper, and an oilskin jacket. Timeless, wearable, durable, and gentle. 

You have a seamstress on site, which means you can get a piece tweaked to fit your body in real time. It doesn’t even have to be something you purchase at Greatest Friend. What was the thinking that led you to have that service?
I am overwhelmed by the extreme amount of waste worldwide and want to encourage people to fix their clothes rather than throw them away. And when someone is in the shop and falls in love with a piece but it’s not a perfect fit, it can be altered on the spot. You can literally walk out with a piece that is custom made for you. Everyone wins. 

You showed a collection for New Zealand Fashion Week. Can you tell me how that experience was?
I pitched this idea of pairing New Zealand designers with vintage sellers so that we, as a country, could consider not supporting fast fashion. I was thinking all of the vintage sellers could partner with local brands to create a really forward-thinking movement. They didn’t go for it, but they called me out of the blue one day and said they were doing a show based on sustainable designers and asked me to put together a collection. It was the first (and only) vintage collection ever shown. It was an incredible experience. 

You’re extremely passionate about pre-existing clothing. What do you think the future of fashion is, in terms of sustainability?
I think the government needs to say no to importing so many clothes.There’s these graveyards where garments go to die, full of clothing from K-Mart or Warehouse that aren’t even a year old. Fast fashion is a powerful beast, but with the Covid crisis I think we’re learning we need to slow down. Orders are being stopped in China and India. There’s room to breathe and examine what a true circular economy would look like. 

Young people are helping me feel reassured about it all. I see teenagers buying dresses for school dances from op shops. They know vintage is an option, that they can find something unique and special that they can’t find at the mall. That gives me hope for the future. 

You obviously cherish every piece in your shop. Is there anything you refuse to stock? Harley Davidson tee shirts. I cannot put those in the shop. Everyone wears them, I could make tons of money selling them, but I think it’s a boring trend. The t-shirts I stock aren’t as obvious. They’re thought provoking and wacky, whether they’re from random cultural movements or interesting, offbeat places. I also struggle with any massive brand that’s on trend. I’m a bit of an anarchist like that. 

You already touched on this briefly, but what does Covid-19 mean for Greatest Friend and fashion in general? During lockdown, everyone was shopping online. But we need retail storefronts. I believe that business is the place for creating change and community. With a brick and mortar space, I’m able to inspire people and give them a nice experience which I can’t do online – you don’t get that buzz of trying something on and feeling like a million dollars.

Small businesses have to keep up with big box stores which is really hard – but I’m optimistic. People have had time to slow down and shift. I feel spoiled being in NZ, to have support from the government. I hope that post-Covid, everyone in this nation doing business tweaks their thinking a little more towards doing it for love, less about profit.

Can you pick a few of your favourite items in store at the moment, and explain why you love them?

This 1970s velvet maxi gown looks amazing on literally everyone who tries it on. A bit Stevie Nicks, a smidge Anna Sui, a whole lot of glam.
1970s white denim jeans with seer sucker pockets. They’re “deadstock,” which means they were manufactured but never bought, sold, or worn. They make me think of roller skating and candy floss, and are completely of-the-moment.
We dyed this 1930s French military liner black to give it an entirely new, fresh look. I love the oversized, drapey vibe. It wouldn’t be out of place on an Ann Demeulemeester runway.

Greatest Friend
112 Ocean View Road, Oneroa, Auckland 1081

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