On 17 August 2021, Vunilagi Vou in partnership with Celebrate Aotearoa (led by Tongan designer, Czarina Wilson) were operating in partnership out of The Alexander Cafe in Ōtara, South Auckland. Having built on several opportunities to collaborate, the partnership was pretty dreamy: Vunilagi Vou was making shows in the cafe space, Celebrate Aotearoa had built an awe-inspiring maximalist retail environment on the cafe’s mezzanine floor, and the Māori-Pacific owned cafe was an exciting hub for locals and professionals working in the area.
Recently, the outgoing Covid-19 minister, Chris Hipkins, noted that Auckland’s last lockdown in 2021, “may have gone on too long” – a sentiment that hit hard. That lockdown, which started on 17 August 2021, was a dealbreaker. Aucklanders were already fatigued, the pandemic was wearing resilience levels down; so many were suffering in different ways, and parents home-schooling and managing parental demands and expected to work with office-level productivity, were put under tremendous strain.
For Vunilagi Vou, the lockdown meant cancelling events with no known timeframe for re-scheduling, returning grant money and watching the delicate momentum of our third site weaken every day. Whilst government subsidies allowed many small businesses to keep afloat during lockdown, it was the mental and spiritual hit that was perhaps the most debilitating for Vunilagi Vou.
In late 2021, the decision was made to pack down operations at The Alexander Cafe and work with the ebbs and flows of the Covid climate by withdrawing entirely from producing exhibitions and events. Focus was put instead on consultancy work, writing projects and pop-ups, whilst reflecting heavily on what was even possible for small scale creative enterprises in the age of Covid.
Celebrate Aotearoa continued to operate at The Alexander Cafe, but was strategising next steps to keep building on the strong customer base and longer term agenda to find space for not only retail but for making and producing.
Whilst much of Vunilagi Vou’s gallery-based assets had been stored, redistributed and sold, a TradeMe search reminder for commercial leases in the Manukau City and Ōtāhuhu areas kept the idea of a new space quietly alive.
Earlier this year, working in partnership with long-time friend and colleague, Kiri Nathan, Czarina Wilson started to plant seeds to shift Celebrate Aotearoa operations from South Auckland back to the Eastside – Glen Innes, where both Kiri and Czarina grew up and have deep roots.
After operating from a converted shipping container at The Ōtara Kai Village (2020) and the mezzanine floor in a refurbished factory at The Alexander Cafe (2021-2022), this month Celebrate Aotearoa is re-opening in an amazing new retail space smack bang in the middle of Glen Innes at 3/260 Apirana Avenue, across the road from the Glen Innes train station!
After securing Creative New Zealand investment from the Pacific Creative Enterprise initiative, a new pathway emerged for Vunilagi Vou. A property became available that could not have been more perfect: built in 2004, the ground floor commercial space had only ever functioned as a small dealer gallery, fitted out with high spec lighting and a hanging system. Amazingly, the north-facing property is located in East Tāmaki, a stone’s throw from Ōtara, and positioned on the edge of environmentally protected wetlands surrounding the Ōtara Stream.
VVxET, Vunilagi Vou’s fourth iteration, is going to re-open symbolically, alongside Celebrate Aotearoa on Wednesday 17 August, marking one year since the start of Auckland’s longest lockdown in 2021. This important milestone also represents the strength of conviction, mental, spiritual and physical labour that both these operations have honed being led by independent, Moana Pacific creatives striving to hold space and create economic growth for the communities we are part of.
It has taken a year of heavy energies, soul searching, a few breaking points, some big sacrifices and a few attempted exit strategies (Wellington, Waiheke, the Far North…), and amazingly not catching Covid, but Celebrate Aotearoa and Vunilagi Vou are on the rebound.
We are both re-opening for business on Wednesday 17 August in our new respective locations:
Celebrate Aotearoa x Glen Innes
Vunilagi Vou x East Tāmaki
Suite 14, 15 Bishop Lenihan Place, East Tāmaki, Auckland
Opening Day Drop-in Hours: 10am – 6pm
Usual Opening Hours: Thursday – Saturday, 10am – 2pm
Appointments available outside of opening hours – get in touch here.
Whilst not working in the same site anymore, Vunilagi Vou and Celebrate Aotearoa will always have each other’s backs!
Support Moana Pacific small businesses! Support women in business! Support mothers who make! And help tautoko two mates who have gotten up after every knock back, cackled, and started again!
Wishing Celebrate Aotearoa a massive opening season! Get along to check out what a master visual merchandiser working back her hood can do!