Katie Mangai’s road to starting her own business has twisted and turned. She now embraces creativity in practical ways to benefit others.
She describes how she used to be frightened of her creativity but has learned to harness it.
“I’ve learned to come to my creativity with wonder and delight.”
Aged in her early forties, Katie has founded Luni, a maternity wear service which will enable women to rent original, New Zealand-made clothes during their pregnancy.
The start-up follows three years of studying part-time at the Otago Polytechnic, from which she graduated in March with a graduate diploma in fashion design.
Her study occurred amidst the Covid-19 crisis and alongside being a wife, mum to a preschooler and working part-time for two of those years.
Katie began sewing when she was young and “made stuffed animals like a crazy thing”.
As a teenager she made her clothes, always wanted to be a fashion designer and avidly read British and French Vogue magazines.
She visited France as an exchange student but returned and experienced a slight crisis.
“It was sort of like I was frightened by my own creativity,” she reflects.
She was scared she would become totally absorbed in it and found it draining.
Although in her mind she was still heading towards design, Katie completed theatre studies at the University of Otago.
“I fell in love with theatre and the transformative power of participation.”
She became passionate about theatre in education and worked as a drama teacher in the United Kingdom, then did a stint in West Africa with theatre promoting HIV/AIDS awareness.
Katie then worked in a business environment in Australia, using drama to teach financial literacy in schools. While writing corporate social responsibility programmes, business began to excite her.
Around this time, a careers adviser offered excellent advice.
“It was like I secretly still wanted to be a fashion designer. She said I should try it on for size…investigate it, before changing careers.
“That led me to taking the plunge and studying at fashion school.”
She recommends being a mature student and pursuing your passions, even if you have family or other responsibilities.
“[It’s] about being brave enough to say yes to that instinct.”
Moving to a place of joy
Katie explains how when she was 20, her creativity was more about catharsis and could become self-destructive and draining.
“Now it is coming from a place of joy,” she says.
“It is really important for creative people to be able to access that.”
She says as a source of creativity, joy is life-giving. This flows into Luni, which celebrates pregnant women’s beauty and the joy of them bearing a baby’s life.
I want the fuel to be joy and wonder and delight and for that to drive my business as well.”
In 2021, Katie participated in Startup Dunedin’s Audacious programme, which helps tertiary students turn enterprising ideas into reality.
“It really helped me connect what I was learning at design school with what I’d already learned in the business world.”
Luni customers will sign up online and rent clothes which suit their lifestyles, occupations, changing shapes and style and colour preferences. They can swap items as their bodies expand.
Those she’s surveyed often can’t find sophisticated, tailored maternity outfits, particularly if they’re professionals. Some pregnant women feel they’ve lost their sense of style or who they are.
“I want to make clothes that women feel physically comfortable in and confident, happy and themselves.”
Katie intends ethically-producing garments from sustainable materials and says that renting and reusing them is environmentally friendly.
At present, she’s working with test customers to refine her designs, using upcycled fabrics from Stitch Kitchen, which is next to the studio she’s sharing.
Once she’s confident her designs are working, she’ll sew a sample collection and ask people to pre-order the clothes they want – again, reducing potential waste.
If this is successful, she’ll move to commercial production.
“I want to start a fashion business that meets customer needs and is viable.”
Katie has been inspired by the poetry of Vanessa Kisuule and others who write about the concept of women “taking up space” and how some want to shrink away and not dominate a space.
The idea of unapologetically taking up space, rather than shrinking away, informs her business and influences how she designs clothes.
And why the name Luni?
She says it connects with the lunar cycle, so women’s menstrual cycles, plus there is a more down-to-earth reason.
“I think I like the sound of it – Luni!”
Katie asks expectant mums who’re interested in participating as test customers, are due in September-December in Dunedin and want smart work clothes, to contact her at [email protected].
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