Fashion designer Annah Stretton has always been the fix-it queen, but she tells Sharon Stephenson that a request to help Māori women’s refuge has led to life-changing and eye-opening challenges.
Annah Stretton describes her life as a game of Snakes and Ladders: a few steps up, only to slide back down again.
But in her latest book, Grit Before Grace, the fashion designer and entrepreneur admits she was definitely having a “ladder” kind of day when she decided to write this 240-page ode to navigating life’s challenges.
The Morrinsville woman, whose clothing designs are as colourful and innovative as she is, marked her 30th anniversary in business in April this year.
“I thought it was a good time to reflect on what was significant about those 30 years, and what I’ve done that could be useful to others. I sit comfortably in my skin these days and like who I am, so I thought how I got here could help guide others.”
The mother of daughter Sami, 33, son Edward, 30, and two infant grandchildren, says her decision to write her most personal book ever – her others are more business focused – was also inspired by a meeting she had nearly 10 years ago.
“In 2013, Ruahine (Roni) Albert, the CEO of Te Whakaruruhau, New Zealand’s first Māori women’s refuge, reached out to me. She was looking for someone to help lift and shift the financial wellbeing of the organisation, which wasn’t well-funded at the time. I think she thought I would just write out a cheque.”
Instead, Annah decided to do what she does best – jump in and fix things.
“I’m the fix-it queen! But I had so little experience of Māoridom, instead judging it, as people often do with many races, when they haven’t been immersed in that culture. It’s only now that I can see how one-sided and ill-informed my world view was.”
And even though the two women came from very different ends of the social advantage spectrum, Annah says they became great friends.
“Roni walked alongside me and helped me build trust with the women at the refuges, to understand how normalised violence is in many of their lives and how to built their trust instead of just jumping in to find a solution. And she taught me a valuable lesson in slowing down – things in Māoridom take time, but in my white world I’m used to quick time frames. Through Roni and my ongoing involvement in Te Whakaruruhau, I learnt the benefit of slowing down and doing things consciously.”
Annah eventually went on to create a governance structure for Te Whakaruruhau, a board she still serves on.
The stories she heard and the women she met spurred her into founding Reclaim Another Woman (RAW), an organisation aimed at breaking New Zealand’s cycle of intergenerational offending, educational underachievement, persistent poverty and violence for disadvantaged women.
“Together with my sister Rebecca, a registered mental health nurse, we bought a 10-bedroom house in the Waikato for women who’ve come out of prison. They can stay there from three to six months and we work with them to help with whatever they need, whether that’s education or getting into the workforce.”
Since its inception in 2014, RAW has helped 90 wāhine, and Annah says proudly only four or five of those have ended up back in prison.
But it’s not just the socially and economically disadvantaged that her latest book is aimed at. Annah cites Mental Health Foundation figures from 2020 that show one in three Kiwi women are struggling with their mental health.
“That’s a huge figure and yes, a lot of that is to do with Covid. But I also see a lot of ordinary women who aren’t thriving, who don’t feel like they love their lives. My message to these women isn’t to make a huge seismic change but to edit their normal, to make small achievable changes that can make a difference. My very wise grandmother used to always say, don’t go on a diet, just eat half of what you normally eat. That’s the kind of approach I’m advocating; if life isn’t great right now, think about editing your normal with small things you can do that could make a big difference.”
Threaded throughout the book are insights, tools and quotes to help women do this, from taking a leap (“Change is the engine room of progress and the gateway to a different life”) to the impact of limiting beliefs (“The secret to growing self-belief starts with self-reflection, because your beliefs and your thoughts drive your actions and life outcomes.”)
It’s a long way from the Morrinsville farmhouse where Annah started her eponymous business in 1993, turning her love of fashion into a business empire that, at its peak, included 32 stores across New Zealand and Australia, with stockists in the US, London and Ireland.
“In my first year, we had a turnover of $1 million, which astounded me. But I didn’t ever have a grand plan – it was about taking opportunities and working my butt off.”
A life of change
As the title of her book so aptly reflects, Annah has never been short of grit. Born in Whanganui, the eldest of five children, Annah thought her destiny lay in the art world, so enrolled in art school. “But I left when I realised I was never going to be the next Ralph Hotere!”
When her father, a lawyer turned accountant, challenged her to “do something with her life”, she followed him into accountancy, spending seven years gaining her qualification while working full-time. That led to accounting work for a Waikato clothing company, where she learnt the ropes of the fashion trade, and eventually started her own business.
Along with her stores, which Annah has pared back to 10 New Zealand outlets, there is also a Morrinsville café, a grazing platter business and Olive’s Kitchen, a dog wellness business.
“I’m pretty good at reinvention. I’m also an active relaxer and would rather do housework or gardening than go to gym.”
She promises there will be other books, probably focusing on more inspirational topics than her previous business/entrepreneurial-focused volumes.
“For so long, I put importance on making money, but now I’m all about the way we behave and feel and how we can make our lives better each day.”
Annah’s life-shaping beliefs
- Back yourself. The only superpower you need is self-belief.
- Master your mind. Be the master, not the servant, of your mind.
- Health comes first. Without good health you have nothing.
- Keep calm and collected. Respond with a calm head, not a hot head, by giving yourself time to develop the best way forward.
- The answers are always out there. Put all your energy into finding the positive win-win solutions rather than obsessing about the problem.
- Take the leap. Change is the engine room of progress and the gateway to a different life.
- Take the fall. Failure is a necessary stepping stone to success. Learn to embrace it and see it as the learning opportunity it is.
- Always leave doors open. People will cycle in and out of your life, so make sure that you leave each cycle positively in preparation for the next one.
- Be a life-long learner. Knowledge is energising and a gift to be shared.