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Journey full of opportunities

Saturday 10 September 2022 | Written by Matthew Littlewood | Published in Features

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Journey full of opportunities
Annah Stretton and her daughter Sami enjoy the Cook Islands. 22090913

Annah Stretton wants to spend more time in the Cook Islands. The New Zealand fashion designer and social justice philanthropist was the guest speaker at an event arranged by Cook Islands Business and Professional Women (BPW) society, where she gave an overview of her career.

What’s not to love about the Cook Islands, asks Stretton as she sits down for a chat with Cook Islands News.

“I come back for about a month or so every year, and I want to have more of a base here. That could mean having a home here for us to stay in. There are all sorts of opportunities.”

Stretton’s career has been full of opportunities and chance for connections that lead to something bigger.

Stretton launched her fashion design career back in 1992.

“I guess it was a journey of opportunities and accident. I studied accountancy, I even had to go to accountancy firms to make it all make sense. I worked as an accountant for a fashion firm, and I really got into the artistic side of it, before someone suggested I should take a leap of faith,” she says.

“It’s been through a massive journey of evolution and disruption. We were hugely successful, in my first year of business, I turned over a million dollars. I knew I was damn good at trading and doing the deal, but along the way, as I got more successful, I realised that I needed to pay it forward.”

Stretton began searching out charities, particularly those within the social welfare sphere.

“It started to become about how I could contribute to the community.”

She established the Anna Stretton Foundation in 2013.

“I aligned with a lot of charities within the social responsibility space, I was really wanting to know how to really effect change amongst our most vulnerable.”

A chance meeting with Roni Albert, the chief executive of Te Whakaruruhau Waikato Women’s Refuge, changed Stretton’s life.

“She came up to my office. They were in a lot of financial difficulties, and needed a stronger brand presence for the incredible mahi that they were doing.”

Stretton helped establish a governing board for Whakaruruhau Waikato Women’s Refuge, which in turn led to the organisation able to access the funding required to help the 150 or more different families they see every week.

“I decided to work alongside her. For me, it was a journey of self-awareness and empathy. It was an organisation that works in crisis,” Stretton says.

“Roni let me into that world.” 

It was through this world that Stretton decided to launch Reclaim Another Women (RAW), an organisation which targeted women in prison.

“It was a demographic that was certainly similar to a lot of those who used the women’s refuge, but they might start to make a change if they saw the opportunity to do so,” Stretton says.

“The wonderful thing about being a strong fashion brand, is that there was a curiosity raised about what a fashion brand was wanting to do with the 400 or so women who reside in prison. Certainly, it’s not that easy to get a meeting with the head of Corrections,” Stretton says.

The organisation focused on high risk, recidivist female offenders.

“The reason why we targeted those women was the fact that there was no other place for them to go once they got outside,” Stretton says.

“The journey they travelled had normalised the criminal activities for them —they would get out and do the same—if I could get them back into the space of nurture, I knew I would be able to get something out of them.”

Through the programme, they have helped assist more than 90 women after their release from prison.

“We don’t do reintegration, we do integration. None of our women have ever been integrated into our community, so we work out how we can do that.”

There were many success stories through the programme—Stretton talks about a woman whose methamphetamine addiction and criminal activity had resulted in four of her children getting “uplifted” by Oranga Tamariki.

“When she came to work with RAW, I made a massive connection with her. She decided to do hairdressing. That was something she wanted to do and she committed to it. She did two years of hairdressing and then a year in barbering, and then a year in building tiny homes. Eventually she got her children back. She’s so focused, she’s never going back to jail again,” Stretton says.

“If it weren’t for our support, she would have kept cycling in and out of prison, she would have normalised the process.”

Through her connections with different aspects of the Māori community, Stretton decided she needed to put in the work on the “intellectual whakapapa”.

She’s currently studying a Masters in Māori and Indigenous Societies with Auckland University.

“There’s so much that I’ve learned already that will change the way I connect and support and move forward,” Stretton says.

“I’m endeavouring to get more older people back into University because it’s so great for your brain health.”

Even the advent of Covid-19 saw Stretton turn what could have been a setback into an opportunity.

“The day we were told we were going into lockdown for a month, I had a reach out with a charity who asked me to make 6000 face masks,” Stretton says.

“I looked at this request and thought ‘why not’. I’ve got 30 years of fabric, 30 years of elastic and trims. This was an awesome way to become an essential service.”

Stretton described the move into facemasks as a “gamechanger” for an “ageing fashion label”.

“There was so much demand for them. Up until last month, it was up to 20 per cent of our business. They put the eyes back on us. When people went online to order our masks, they often ended up checking our other stuff out,” Stretton says.

For now, Stretton keeps juggling her various roles and responsibilities. She’s pleased she has a succession plan, with her daughter Sami also heavily involved in the businesses.

“I have incredibly high levels of discipline. I constantly look at opportunities, I love to think about the potential where conversations lead,” Stretton says.

“There may not be a door that’s opened immediately, but there will be a time when those connections are invaluable. It’s a collaborative, collective journey that you walk with someone.

“If I have any advice, it’s this: only commit to something you’re into 100 per cent. Once you do that, the rest will follow.”