Raised with a strong appreciation of her culture and heritage, Whakaawa Te Kani started her luxury wool blanket brand, Noa Blanket Co, to share the stories of her Māori ancestry. Having a long background in the realm of retail, a pathway that developed her interest in business and textiles, it seemed like a natural leap for Te Kani to build something of her own. Founded nearly two years ago in Tauranga alongside her husband Joshua Te Kani, Noa has garnered immense recognition and success since it first launched. After selling out its first three limited edition collections, the brand is now offering an always available Limitless range which is intentionally woven to order, with another limited edition collection to come in October. With New Zealand Fashion week set to kick off next week, Noa is also poised to collaborate with fellow Māori designer Campbell Luke on his upcoming show, a collaboration that is sure to raise the brand to even greater heights. Below, Te Kani talks to FQ about what it’s like to run a brand with her husband and how she’s weaving the stories of her ancestors into her luxury woollen blankets.
Tell us a bit about you, your upbringing, and where you’re currently based.
I had the most amazing upbringing. I was born into a loving family and raised in our long standing homestead, a stone’s throw away from our marae, the heart of our community, where I lived for the first seven years of my life. This meant my childhood was full of wonderful memories and as the baby of the family you can imagine I was spoiled to say the least!
I was fortunate to travel the world in the years following. My parents were missionaries and through their church network, we travelled to some awe-inspiring places – from the jungles of Thailand, sailing through the Panama Canal and giving medical relief to the remote islands of the Pacific. All the while my father continued to grow my understanding of self, the values within our culture, transmitted in Te Reo Māori, our native tongue, helped to shape my worldview.
This made my return home to Tauranga in my adolescent years a lot easier to navigate – already confident in my identity, who I was, the prestige of my culture and heritage and my connection to people and places. The remainder of my school years I would continue to grow my understanding of the value of these connections.
My husband Josh (co-founder of Noa Blanket Co) is also the youngest of his family. Our parents were lifelong friends and whilst we knew each other as kids, immediately following school we travelled together sharing our stories internationally through Māori performing arts. We found each other abroad, in a sea of people and brought each other home from across the world to eventually have our two boys, Frankie and Taiki. We’re well established here in Tauranga, based on our ancestral lands, and we haven’t looked back since.
Could you walk us through your career to date?
My background is mainly in retail – I was fortunate to be taken in by a beautiful family, the Davidsons, who gave me my first job right out of high school at Davidson Boutique. There I learned the value of working hard, being diligent and how going the extra mile for others not only fosters a great rapport, but helps to create real enduring relationships – some of which I’m grateful to still have today.
As it is with any retail position, at the forefront of interaction with others, we quickly learn the art of communication and principles of engagement. With the Davidson family I was privileged to experience a great example of how to run a business and to put people first. There I would develop my management skills and get my first glimpse into textiles and fashion. I’m forever grateful for my time with the Davidsons who are still close family friends to this day.
What made you want to start your business? What drew you to blankets?
The idea for Noa Blanket Co was formed from a deep desire to relive the tales of our ancestors, to voyage into the unknown, to fish up new lands, creating new spaces and pathways, defining our own success. The renowned Kiwi entrepreneurial spirit gave us a hunger to grow our own capacity and capability and create something of our own.
Thankful for the immense value that Te Ao Māori had in our lives, we also had a desire to share these life-giving principles with the world in a way that was totally unique to us.
We come from a long line of orators and artists – the Māori language was not a written language so storytelling through spoken word and art are our inherent lines of communication.
We felt like this understanding was a gift to be shared with the world, and we wanted to create a tāonga, a treasured heirloom, befitting the immense value of this knowledge and understanding, and a vessel to take this treasure forward into the future.
We wanted to create a homegrown product anyone would feel proud to bring into their home. With our two small boys in mind we wanted something practical, a useful everyday item, that could act as a simple reminder of warmth and wellbeing. To reassure us of who we are and what we’re capable of, or perhaps even to inspire the timid heart to desire more!
What more fitting than a 100% pure New Zealand wool woven blanket, an iconic textile reimagined and imbued with our cultural design narratives.
How did Noa Blanket Co come to fruition?
A lot of planning in the years prior to launch allowed us to plot a pathway to fruition, we engaged in intense product research and development, we invested ourselves into learning, we examined in depth the New Zealand wool textile industry from its history and prospective future, to farms and raw material processing to technological capability and machine weaving. We plunged into archives, to investigate not only the heritage of the New Zealand wool blanket, but also how our culture had engaged and interacted with wool and how Māori textile design may be reinvigorated in the process.
With our real passion being storytelling, we spent countless hours ensuring our brand narratives would speak our truth, that they’d be inclusive yet remain unique. To create a widespread reach at a high quality standard befitting the majesty of the treasured stories it would tell, it would need to be enduring into the future.
More than three years of dreaming, planning and saving enabled the creation of Noa Blanket Co.
Could you tell us a bit about your dynamic working with your partner?
As co-founders we both have our strengths and find balance throughout our entire making process. We weave stories – Josh is a great story teller, he draws upon our cultural narratives and knowledge base and together we observe and explore our personal experiences to provide a deeper, meaningful context to the design narrative we want to weave. This is an important part of our process as that context, insight and understanding is shared not only in each blanket design, but across all content we create to better tell the stories of each collection or range.
I’m the dream engine. I have a specific vision and an eye for the major design elements required to fulfil that vision. We then workshop each design by drawing from the design theme, identifying the unique design principles for each collection and the individual role of each blanket within it. We discuss particular cultural designs that embody those design principles, we seek out the appropriate colours, we research both past textile examples and modern weaving approaches, various finishes and edges to achieve the overall look and feel for each design.
Each blanket you make is so beautiful and rich with meaning. Could you tell us more about the intent behind your blankets and how they weave in Māori storytelling?
The intent behind our blankets is to draw upon Mātauranga Māori (the Māori knowledge base, systems and networks) to reflect our common human values from our unique perspective in textile art and design.
Toi Māori is an artform reflective of the natural world and our connection with it. More importantly, our place in it, our roles and responsibilities to it and each other.
Our intention is to share our experiences and knowledge in design and storytelling in textile art with the hope of giving insight and bringing awareness to an array of themes, important to our communal well being. We hope the stories of our blankets will provide a base narrative or act as a segue into further discussion and discovery – for some, a space to share their own perspective. Our uniqueness is a celebration of our likeness.
He Toi whakairo, he mana tangata.
Where there is artistic excellence, there is human dignity.
-Dr Piri Sciascia.
We endeavour to uphold the artistic excellence prevalent in Māori art to acknowledge the immense value of the principles that underpin our design. “There’s tremendous power in our tupuna’s work…the spirit is here and as we as people came in…bringing to this collection ourselves and the things that we know and believe in brings this whole thing alive.” (New York, 1986)
Each blanket design reflects a story embodying our ancestral values, reborn anew, inspired by our culture and heritage now writing a new chapter from a different space, an unforged environment.
What is needed to embody these values and truly create? He ara hou, he ara whānui, mā te katoa, to inspire change creators alike, to invigorate others to seek the broad pathway forward.
Your very first collection that launched back in 2021 sold out within a day. How do you keep up with demand as a brand who prioritises sustainable production?
The success of our first collection was very humbling, we had hoped for a positive response to our work but never dreamed of it selling out so quickly. Whilst we were ecstatic, it was also a challenge as a new business.
Over the last year we have worked on our strategy and alongside our mill were able to provide a new offering that still aligns with our values. As it is with weaving, all good things take time. Weaving is a slow and deliberate process with attention to each detail in our craft and our Limitless Range, woven to order, aims to reduce waste and the environmental impact of overproduction – weaving only what we require.
What do you want people to feel when they buy a blanket from you?
We want our tāonga to be a recognition of self, to invoke a familiar sense of connection or reflect an inherent memory that may have laid dormant within for some. To ignite the home fires, to comfort & nurture.
We hope people see a high quality product, grown, designed and produced here in Aotearoa. We hope they feel a sense of connection, a warm embrace of support, to feel enveloped in our stories creating a sense of belonging. To celebrate the ceremony of gift giving, instilling a sense of pride in giving to others and gratitude in our receiving of tāonga.
For some it will be a reminder, a reassurance of who we are, where we’re from and inspire us to attain our goals.
What good do you think can come of sharing our stories through craft like this?
We believe there is much power in knowing your identity. Knowing who we are and how we connect to people and places strengthens our sense of belonging, creating a safe space that inhibits growth. This knowledge of self also keeps us grounded in our evolving environment and instils a deep sense of respect for the relationships that sustain us, promoting a spirit of reciprocity and interdependence with each other and our natural environment.
What does a typical day look like for you?
With two growing boys, we start the day like most parents – preparing for the day ahead at school and the workplace. Heading to our design studio/warehouse, we attend to receiving stock and distribution in time for daily couriers. Emails and team comms follow, whilst Josh continues our design and research work.We usually have a number of creative projects on the go at any given moment, so our day can include anything from creative workshops, to architectural design meetings to governmental project briefings. We try to achieve our workload by the end of the school day to ensure we maintain our valuable time with our two boys. Sports practices, performing arts and cultural protocols are commonplace in our weekly schedule. In addition to these daily musings we also maintain pivotal roles in our local community, ensuring our cultural practices and knowledge base is sustained and enduring.
What are your goals for the future? Where do you see yourself and Noa in five years?
We have a vision to become an internationally renowned design house with a strong foundation in our cultural art and design. We have a passion to grow across many platforms and create spaces to share our stories in multimedia including textiles, fashion, architecture and interiors.
Finally, anything else you think our FQ readers should know about you or the brand?
We value the wisdom of our Tūpuna (ancestors) and acknowledge it is an inherent gift. Our ancestral values described in the stories associated with our designs hold a historic blueprint of success, and a bearing for the future. This continues to not only inform our brand and creative direction, but also our personal growth, the best approach, strategy and way forward – a constant reminder of how to best carry ourselves in our ever changing environment.
The best restaurant near me… Picknicka in Tauranga, the best food and cocktails.
The three beauty products I can’t live without… Mesoestetic Flash Aging Ampoules, sunscreen and Dior Flash Perfector Concealer.
Best current season fashion purchase… Maison Margiela boots.
How would you describe your personal style… I feel very fortunate to have been introduced to so many beautiful designers in the beginning stages where I grew an appreciation for beautifully cut garments and luxurious fabrics. My style has refined over the years and I find simple is best and quality essential.
The best life/career advice you’ve received… Take life slow – it’s fleeting, it’s not always promised, so live now. Have goals for the future, but live in the moment, learning from the past. Just like weaving is a slow deliberate process, we’re learning to live and experience each moment acknowledging its fullness, realising its full potential to inform our growth.