A story about Coasty Kidds might have any number of beginnings.
It might for example, start with the interviewer turning up to the Coasty Kidds store and spending the first half hour or so having yarns with Dion’s dad, Busby Akuhata - who might just be the original coasty kid himself. It was Busby who taught Dion to dive when he was seven years old, and listening to these two talk diving yielded a pretty good insight as to how Dion had ended up on his chosen path.
It would be equally as fitting to start a story about Coasty Kidds with the word ‘partnership’.
Dion attributes his partner in life and business, Reremoana with “getting the gears grinding in [his] head” early on in their relationship, and keeping Coasty Kidds evolving and growing into itself ever since. Dion says it was Reremoana who helped him to see the value in all of the experience and knowledge he had accumulated over the years he’s spent in the moana; who eventually convinced him it was worth sharing.
A story about Coasty Kidds might begin with some conjecture about when Coasty Kidds actually began..
Was it nine years ago when Dion was working as a commercial diver in the Hawkes Bay and created the Instagram handle ‘Coasty Kidd’ to represent his connection to the Coast? Or was it when Reremoana finally said to Dion something along the lines of “You know that Coasty Kidds kaupapa you’ve been talking about for years, well I’ve started the Facebook page, so now you’ve got to get some content in there”.
Which brings us to the starting point that feels most apt for a story about Coasty Kidds, which is that of its kaupapa.
Coasty Kidds is about sharing knowledge, values and tikanga about diving and the moana. As a commercial diver, Dion has seen too many people die from preventable dive accidents, “I wanted that badly when I came back to Gisborne, for no one else to die diving. Freediving is the most common dive practice around the world and most people don’t ever learn how to do it safely”.
So Coasty Kidds began with education. The pair shared social media posts about diver safety, gathering and preparing kaimoana, about respecting tangaroa. Dion started providing dive training and branched out into supplying dive gear so that he could reach and help educate people when they came in to buy equipment too.
Dion is the only qualified freedive instructor from Tauranga to Wellington and is also currently testing a pilot course for children through schools, ‘Tamariki of the Tides,’ which helps kids build a foundation of safety and confidence in the water, and learn how to be kaitiaki of our moana.
Then, in November 2019, Reremoana shared a social media post of their whānau wearing the Coasty Kidds branded towel ponchos she had recently made for them. They were immediately bombarded with people wanting to buy them. So Reremoana and Dion set up a small-scale factory in their lounge and, joined by Dion’s brother, his partner and other friends that happened to drop in, everyone chipped in with the cutting out, and piecing together of parts ready for Reremoana to stitch together on her machine.
That first run of towel ponchos sold out within an hour of posting them on Facebook and so began Coasty Kidds’ evolution into a lifestyle brand. These days the Coasty Kidds shop is brimming with merchandise designed and even made here in Gisborne, and there’s a winter range on its way. Dion says it had never occurred to him that people would ever be wearing their stuff, but supposes it’s what happens when you put fashion and diving together.
From the outside looking in though, I’d venture that it’s more than that. For sure, Coasty Kidds is hearty, and like Dion jokes, heaps of people are happy to hold onto that idea of being a kid at heart, but this isn’t just your average apparel brand with a few fashionable values tacked on for good measure… Coasty Kidds has a meaningful and relatable kaupapa and not just for us here on the East Coast. Dion reckons they get photos from all around the country of people wearing their gears and he has realised that it’s not just people from around here that consider themselves Coasties; we’re all kids of the coast in New Zealand.
This story about a creative, kaupapa-driven local business which continues to evolve and grow, looks and sounds pretty rosy right? A little bit like a starry eyed couple - a diver and a designer - who jumped in their waka and let the current lead them straight to fame and fortune? I wouldn’t be doing their story any justice if we were to leave things there, so let us continue...
Dion tells me he dropped out of school when he was 13 or 14 years old. He describes learning at school as being ‘in the too-hard basket’ and as “nothing really processing”.
It has only really been since meeting Reremoana that he has been able to recognise that he has really good ideas and knows how to carry things out, but when it comes to putting them down onto paper or trying to fit them into the system that we’re living within that he finds not only difficult, but actually, often impossible.
The Freediving Course for example, that Dion had to do in order to become an instructor - he describes that day as the hardest of his life. Of course, having been a diver his whole life, he knew all the answers, but he didn’t know how to answer questions in the way he was required and so he failed that test the first time around.
It has only been very recently that Dion went to a psychiatrist in order to try and understand why his brain works the way it does and a diagnosis of ADHD has come as something of a relief. Learning about why his brain is always going a million miles an hour and why every day is so draining is helping him with acceptance and motivating him to learn ways to better cope.
“If I’d known this years ago, my life would have been way different” he says.
Dion can also see how his neuro-diversity has probably enabled him to do things that other people might not manage so easily. He talks about how he could stay in the water for 8 hour days when he was on the reality TV Show, ‘Gold Hunters’ and is starting to appreciate the way it enables him to keep continually evolving Coasty Kidds, even though it is also taxing on him and his whānau. He can say now, “I’m good with people but not with the books” and know why that might be, rather than simply feeling bad about it. He’s starting to learn about how he best learns.
Dion’s neuro-diversity may also go some way towards explaining what may look from the outside at least to be some kind of superhuman drive that has kept Reremoana and himself moving from the early days when Dion was still working in forestry, would get back from bush to open shop from 4:30pm and would work until late.
Dion and Reremoana’s baby was born just 4 days after opening the Coasty Kidds store and soon after that Lockdown hit. Their supporters kept them going with online purchases through lockdown and after lockdown the pair sold their house, bought a caravan, and then lived off the grid in Pouawa over summer. Reremoana was hapu again and their baby learnt to walk at the beach. It was a chance to really test their mettle as true Coasty Kidds.
“It’s been a crazy journey” says Dion and the pair are showing no signs of slowing down for anything or anyone. As their new baby’s due date draws closer, Reremoana has launched a new American Vintage Store out the back of Coasty Kidds. Dion is exploring Gyotaku, an art form, which remembers and respects a fish’s life by printing it, a nod to his own Cantonese ancestry and he is currently doing his Level One training, which once completed will enable him to teach people to dive to 20 metres.
All driven by a single-minded passion to empower people with the confidence, the right gear and ability to provide kai for themselves and their wider communities indefinitely. It’s inspiring to find kaupapa-driven businesses like this, and not surprising to see it thriving when it’s built as it is on the stuff that matters.. No one’s saying it’s easy, but neither did anyone ever say it was meant to be, eh… Thanks for doing what you’re doing Dion and Reremoana - hearty as, you two!
You can follow the adventures of the Coasty Kidds whānau on Instagram @coasty_kidds and Facebook @coastykidds.
Story by Sarah Cleave
Photographs supplied by Coasty Kidds