From Suva runways to the pages of Vogue: the rising star of Fiji’s fledgling trend scene

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The hopes of Fiji’s fledgling trend trade sit on the slim shoulders of a 25-year-old from Muaninuku Village named Laisiasa Raibevu Davetawalu.

The younger designer has finished what so many within the Pacific nation have dreamed of however not had the chance to do.

Sponsored by the whole Fiji trend group, which recognised his promise and raised cash for his trend faculty charges, he has accomplished coaching on the Vogue Design Studio at Tafe NSW in Australia, making him one of many few Fijian designers to have been in a position to entry skilled coaching.

The energy of his latest graduate assortment, a sensuous summer time womenswear wardrobe with nods to Fijian design traditions, landed him within the pages of Australian Vogue and a job as a junior garment technician at Zimmermann, certainly one of Australia’s most profitable trend labels.

“I’m happy with my heritage and need to signify Fiji on the world trend stage,” he says.

Laisiasa Davetawalu’s newest assortment, for his label Elaradi, on the runway at Fiji Vogue Week 2022. {Photograph}: Asvin Sing

Alongside his job at Zimmermann, Davetawalu has his personal label Elaradi – a play on his initials, LRD.

In Could, he introduced an expanded model of his graduate assortment from Sydney to Suva for the closing present of Fiji Vogue week, the place it was acquired by cheering followers, well-wishers and supporters.

“Lai confirmed promise from the second he debuted his first assortment as a scholar designer,” says Hosanna Kabakoro, a fellow designer, who makes resort put on below the model identify Duatani, Fijian for “one thing totally different”.

“Promise is one thing we see lots of right here, however that not often will get the chance to develop past that potential.”

And develop he did, displaying diaphanous chiffon, advanced corsetry and hand-knotted attire that will have a look at dwelling on a yacht wherever from Ibiza to Barbados.

“He could also be our first Fijian designer to really attraction to a common abroad market,” says Kabakoro.

Davetawalu’s designs made refined nods to Fijian cultural influences. One fringed, mock-neck costume, shot for Australian Vogue’s annual portfolio of latest trend graduates to look at, featured intricate hand-knotting that took him 4 months to finish. It was the antithesis of quick trend.

Models walking on stage
Davetawalu makes use of a hand-knotting method that mimics magimagi, a hand-woven rope created from coconut fibre. {Photograph}: Asvin Sing

To Fijians, the knots and fringing on the costume mimicked magimagi, a hand-woven rope created from coconut fibre that’s utilized in fish nets, canoes and conventional structure.

Different, floating silk chiffon items appeared to nod to conventional Indian costume, generally seen throughout Fiji, because of the giant Indo-Fijian inhabitants.

Not that way back Davetawalu was sketching designs and studying trend magazines whereas different boys performed rugby at Queen Victoria faculty, a rural all-boys boarding faculty famend as a bastion of indigenous masculinity that has produced many iTaukei (indigenous Fijian) leaders.

“I used to be bullied rather a lot as a result of I’m homosexual,” says Davetawalu. “They’d say: ‘Why are you at all times designing attire? Why not do one thing in a masculine approach?’ One morning I ran away and I by no means went again.”

Davetawalu took a two-hour bus from rural Lawaki to downtown Suva, the place he went in search of the Fiji Vogue Week workplace, which had marketed a scholar design contest.

He entered the competition however didn’t win. With the assist of his family, Davetawalu discovered an area faculty to go to and later offered his full first assortment.

Quite a few trend trade insiders together with Christine Evans, an Australian designer then primarily based in Suva, and Ellen Whippy-Knight, the indomitable founding father of Fiji Vogue Week, observed Davetawalu’s expertise and took him below their wing.

Laisiasa (Lai) Raibevu Davetawalu, who now has a job with Zimmerman and has had his work appear in Australian Vogue.
Laisiasa (Lai) Raibevu Davetawalu, who now has a job with Zimmerman and has had his work seem in Australian Vogue. {Photograph}: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Veteran Australian trend educator Nicholas Huxley, who first encountered Davetawalu when he ran a mentoring program in Suva, calls him “the true deal”.

“He’s slightly extraordinary and has an innate capacity to look past the conventional thought of placing a garment on a physique,” he says.

Whippy-Knight goals to place trend on the forefront of the cultural dialog in Fiji. She has pushed for native trend schooling and different initiatives to learn the trade, such because the institution of a trend council, an incubator for budding designers and larger state assist.

She has mounted annual runway exhibits since 2007 as a platform for rising designers like Davetawalu to showcase their craft, and discover patrons. Consequently, quite a lot of native designers – comparable to Samson Lee, Moira Solvalu and Michael Mausio, all of whom concentrate on daring prints – have gone from displaying at Fiji Vogue Week with no formal design coaching to creating viable, albeit small, companies.

Ellen Whippy-Knight, Fiji Fashion Week’s founder, outside her home in Sydney
Ellen Whippy-Knight, the founding father of Fiji Vogue Week, at dwelling in Sydney, Australia. She has supported Davetawalu’s research and profession. {Photograph}: Carly Earl/The Guardian

The nation’s trend scene has additionally emerged as a secure house for LGBTQI+ individuals to search out group and specific themselves with out worry of retribution.

Vibrant indigenous prints are what makes Fijian trend distinctive. To the Fijian and Pacific Island wearer, they signify tradition, id and belonging, however native designers have had much less success adapting these prints for Fiji’s tourism market, which receives near 1,000,000 vacationers yearly.

The prints maintain world potential; that has already been exploited by outsiders. A decade in the past, sportswear large Nike teased a line of printed ladies’s leggings impressed by Fijian, Samoan and Maori tattoo designs; and in 2013 now-defunct New York ladies’s put on model Nanette Lepore got here below fireplace for cultural appropriation after utilizing a Fijian masi design (and mislabelling it as ‘Aztec’). Each corporations pulled these merchandise in response to outcry from Pacific communities.

For Davetawalu, the trail from scholar designer to a fledgling skilled who goals of sooner or later having his personal label has not been straightforward.

Models at Fiji Fashion Week
Fiji Vogue Week has mounted annual runway exhibits since 2007 as a platform for budding designers to develop their craft and discover patrons. Composite: Asvin Singh

There was the matter of paying for design faculty as a global scholar in Australia, which value A$70,000. The Fijian trend group pitched in: Whippy-Knight offered Lai a spot to remain at her dwelling in Sydney whereas the Fijian Vogue Basis hosted annual fundraisers to pay his faculty charges, elevating roughly A$15,000 a 12 months over 4 years.

Right this moment, he’s certainly one of few Fijians with formal trend design coaching . That is regardless of an area garment manufacturing trade price FJ$100m (US$50m) which produces common attire from sportswear to uniforms for Australia and New Zealand.

Quite a few Fiji-based factories additionally make trend clothes for manufacturers comparable to Kookai, the trend-oriented ladies’s model co-owned by a Fijian-Australian; Bimbi and Roy, a ladies’s intimates model based by two Australian sisters who grew up partly in Fiji; and Scanlan and Theodore, a longtime excessive finish womenswear model with over a dozen boutiques in Australia.

Regardless of native trend manufacturing capabilities, there’s a profound disconnect between the attire trade and Fiji’s fledgling trend design trade. The latter faces quite a lot of constraints, together with a scarcity of entry to formal schooling and coaching, incubation and mentorship, high quality materials and financing, in addition to larger state assist of the trade.

“Our persons are naturally inventive,” says Whippy-Knight. “We’ve got a robust custom of craft and making issues with our palms. A correct trend faculty for Fijian and Pacific designers is what we want.”


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