The hopes of Fiji’s budding fashion industry rest on the slender shoulders of 25-year-old Laisiasa Rybevu Dwetavalu from the village of Muaninuku.
The young designer has done what many people in the Pacific country have dreamed of but did not get the opportunity to do.
Sponsored by the entire Fiji fashion community, which recognized her promise and raised money for her fashion school fees, she completed her training at the Fashion Design Studio at TAFE NSW in Australia., making him one of the few Fijian designers who have been able to receive professional training.
The strength of her recent graduate collection, a sensuous summer womenswear wardrobe for Fijian design traditions, earned her a job in the pages of Australian Vogue and as a junior apparel technician at Zimmerman, one of Australia’s most successful fashion labels.
“I am proud of my heritage and want to represent Fiji on the world fashion stage,” he says.
As well as his job at Zimmerman, Davetavalu has his own label Allarady – a play on his initials, LRD.
In May, he brought an expanded version of his graduation collection from Sydney to Suva for the closing show of Fiji Fashion Week, where fans, well-wishers and supporters received it.
“Lai has shown promise from the time he debuted his first collection as a student designer,” says Hosanna Kabakoro, a fellow designer who creates the resort Wear under the brand name Duatani, Fijian for “something different.”
“Promise is something we see a lot here, but the opportunity to grow beyond that potential rarely comes.”
And growing up, she showed off diaphanous chiffon, intricate corsetry and hand-woven fabrics that would look at home on a yacht anywhere from Ibiza to Barbados.
“He may be our first Fiji designer to really appeal to a general overseas market,” says Kabakoro.
of Davetavalu The designs finely tuned for Fijian cultural influences. A ruffled, fake-neck dress, shot for viewing the annual portfolio of Australian Vogue’s new fashion graduates, featuring intricate hand-knots that took them four months to complete. It was the antithesis of fast fashion.
For Fiji, the knots and fringe on the dress were copied crazyA hand-woven rope made of coconut fiber that is used in fish nets, canoes, and traditional architecture.
Other, floating silk chiffon pieces seemed appropriate for traditional Indian dress, due to the large Indo-Fijian population commonly seen in Fiji.
Not that long ago Dvetavalu was outlining designs and reading fashion magazines while other boys played rugby At Queen Victoria School, a rural all-boys boarding school renowned as a bastion of indigenous masculinity, which has produced many iTaukei (Indigenous Fiji) leaders.
Davetavalu says, “I was bullied a lot because I am gay. “They’ll say: ‘Why are you always designing clothes? Why not do something manly?’ One morning I ran away and I never went back.”
Davetavalu took a two-hour bus from rural Lavaki to the city of Suva, where he went to look for the Fiji Fashion Week office, which advertised a student design competition.
He entered the competition but did not win. With the support of his relatives, Davetavalu found a local school to go to and later presented his first complete collection.
Several fashion industry insiders, Christine Evans, an Australian fashion designer based in Suva at the time, and Ellen Whippy-Knight, the indomitable founder of Fiji Fashion Week, noticed Davetavalu’s talent and took him under his wing. .
Veteran Australian fashion teacher Nicholas Huxley, who first encountered Dwetavalu while running a consulting program in Suva, calls him the “real deal”.
“She is rather extraordinary and has an innate ability to see beyond the ordinary idea of putting a garment on the body,” he says.
Whippy-Night aims to keep fashion at the forefront of the cultural conversation in Fiji. He has emphasized local fashion education and other initiatives to benefit the industry, such as the establishment of a fashion council, an incubator for budding designers, and greater state support.
They have held annual runway shows since 2007 as a platform for budding designers such as Davatavalu to showcase their craft and find buyers. As a result, many local designers – such as Samson Lee, Moira Solvalu and Michael Moussio, all of whom specialize in bold prints – have gone from showing at Fiji Fashion Week with little to no formal design training, even if small, businesses.
The country’s fashion landscape has emerged as a safe place for LGBTQI+ people to find community and express themselves without fear of reprisal.
Colorful indigenous prints make Fiji fashion unique. For the Fiji and Pacific Islander wearer, they reflect culture, identity and belonging, but local designers have had little success adapting these prints for Fiji’s tourism market, which receives around one million tourists annually.
Print has global potential; Which has been exploited by outsiders. A decade ago, sportswear giant Nike teased a line of printed women’s leggings inspired by Fijian, Samoan, and Maori tattoo designs; And in 2013 the now-defunct New York women’s clothing brand Nanette Lepore came under fire for cultural appropriation after using a Fijian masi design (and mislabeling it as ‘Aztec’). Both companies pulled these products in response to outrage from Pacific communities.
For Davetavalu, the path from student designer to a budding professional who dreams of one day having his own label has not been easy.
There was a case to pay for design school in Australia as an international student, which cost A$70,000. The Fijian fashion community joined in: Whippy-Knight provided Lai with a place to live at her home in Sydney, while the Fijian Fashion Foundation hosted an annual fundraiser to pay for her school fees, over four years. About $15,000 per year.
Today, she is one of the few Fijians with formal fashion design training. This is despite a local apparel manufacturing industry of FJ$100m (US$50m) that produces general apparel from sportswear to uniforms for Australia and New Zealand.
Several Fiji-based factories make fashion apparel for brands such as Kukai, a Fijian-Australian co-owned trend-oriented womens brand; Bimby & Roy, a women’s intimate brand founded by two Australian sisters who grew up partly in Fiji; and Scanlan & Theodore, an established high-end womenswear brand with over a dozen boutiques in Australia.
Despite local fashion manufacturing capabilities, there is a close relationship between the apparel industry and Fiji’s budding fashion design industry. The latter faces many obstacles, including lack of access to formal education and training, incubation and mentorship, quality clothing and financing, as well as greater state support of the industry.
“Our people are naturally creative,” Whippy-Knight says. “We have a strong tradition of crafts and making things with our own hands. We need a proper fashion school for Fijian and Pacific designers. ,