The hope of Fiji’s fledgling fashion industry rests on the slender shoulders of a 25-year-old from Muaninuku Village named Laisiasa Raibevu Davetawalu.
The young designer did what so many in the Pacific country dreamed of, but did not have the opportunity to do.
Sponsored by the entire Fijian fashion community, who recognized his promise and raised money for his fashion school fees, he completed training at the Fashion Design Studio at Tafe NSW in Australia., making him one of the few Fijian designers who had access to professional training.
The strength of his recent graduate collection, a sensual summer womenswear wardrobe with nods to Fijian design traditions, landed him in the pages of Australian Vogue and a position as a junior garment technician at Zimmermann, one of Australia’s most successful fashion houses. labels.
“I am proud of my heritage and want to represent Fiji on the world fashion stage,” he says.
In addition to his work at Zimmermann, Davetawalu has his own label Elaradi – a play on his initials, LRD.
In May, he brought an expanded version of his graduate collection from Sydney to Suva for the closing show of Fiji Fashion Week, where it was received by cheering fans, well-wishers and supporters.
“Lai showed promise from the moment he debuted his first collection as a student designer,” says Hosanna Kabakoro, an associate designer, who makes resort carries the brand name Duatani, Fijian for “something different”.
“Promise is something we see a lot here, but it rarely gets the opportunity to grow beyond that potential.”
And he grew, with sheer chiffon, intricate corset work and hand-knotted dresses that would look at home on a yacht anywhere from Ibiza to Barbados.
“He may be our first Fijian designer who really appeals to a mainstream overseas market,” says Kabakoro.
That of Davetawalu designs made subtle nods to Fijian cultural influences. One fringed, mock neck dress, shot for Australian Vogue’s annual portfolio of new fashion graduates to watch, featured intricate hand knotting that took him four months to complete. It was the antithesis of fast fashion.
For Fijians, the buttons and frills on the dress were imitated magic imagesa handwoven rope made from coconut fiber used in fishing nets, canoes and traditional architecture.
Other floaty silk-chiffon pieces seemed to nod to traditional Indian attire, commonly seen in Fiji due to the large Indo-Fijian population.
Not so long ago, Davetawalu was sketching designs and reading fashion magazines while other boys played rugby at the Queen Victoria School, a country boarding school for boys known as a bastion of indigenous masculinity that produced many iTaukei (native Fijian) leaders.
“I’m bullied a lot because I’m gay,” says Davetawalu. “They would say, ‘Why are you always designing dresses? Why not do something in a manly way?’ One morning I ran away and I never went back.”
Davetawalu took a two-hour bus from rural Lawaki to downtown Suva, where he went to find the Fiji Fashion Week office, which was advertising a student design competition.
He entered the competition but did not win. With the support of his family members, Davetawalu found a local school to attend and later presented his first full collection.
A number of fashion industry insiders, including Christine Evans, an Australian fashion designer then based in Suva, and Ellen Whippy-Knight, the indomitable founder of Fiji Fashion Week, spotted Davetawalu’s talent and took him under their wing.
Veteran Australian fashion educator Nicholas Huxley, who first encountered Davetawalu when he ran a mentoring program in Suva, calls him “the real deal”.
“He’s quite extraordinary and has an innate ability to look beyond the normal idea of putting a garment on a body,” he says.
Whippy-Knight aims to put fashion at the forefront of the cultural conversation in Fiji. She pushed for 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 government support.
She has mounted annual runway shows since 2007 as a platform for emerging designers like Davetawalu to showcase their craft and find buyers. As a result, a number of local designers – such as Samson Lee, Moira Solvalu and Michael Mausio, who all specialize in bold prints – have gone from showing at Fiji Fashion Week without formal design training to viable, albeit small, businesses. .
The country’s fashion scene has also emerged as a safe space for LGBTQI+ people to find community and express themselves without fear of retribution.
Colorful native prints are what make Fijian fashion unique. For the Fijian and Pacific Island wearer, it signifies culture, identity and belonging, but local designers have had less success adapting these prints for Fiji’s tourism market, which receives nearly a million tourists annually.
The prints hold global potential; which has already been exploited by outsiders. A decade ago, sportswear giant Nike teased a range of printed women’s leggings inspired by Fijian, Samoan and Maori tattoos; and in 2013, now-defunct New York womenswear brand Nanette Lepore came under fire for cultural appropriation after they used a Fijian masi design (and mislabeled it as ‘Aztec’). Both companies pulled these products in response to outcry from communities in the Pacific.
For Davetawalu, the path from student designer to a young professional who dreams of having his own label one day has not been easy.
There was the issue of paying for design school as an international student in Australia, which cost A$70,000. The Fijian fashion community pitched in: Whippy-Knight offered Lai a place to stay at her home in Sydney, while the Fijian Fashion Foundation hosted annual fundraisers to pay his school fees, raising about A$15,000 a year over four years.
Today he is one of the few Fijians with formal training in fashion design. This is despite a local garment manufacturing industry worth FJ$100m (US$50m) producing general clothing from sportswear to uniforms for Australia and New Zealand.
A number of Fiji-based factories also make fashion clothes for brands such as Kookai, the trend-oriented women’s brand co-owned by a Fijian-Australian; Bimbi and Roy, a women’s brand founded by two Australian sisters who were partly raised in Fiji; and Scanlan and Theodore, an established high-end womenswear brand with more than a dozen boutiques in Australia.
Despite local fashion manufacturing capabilities, there is a deep rift between the apparel industry and Fiji’s fledgling fashion design industry. The latter face a number of constraints, including a lack of access to formal education and training, incubation and mentoring, quality materials and financing, as well as greater government support of the industry.
“Our people are naturally creative,” says Whippy-Knight. “We have a strong tradition of handicrafts and making things with our hands. A proper fashion school for Fijian and Pacific designers is what we need.”