How Otara became the new fashion capital

by Katie May Ruscoe / 23 November, 2017

Sonya Ngau, left, and Te Rina Kowhai wear designs by Sewtec Fashion Academy students, at the Pacific Fusion Fashion show.

Fashion capital

Red-hot style burns up the runway at Ōtara’s biggest night of fashion. We talk to some of the designers making their marks.

“We’ve got New York, London, Paris, Milan,” booms a smart-slacked and ebullient Auckland mayor Phil Goff. “And now, we welcome the new fashion capital of  Ōtara!”  

The mayor is addressing guests at the second annual Pacific Fusion Fashion Show. Whoops and giggles ring out from the 300-strong crowd – all of them dressed up and amped up to watch a showcase of emerging Pasifika and Māori designers.

Following last year’s sell-out show in East Tāmaki, tonight it’s  Ōtara’s landmark Fair Mall that’s been transformed into the fashion hub of the south. There’s a raised 15-metre catwalk laid out through the block-paved promenade, and the lowered roller doors of the local shops provide the backdrop to seating laden with goodie bags and faux furs (the evening’s dresscode is “fur, suede and leather”).

For organiser Nora Swann, a prolific local stylist and entrepreneur, there’s an extra sense of pride in bringing the event “home” to the beloved suburb she grew up in – one she says “gets such a bad rap in the media, but has so much good, and so much talent”.

“I started this event to showcase our local creative talent in general – not just the designers but the event organisers, food suppliers and entertainment,” she says.
“I think in Māori and Pacific culture we’re so used to getting a nine-to-five job and that’s your life, but I’m seeing a lot of people in the community who are now viewing creative avenues and entrepreneurship as a valid career option. Pacific Fusion is about affirming that.”

Backstage, models are lining up while assembled crew gather around a TV screen to watch the livestream of what’s happening outside. The mood is buzzing, fun, and a wee bit nervous – for some of the designers it’s their first time showing on a catwalk, and for 40 of the 46 models, this is their first time walking professionally.

Back behind the screen, one of these aspiring models, Marion Mulipola, is finishing a slice of pizza while her mum, Taylor Malu, quietly flutters around her in “proud mum” mode, smoothing a crinkle here and a stray hair there. Across the room, another first-timer, Sabreenah Brown, stands in a corner pouting for selfies, hand on hip. A hairdresser by day, tonight a ruby-lipped and blonde-curled Brown is “ticking a dream off the bucket list – it’s been something I’ve always wanted to do, and I actually had something bad happen in my life a couple of weeks ago, so tonight is just what I needed.”

As we finish up our chat, Brown is called into position and given a last-minute once-over by designer Dianne Tuitama (who describes Brown as her “secret weapon”). With a smooth of the skirt and kiss to the air she walks onto the runway, and backstage we watch as she struts out to the opening strains of Beyonce’s ‘Run the World’ like an absolute boss – the crowd’s whoops flaring up again.

Models wearing Yung

Designed by Young Lualua

“My label is designed for all shapes and sizes, female and male. I have clients from size six all the way up to 28. Same for the men – I get male clients from sizes S up to a 7XL. I choose to cater to all sizes because I’m not a small guy, and I want people to know that fashion is for all sizes. In our culture, men are often only seen as doing manual labour work. To be a young male fashion designer tends to bring a light of difference in how your people see you. I just believe that our people need to continue to be themselves and continue to create a career pathway for our future.”

Model Alaimaluloa Toetu’u wears Layplan.

Designed by Talia Betham and Lavinia Mafi

TALIA BETHAM: “We find inspo in almost anything that catches our eye; it’s literally been the pattern of someone’s socks on the bus, to the tiles on a public bathroom floor, to Solange’s ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ video clip. It can be hard to translate these ideas into clothing when you’re limited by fabric choices. If we can’t find exactly what we want, we often go to as many fabric shops as we can and have the time of our lives pairing weird things with weird things – it’s the best.”

LAVINIA MAFI: “We’ve been in two ‘Pacific’ runways now, and during both we’ve been a little hesitant showing our work, because our collections probably seem far from the ‘typical’ [Pacific] Island aesthetic. So without realising, we found that we put that expectation on ourselves. There’s so much freedom in knowing that creative expression is one of those things that’s completely up to the individual.”

MaugaLui’s fashion features hand-printed designs.

Designed by Muriel Lui and Precious Chang

MURIEL LUI: “Our label was started with the professional woman in mind, which was influenced by our day jobs [as lawyers]. We wanted to showcase a collection that bridged the line between classy and edgy, but at the same time reflected a little of our culture and traditional designs. Obviously, the main challenge for us in juggling two businesses is time. We only work on MaugaLui after hours, so that means long hours. Also trying to juggle the orders that come in is a challenge, especially as it’s still basically just the two of us doing all the hand-printing. But it’s enjoyable work so we’re not complaining!”

Models wearing By Karen Abdul.

By Karen Abdul
Designed by Karen Abdul

“This dress [above] is called Yellow Rose – it’s inspired by my mother’s garden. I used to have a huge rose bush in front of my bedroom window and every morning I would open my window and the scent would waft in. I was born in New Zealand but left at a very young age, so I never got to experience the true nature of being Pacific in my own land, if you know what I mean? Fashion has helped me find my way back to my Pacific roots; I’ve met and made some of the most beautiful friends that I can now call my family.” 

Model Sabreenah Brown wears VAB Designz.

Vab Designz
Designed by Dianne Tuitama

“My work was inspired by the women I grew up with... Pasifika women tend to be a bit more voluptuous than the norm, and I felt that there was a real niche in the industry in empowering them. I definitely think there’s not enough representation for these women in our mainstream industry, and for Pacific designers in general. There needs to be some more support around that, especially for the next generation coming through. There’s some real talent there. You’ll be able to tell which models are mine because they’re the only ones with the big hair – we like to do things a bit differently.”

Designer Afa Ah Loo.

Afa Ah Loo
Designed by Afa Ah Loo

“What’s unique and amazing about [Pacific Fusion] is that it’s taking the show to the people. It was important for me to take part in an event that would not only strengthen myself but most importantly strengthen our community and our people. For this collection, I wanted to challenge the idea that women need to wear a tight-fitting dress to be beautiful and look elegant. I wanted to put women in pants and shorts and tell the world, and most importantly tell women, that you can look beautiful in anything! That pairing pants or shorts with some bomb heels will have you slaying whatever event you’re attending, haha!”

Designer Amelia Unufe, left, with her model Tahirih Latu.

Designed by Amelia Unufe

“I grew up really shy – didn’t speak often, was very awkward. I found that when I started designing clothes, the garments that I created spoke for me. When I was 16, it was clear that I wanted to become a designer. I could see myself making a name for myself, supporting my family financially. I see more of our young Pasifika people getting into fashion design. When I studied at AUT there were about three Māori and Pacific students in my class, now leaving university I see so many Pasifika people coming in and out of uni with the passion of becoming a designer. It’s very inspiring.”

David Taumoepeau models Numia.

Designed by David Taumoepeau

“I’d describe my style as ‘luxury streetwear’. I’m self-taught – I started out doing alterations on my own clothes, then started making stuff for friends and it just grew from there. That’s why I wanted to do this show… to take the next step in establishing [Numia] as a label. I actually work as a lawyer by day, so designing happens late at night or early in the morning. There’s lots of running across town to pick up patterns or fabric – I often have to ring the fabric store to ask them to stay open a bit later so I can still make it in after work.”

A Sheenz coat with lettering inspired by Lana Lopesi’s art and writing.

Designed by Sheena Taivairanga

“The messages on the back of my coats and jackets are part of a quote written by Pacific writer and artist Lana Lopesi – her artwork influenced a huge part of my research into this collection, which was inspired by my mother’s journey to New Zealand during the late 1960s. I’m studying a degree in fine arts, majoring in fashion. Studying has challenged my thought process time and time again, but it’s exciting; I love the challenge. An important part of my learning had been in making ethical and sustainable choices. For my graduate collection, I’ve incorporated a more sustainable practice, because it’s something I believe as Pacific Islanders we lived by before colonisation.”

Megan Alatini models an outfit from Momo Girl.

Momo Girl
Designed by Johana Te Momo

“The whole kaupapa behind this collection is to give people inspiration to follow their heart even if they struggle. My business partner and I both studied textile and fashion design 20 years ago and really found it hard to break into the industry. There just wasn’t the support then… so it’s really close to my heart that young designers get a chance now. We’ve combined some Victorian elements with a bit of Māori and Pacific flair. We’ve included a lot of what we call ‘modern korowai’ – it’s what you wear if you’re the respected one; the main gal, the one doing the karanga on the marae. Momo means genre, or kind, so our whole message with our designs is ‘wear it your way, girl’.”

PōMahina designer Kanoelani Davis.

PōMahina Designs
Designed by Kanoelani Davis

“PōMahina Designs means the glow of the moon; it’s geared for all those who sit under her presence. Having been able to come here from a small island like Molokai and represent Hawaii and Hawaiians through art and fashion is huge. As a single mother, a Hawaiian female, and a child of Molokai, I hope tonight shows others that we can do anything – that we can travel across the ocean and share our stories with the world.”


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