The hopes of Fiji’s burgeoning fashion industry rest on the slender shoulders of a 25-year-old from the village of Muaninuku, named Laisiasa Raibevu Davetawalu.
The young designer has done what so many in the Pacific country have dreamed of but never had the opportunity to do.
Sponsored by the entire Fijian fashion community who recognized his promise and raised money for his fashion school fees, he trained at the Fashion Design Studio in Tafe NSW in Australia, This made him one of the few Fijian designers who had access to professional training.
The strength of his recent graduation collection, a sensual summer women’s wardrobe with nods to Fijian design traditions, landed him in the pages of Australian Vogue and a job as a junior garment technician at Zimmermann, one of Australia’s most successful fashion labels.
“I’m proud of my heritage and want to represent Fiji on the world fashion stage,” he says.
Besides his job at Zimmermann, Davetawalu has his own label Elaradi – a nod to his initials LRD.
In May, he brought an expanded version of his graduation collection from Sydney to Suva for the Fiji Fashion Week closing show, where it was greeted 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, a fellow designer who makes Resorts carry under the brand name Duatani, Fijian for “something else”.
“Promise is something we see a lot of here, but that rarely gets an opportunity to grow beyond that potential.”
And he grew, displaying sheer chiffon, intricate corsetry and hand-knotted gowns that would be at home on a yacht anywhere from Ibiza to Barbados.
“He could be our first Fijian designer that really appeals to a general overseas market,” says Kabakoro.
Davetawalus Designs made subtle nods to Fijian cultural influences. A fringed, mock-neck dress photographed for Australian Vogue’s annual portfolio of new fashion graduates featured an intricate hand-knot that took him four months to complete. It was the opposite of fast fashion.
For the Fijians, the knots and fringe of the dress imitated magimagia hand-woven rope made from coco fibers used in fishing nets, canoes, and traditional architecture.
Other floating pieces of silk chiffon appeared to be inspired by traditional Indian attire often seen in Fiji due to the large Indo-Fijian population.
Not long ago, Davetawalu drew designs and read fashion magazines while other boys played rugby at Queen Victoria School, a rural boys-only boarding school known as a bastion of indigenous masculinity and which has produced many iTaukei (indigenous Fijian) leaders.
“I was often bullied because I’m gay,” says Davetawalu. “They would say, ‘Why do you always design dresses? Why not do something in a manly way?’ I ran away one morning and never came back.”
Davetawalu took a two-hour bus from rural Lawaki to downtown Suva, where he was looking for the Fiji Fashion Week office, which was running a design competition for students.
He entered the competition but did not win. With the support of his relatives, Davetawalu found a local school to attend and later presented his full first collection.
A number of fashion industry insiders, including Christine Evans, an Australian fashion designer then living in Suva, and Ellen Whippy-Knight, the indomitable founder of Fiji Fashion Week, noticed Davetawalu’s talent and took him under their wing.
Veteran Australian fashion educator Nicholas Huxley, who first met Davetawalu while running a mentoring program in Suva, calls him “the real deal”.
“He’s quite extraordinary and has an innate ability to see beyond the normal notion of putting a garment on a body,” he says.
Whippy-Knight aims to put fashion at the forefront of Fiji’s cultural conversation. She has advocated for local fashion education and other initiatives to benefit the industry, such as the establishment of a moderator, an incubator for budding designers and greater government support.
Since 2007, she has hosted annual runway shows as a platform for emerging designers like Davetawalu to showcase their craft and find buyers. As a result, some local designers — like Samson Lee, Moira Solvalu and Michael Mausio, all of whom specialize in eye-catching prints — have moved from showing up at Fiji Fashion Week with no formal design training to developing viable, albeit small, businesses.
The country’s fashion scene has also emerged as a safe place for LGBTQI+ people to find community and express themselves without fear of retribution.
Colorful indigenous prints make Fijian fashion unique. For the wearer of Fiji and the Pacific Islands, they signify 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 have global potential; which has already been exploited by outsiders. A decade ago, sportswear giant Nike introduced a line of printed leggings for women inspired by Fijian, Samoan and Maori tattoo designs; and in 2013, the now-defunct New York womenswear brand Nanette Lepore came under fire for cultural appropriation after using a Fijian Masi design (and mislabeling it as “Aztec”). Both companies have withdrawn these products in response to outcry from Pacific communities.
For Davetawalu, the path from design student to young professional who dreams of one day having his own label has not been easy.
There was the issue of paying for design school as an international student in Australia, which cost AUD$70,000. The Fijian fashion community got involved: Whippy-Knight provided Lai with accommodation at their Sydney home, while the Fijian Fashion Foundation ran annual fundraisers to pay his school fees, raising around A$15,000 a year for four years.
Today he is one of the few Fijians with a formal education in fashion design. This is despite a FJ100 million (US$50 million) local apparel industry producing general apparel from sportswear to uniforms for Australia and New Zealand.
A number of Fijian-based factories also produce fashion garments for brands such as Kookai, the trend-setting women’s brand owned by a Fijian-Australian; Bimbi and Roy, a lingerie brand founded by two Australian sisters who grew up partly in Fiji; and Scanlan and Theodore, an established high-end womenswear brand with over a dozen boutiques in Australia.
Despite the local fashion manufacturing capabilities, there is a deep disconnect between the apparel industry and Fiji’s burgeoning fashion design industry. The latter face a range of limitations, including lack of access to formal education and training, incubators and mentorship, quality fabrics and funding, and greater government support for the industry.
“Our employees are naturally creative,” says Whippy-Knight. “We have a strong tradition of craftsmanship and making things with our hands. A proper fashion school for Fijian and Pacific designers is what we need.”