The hopes of Fiji’s fledgling fashion industry rest on the slender shoulders of a 25-year-old young man from Muaninuku village named Laisiasa Raibevu Davetawalu.

The young designer has achieved what so many people in the Pacific country have dreamed of but haven’t had the opportunity to do.

Sponsored by the entire Fijian fashion community, who recognized his promise and raised funds for his tuition, he trained at the Fashion Design Studio in Tafe NSW Australia., making him one of the few Fijian designers to have been able to access professional training.

The strength of his recent graduate collection, a sultry summer wardrobe for women 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 brands.

“I am proud of my heritage and want to represent Fiji on the global fashion scene,” he says.

Laisiasa Davetawalu's latest collection, for her label Elaradi, on the catwalk at Fiji <a class=Fashion Week 2022.” src=”https://i.guim.co.uk/img/media/f9ef13271f2ba965b13441d74858477ca703a904/0_136_2048_1229/master/2048.jpg?width=620&quality=85&fit=max&s=ce3a86c71dc8de278bcb3c469b043fac” height=”1229″ width=”2048″ loading=”lazy” class=”dcr-4zleql”/>
Laisiasa Davetawalu’s latest collection, for her label Elaradi, on the catwalk at Fiji Fashion Week 2022. Photography: Asvin Sing

Alongside 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 Sydney graduate collection to Suva for the Fiji Fashion Week closing show, where it was greeted by enthusiastic fans, well-wishers and supporters.

“Lai showed promise from the moment he launched his first collection as a student designer,” says Hosanna Kabakoro, a fellow designer, who makes resort wear under the brand name Duatani, Fijian for “something different”.

“Promise is something we see a lot here, but rarely has the opportunity to grow beyond that potential.”

And it grew, showing off sheer chiffon, intricate corsetry and hand-tied dresses that would look at home on a yacht anywhere from Ibiza to Barbados.

“He may be our first Fijian designer to really attract a general overseas market,” says Kabakoro.

by Davetawalu the designs made subtle nods to Fijian cultural influences. A fringed, high-neck dress, photographed for Australian Vogue’s annual New Graduate Fashion Portfolio to Watch, featured an intricate hand-knotting that took her four months to complete. It was the antithesis of fast fashion.

Davetawalu uses a hand-knotting technique that mimics Magi, a hand-woven coconut fiber rope. Photography: Asvin Sing

For the Fijians, the knots and fringes of the dress mimicked Magia hand-woven coir rope that is used in fishing nets, canoes and traditional architecture.

Other flowing chiffon pieces appeared to nod to traditional Indian dress, commonly seen across Fiji, due to the large Indo-Fijian population.

Not so long ago, Davetawalu was drawing pictures and reading fashion magazines while other boys were playing rugby at Queen Victoria School, a rural boys’ boarding school renowned as a bastion of indigenous masculinity that produced many iTaukei (indigenous Fijian) leaders.

“I was bullied a lot because I’m gay,” says Davetawalu. “They were like, ‘Why are you always designing dresses? Why not do something in a masculine way? One morning I ran away and never came back.

Davetawalu took a two-hour bus from the Lawaki countryside to downtown Suva, where he picked up the Fiji Fashion Week office, which had announced a student design competition.

He participated in the competition but did not win. With the support of those close to her, Davetawalu found a local school to go to and then presented her 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, took notice of Davetawalu’s talent. and took him under their wing.

Laisiasa (Lai) Raibevu Davetawalu, who now has a job at Zimmerman and has had her work featured in Australian Vogue.
Laisiasa (Lai) Raibevu Davetawalu, who now has a job at Zimmerman and has had her work featured in Australian Vogue. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Veteran Australian fashion educator Nicholas Huxley, who first met Davetawalu when he was running a mentorship program in Suva, calls him “the real deal”.

“He’s quite extraordinary and has an innate ability to see beyond the normal idea of ​​putting a garment on a body,” he says.

Whippy-Knight aims to bring fashion to the forefront of cultural conversation in Fiji. She lobbied for local fashion education and other initiatives to benefit the industry, such as the creation of a fashion council, an incubator for budding designers and greater support from the State.

It has held annual fashion shows since 2007 as a platform for up-and-coming 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, all of whom specialize in bold prints – have gone from showing at Fiji Fashion Week without formal design training to developing viable businesses. , although small. .

Fiji Fashion Week founder Ellen Whippy-Knight outside her home in Sydney
Ellen Whippy-Knight, the founder of Fiji Fashion Week, at her home in Sydney, Australia. She supported Davetawalu’s studies and career. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

The country’s fashion scene has also become a safe space for LGBTQI+ people to find community and express themselves without fear of reprisal.

Colorful indigenous prints are what make Fijian fashion unique. For the Fijian and Pacific Islander wearer, they signify culture, identity and belonging, but local designers have had less success adapting these prints to Fiji’s tourist market, which sees nearly a million tourists a year.

The prints have global potential; which has already been exploited by foreigners. Ten years ago, sportswear giant Nike launched 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 castigated for cultural appropriation after using a Fijian Masi design (and mislabeling it as “Aztec”). Both companies pulled these products in response to outcry from Pacific communities.

For Davetawalu, the transition from a student designer to a young professional who dreams of one day having his own brand was not easy.

Models at Fiji Fashion Week
Fiji Fashion Week has held annual shows since 2007 as a platform for budding designers to develop their craft and find buyers. Composer: Asvin Singh

There was the issue of paying for a design school as an international student in Australia, which cost AU$70,000. The Fijian fashion community pitched in: Whippy-Knight provided Lai with accommodation in her home in Sydney, while the Fijian Fashion Foundation held annual fundraisers to pay for her tuition fees, raising around A$15,000 a year. 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$100 million (US$50 million) which produces general clothing ranging from sportswear to uniforms for Australia and New Zealand.

A number of Fiji-based factories also manufacture fashion garments for brands such as Kookai, the trendy women’s brand co-owned by a Fijian-Australian; Bimbi and Roy, a women’s lingerie brand founded by two Australian sisters who grew up partly in Fiji; and Scanlan and Theodore, an established high-end womenswear brand with more than a dozen stores in Australia.

Despite local fashion manufacturing capabilities, there is a deep disconnect between the garment industry and Fiji’s nascent fashion design industry. The latter faces a number of constraints, including a lack of access to formal education and training, incubation and mentorship, quality fabrics and funding, and more strong state support for industry.

“Our employees are naturally creative,” says Whippy-Knight. “We have a strong tradition of craftsmanship and making things with our hands. A true fashion school for Fijian and Pacific designers is what we need.