Mark your calendars for the most exciting showcase of indigenous fashion and design Aotearoa has ever seen
Pacific Fusion Fashion Show has been a launchpad for indigenous design since 2016.
A programme headed up by Pakuranga-based founder, entrepreneur and educator Nora Swann, it is an incubator for Pasifika fashion that over the years has seen dozens of designers from diverse backgrounds hone their skills, make life-changing connections, and present their work to industry movers-and-shakers at an annual, end-of-year fashion and design showcase whose energy out-rivals any fashion week around the globe.
This year, FashioNZ continues its long-standing partnership with Pacific Fusion Fashion Show, supporting a stellar lineup that features designers from Aotearoa and around the world, all connected by their Pacific lineage, and love for not only fashion, but moving conversations around indigenous design into the mainstream.
In a series of articles to be published in the lead-up to the event on December 1, 2023, we are honoured to introduce the first five Pacific Fusion designers to get on your radar, right now.
Chakra Anthea Laws – Kokoru
Self-described ‘couturier for the people’, Chakra Anthea Laws’ label Kokoru merges aspirational resort-wear with very wearable roots. It’s a visual collage of her life, and outlook.
“I don’t see myself as fashionista at all,” says Chakra. “99% of the time you’ll catch me in my oldest T-shirt and jeans, living on a farm, feeding calves and getting ready to go to my regular day job.”
The self-taught sewer who holds a Diploma of Fashion Design and Technology made her runway debut at NZFW: Kahuria earlier this year. From coastal-inspired embellishments to bursts of colour (think early Sass and Bide meets Aje proportions), the references to her Gold Coast roots were palpable.
“Nineties and early-00s Hip Hop, beach culture, mall hangouts and house parties will always be present in my work – and in my personal dress sense,” says Chakra. “But my fashion hikoi is ever-changing. The collection I’ll be showing at PFFS in December is all about chill streetwear and flowing linen gowns that feel good on the skin. It’s not just about the garment, but the feelings and memories they evoke when you wear them.”
In Chakra’s case, it’s a house bursting with exotic plants, incense, and Māori and Pasifika reggae beats, curated by her “glamorous, 1970’s bohemian” mother.
One absolute constant in Chakra’s designs is their wearability. “And when I show this collection, I’ll be bringing the heat with a range of models of different sizes and backgrounds. From size 10 to size 18, you’ll see everyday people walking that runway – including two of my childhood friends!”
Challenging the narrative that Māori and Pasifika designers are only capable of making Pasifika clothing is another huge motivator for Chakra.
“We are so much more than that,” she asserts. “We are artists. We are creatives that can thrive in any part of the fashion world, and be taken seriously. Being Māori or Pasifika doesn’t define us or our work, it naturally lives through us. I’m tangata whenua, but I’m also a woman, a business owner and artist.”
Cherish Prasad – Cherish
If Cherish Prasad’s designs could sing, they’d be a booming lali (Fijian drums) beat. Or, depending on the time of day, a Fijian Hip-Hop song.
Effervescent and bold, their creations don’t just pay homage to the designer’s homeland, but envelop the wearer in the very essence of the “Fijian bula smile.”
“Fiji is a multicultural country. I, as an Indo-Fijian, am greatly influenced by its culture and traditions”, shares Cherish, who will be jetting from the island nation to Auckland – creations in tow – ahead of Pacific Fashion Fusion Show 2023.
It’s not just a rich tapestry of cultures that Cherish weaves into his clothes – which include both formal and ready-to-wear designs for men and women – but the perspectives and wisdom of Fiji’s existing fashion industry. “I draw most of my fashion influences from the talented established designers we have here in Fiji who have helped mentor me through my fashion journey,” he says.
Nowhere is this influence more evident than in the incredible, custom-patterned fabrics that are a hallmark of Cherish’s designs, and an example of how he has thoughtfully modernised traditional Fijian design and techniques.
“Fiji is known for its tapa prints and motifs,” he shares. “I’ve created my own motifs and printed them on fabrics instead of tapa – it’s a play on tapa fabric printing.”
It’s this ongoing conversation between traditional and modern design that Cherish sees as a unique opportunity for Pasifika designers. “Our culture, traditions, geographic location and the beauty that’s just sitting here in our own backyards… it’s such an endless source of creative and technical inspiration. I truly believe this part of the world has so much to offer to the fashion industry.”
Kirin Swann – KEA
In Kirin Swann’s world, sustainable fashion doesn’t have to mean garments that look like they’ve been plucked from an op-shop bargain box.
Rather, her brand KEA (pronounced ‘key’) promotes eco-conscious fashion as a powerful tool for self-expression and individualism, thanks to its strong mix-and-match potential. If her designs had their own theme song, it’d be Missy Elliot’s ‘Get Your Freak On.’
Individuality underpins more than Kirin’s design aesthetic – it has informed her entire creative ethos. “You don’t need to be excellent at sewing to become a fashion designer. I believe having a very authentic sense of style plays a bigger role in creating eye-catching garments that will attract people to your brand.”
Kirin believes this individual sense of style is also the key to breaking out of the very narrow definition of Polynesian design that she feels the wider industry imposes on creatives from this part of the world.
“Pacific fashion is generally expected to feature pacific patterns and floral prints. As much as I love them, I don’t think it’s necessary to include them in everything I create. As long as I know the garments were created by a Pacific person, that’s all the Pacific representation I need.”
The challenge, then, becomes engaging with broader fashion trends, without losing the unique point of view that comes from being a Pacific designer.
“It’s easy to be influenced by what’s trending, and the risk of that is being steered in too many different directions.”
When in doubt, Kirin has the ultimate compass in PFFS founder (and her beloved mum!) Nora Swann. “She’s a person who isn’t afraid to stand out from the crowd, push boundaries and make noise. Her passion for change in the Pasifika fashion industry inspires me to support her vision, but also create my own.”
Guma’ Gela’ – Guma’ Gela’
“We are part land, part sea, all ancestry.”
This powerful statement issued by Queer art collective Guma’ Gela’ sums up the omnipotent energy we can expect from this group of Chamorro designers – the first from Micronesia’s Mariana Islands ever to participate at Pacific Fusion Fashion Show.
But before we continue, a moment for the group’s origin story: a Pacific drag competition in the United States. “It was the first time we were able to experiment with what it meant to dress as queer Chamorro people. Living across [Mariana Islands] Laguas and Gani among a highly Catholic population and within a military territory, we aren’t afforded many moments to be ourselves. Fashion was our place to explore that.”
A mix of ancestral memory and Pacific futurism shapes the Guma’ Gela’ look.
“We love using natural materials and textiles that remind us of home, while at the same time blending culture with couture – finding the dudus (flirtiness) in the diaspora when we can. Through the blending of materials, techniques and stories, our fashions express the spirit of the Marianas.”
It’s fashion to be felt.
“We are looking to dress and adorn the body in traditional and sacred ways. You feel the kåhna (spirit) not only when you look at these pieces, but when you embody them.”
A full-circle experience, Guma’ Gela’ makes a ritual of getting dressed – inviting the wearer to begin with a moment of introspection, and then allow the garments to bring them home.
“Whenever you want to deepen your connection to the land and sea, whenever you want to feel the embrace of home…that’s the transformative power of Guma’ Gela’.”
Tia Semi – FunkNSoul97
“Each of my designs serves as a tribute to the strong women in my family,” shares Tia Semi, the Samoan-Australian creator behind FunkNSoul97, who lives with cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and is legally deaf. “They have shaped me into the person I am today.”
Metamorphosis is at the heart of FunkNSoul97. A stint modelling for an eco-fashion brand got Tia thinking about clothes that fellow models would wear. With a side-hustle making island-inspired cushions for kids, she began printing her designs onto fabric, and now creates inclusive-sized fashion for women, men and children.
On the PFFS runway in December, Tia says we can expect a vibrant array of colours and patterns, including a blend of raw silk and personally hand-painted prints.
“Every piece of FunkNSoul97 clothing is locally and ethically made by hand, so no two pieces are alike. Products range from everyday wear made from cotton, to high-end luxe silk designs in a variety of eye-catching colours and styles.”
If you’re wondering where to wear your FunkNSoul97 wardrobe, Tia’s answer is, “where all good things go down”.
“Birthdays, weddings, family reunions…I love music,” she confirms. “Because of my disability I don’t always know the words of songs – but music is a big part of my life. Just music itself is what I need.”
She adds that if her mother was to pick a soundtrack for her collection, “I’m sure it would be about strength and climbing mountains, because I’m always pushing my own boundaries.”
Showing at New York Fashion Week in 2022, Tia was invited to fashion weeks at LA, Miami and Paris. World domination is evidently her goal.
“I want to walk on runways in Sydney, Fiji and Hawaii. I want to make connections with people, and teach people to see my ability, to accept me for who I am, and to accept differences in others.”