Lindah Lepou's garments have always been astonishing, but it has taken years, she says, for people to understand what she is really on about: Pacific haute couture as art, from natural fibre, with reference to her own Samoan ancestry.
While she was painstakingly creating enough work to brand her an artist, she was obliged to be a dressmaker.
''I can't stand those brides,'' she says.
She remembers one Auckland client who dismissed a finished bridal gown because it made her hips look big. Lepou told her she needed a surgeon, not a dressmaker.
Yet it was a wedding dress that confirmed Lepou as an artist and began to pave her way to bigger things, bigger cities, bigger ideas. In 1994, her design, Flax tutu, was a runner-up in the Benson & Hedges Fashion Design Awards and bought by Te Papa. After that, and other awards, she was asked to make a wedding dress for Unveiled: 200 Years of Wedding Fashion, shown at Te Papa and curated by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The dress, made of tree bark, took six weeks of intensive work.
Lepou, funded by Creative New Zealand, has just been showing work in a Pacific fashion show in London. Meetings with curators from the V&A and the British Museum ''killed 500 birds with one stone''.
''After all the drama I had in New Zealand trying to make people understand, they just got it. I left London thinking that was so effortless, feeling relieved. Someone's got me.''
Within a fortnight of her return, her current City Gallery exhibition, Aitu: Homage to Spirit, was open. It's a multi-media show involving clothes, photography, film and songs relating to three legendary Samoan folk heroines.
The London trip and the City Gallery show, says Lepou, have opened ''a giant door''.
''I don't know what's through the door but it represents a new chapter in my life.''
New doors have not always heralded happy journeys for Lepou who, as a child, struggled with change, and being fa'afafine - Samoan men who adopt feminine behaviours. She doesn't believe fa'afafine are made rather than born.
''I've always been fa'afafine. There's a lot of talk about no daughters, let's make up a son as a daughter. That kind of grates. How can anyone be changed like that?''
Lepou was born in Wellington, lived with her family in Cannons Creek and started school there. At 8 or 9 she was sent to Samoa with her mother's sister, who was the youngest of nine, to live with her grandparents ''for a better life with no distractions''. ''I didn't appreciate it, no television, no electricity or water.''
The next door opened on to a scholarship to Latter Day Saints' private Brigham Young University in Hawaii, where she lived with her great grandmother, studied business and commerce, hated it. She consulted with visions of her ancestors, as she had since she was 10, and they foretold a life in fashion and music.
The next door led her back to Samoa, briefly. At 17, she entered a fa'afafine pageant because it had a ticket to New Zealand as a prize. ''I entered and won every category. I got the ticket and left.''
Back in New Zealand, she found her classmates had largely not fared well. ''Some were dead, some were prostitutes, some had no teeth and some on drugs. I thought if I hadn't gone to Samoa I probably would have been a prostitute.''
Being fa'afafine was a barrier to jobs.
She signed up with Winz and ended up on a fashion design course run by Sue Bowerman, who became an anchor and mother figure.
Wellington got too small. She shifted to Auckland and continued her art and dressmaking. ''The stuff they wanted was boring and tortuous for me. I was creating art surrounded by a mass-production mentality, basically grinding on the fringes. People were amazed but they didn't know where to put it or how to understand it.''
Her creative work fell between ''Pacific designs which are really extreme and a mishmash of crap or a couple of tapa-cloth patches on a shirt.''
She sees her work, like French haute couture, as a marketing tool.
''I'm marketing a Pacific brand.'' That's her art, her skills with natural fibres like flax and bark, her culture and her ability to talk about them. She's moving to Sydney and she has London on her agenda.
''Fashion allowed me to make some money and be myself,'' she says.
Aitu: Homage to Spirit is at the Deane Gallery in City Gallery to December 9.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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