A place to call home
'Embrace your culture'LAUREN HAYES
Award-winning Pacific couture designer and fafafine Lindah Lepou has moved from the big smoke to Southland.
IT was the first day of school, lunchtime.
Samoa at midday was far warmer than Wellington, and Lindah Lepou had retreated to the branch of a playground tree, hoping to escape the heat and the flies.
Having just moved from New Zealand to Samoa, Lepou knew no one, had no friends to spend the break with, and so sat in the shady tree, alone.
It was then, she remembers, she had the vision.
Lepou's ancestors appeared before her, telling her she would make history in Pacific fashion design, she just had to dedicate her life to it.
More than 20 years later, the vision appears to have translated into reality.
Lepou is internationally recognised for her work in fashion design, has exhibited alongside fashion greats Vivienne Westwood and Christian Lacroix, and coined the term Pacific couture to describe her style.
She has travelled to London, turned down an invitation to New York Fashion Week, and has designed national costumes for contestants in the Miss World and Miss Universe competitions.
However, Lepou's latest move is a little left field, even for a fa'afafine intent on breaking conventions and stereotypes.
Lepou has swapped the bright lights of Auckland for a new life in Southland.
Moving from the largest Pasifika city in the world to a place which for decades was almost homogeneously white-skinned, from a metropolis full of fashion inspiration to a region with one of the country's smallest populations might seem counterintuitive for a Pasifika designer.
In fact, the process was the exact opposite, she says.
Lepou had been tired of Auckland, of Auckland pressure and rush, for a few years, and was searching for a new place to call home.
Everywhere she went - Wellington, London, Sydney - she stuck out the feelers to determine if it was her new home, but nowhere felt right.
It wasn't until May this year that Southland entered her radar.
Lepou had never set foot in the province, but, on a cramped provincial aeroplane floating metres above the Invercargill estuary, she suddenly knew Southland was the place she was looking for.
"As the plane was landing . . . I went, holy shit, I'm moving here. I had this strong feeling."
By July, Lepou had sold the contents of her Auckland workroom and had retraced her flight south, bound for a crib in Riverton.
Lepou hasn't yet regretted her move, claiming the spontaneous decision to start life over in the south was not frightening for her.
"The idea of coming all the way down to Invercargill wasn't even a scary concept . . . I'm positive most of the time in my life. I don't have that fear."
She also likes colder climates, which helps.
It's a long way from Samoa, which she fled as a teenage fa'afafine about a quarter of a century ago.
After her playground vision, Lepou longed to return to New Zealand and begin her fashion career, but her family could not afford the adventure.
When a fa'afafine pageant, with the first prize of airfares to New Zealand, was advertised locally, Lepou knew she had to enter.
It would turn out to be an important series of events for Lepou.
In what could almost be the plot of a progressive Disney movie, Lepou won the pageant and the tickets to New Zealand, moved to Wellington, and forged her career as the first lady of Pacific couture.
However, perhaps more importantly, the experience helped her realise what being a fa'afafine really meant.
The teenager asked her aunty, who ran a boutique, to sponsor her in the pageant, because contestants could only enter with the backing of a local business.
The proposal did not elicit the response Lepou expected.
"She said, no, you'll be an embarrassment to the family. That was the first time I ever felt there was something wrong with me."
A woman Lepou met on a fa'afafine field trip agreed to sponsor her, allowing her entry to the competition, but it was a jolt for the young designer.
Then it was off to Wellington, where, after a brief stint on the benefit to find her feet, Lepou began studying fashion.
New Zealand libraries had hundreds of books on Western art and design, but the section on Pasifika was slim and, except for a few photographs of Elvis Presley inspired island print shirts, seemed to ignore the entire 20th century, she says.
"It was like a hundred years ago - that was the only reference point."
Lepou made it her mission to bridge the gap between entrenched ideas about Pasifika costume and the reality of what modern Pacific design could be.
To do this, she has worked primarily with natural fibre - flax, coconut husks, sea shells and paua - to create avant garde couture, starting well before climate change and sustainability were a part of everyday conversation.
Lepou also describes herself as a lineage artist, telling stories about her own ancestors and being inspired by stories from her Scottish, English and Samoan history.
She takes issue with the cultural appropriation indulged in by Western big business, where exotic elements are seized upon and exploited for profit.
"Big business has a history of just using people's shit to make big dollars and they don't give a f... about anybody," she says.
Lepou encourages everyone to embrace their own stories, their own histories, their own culture in their designs.
As for her own designs, they're largely on the backburner for now.
She has tentative plans to launch a summer school fashion programme in Southland, but in the meantime, she wants to meet new people, build up a network, before inviting the pressure of design work into her life again.
- © Fairfax NZ News