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Fashion designers Susana Tasi, Massey Williams and Phillip Heketoa (Photos: Supplied; additional design: Archi Banal)
Fashion designers Susana Tasi, Massey Williams and Phillip Heketoa (Photos: Supplied; additional design: Archi Banal)

SocietyMay 27, 2022

These Pasifika designers are runway-ready

Fashion designers Susana Tasi, Massey Williams and Phillip Heketoa (Photos: Supplied; additional design: Archi Banal)
Fashion designers Susana Tasi, Massey Williams and Phillip Heketoa (Photos: Supplied; additional design: Archi Banal)

After a string of postponements, nine designers will finally take a bow at the Pacific Fusion Fashion Show this weekend. Reweti Kohere chats to three of them about what it’s taken to get here.

Phillip Heketoa twice exhales, trying to fit words around the kinds of emotions he will feel once he takes a bow on the 2022 Pacific Fusion Fashion Show (PFFS) runway this Saturday evening. Alongside eight other emerging and established fashion designers, the 51-year-old will present his debut collection three months later than was planned – the second postponement after Covid scuppered the organiser’s original date of December 4, 2021. After two false starts, he’s finally realising a dream. “It’s just really surreal,” he says. “I didn’t really know how to introduce myself in a debut. I don’t know how to do that.”

Since it started in South Auckland in 2016, designers have shown in a car dealership in East Tāmaki, at Ōtara shopping centre, an open field near Māngere Bridge and the Vodafone Events Centre in Manukau. The last showcase was streamed live from Wellington in late 2020, in the first year of Covid-19. This year, a portion of St George St in Papatoetoe will be closed down, a runway of models on a literal road. PFFS founder Nora Swann laughs when she hears how cool that sounds. “Cool and crazy and havoc, but yes, cool,” she says. People were relieved to hear an in-person event would still happen. “It is great to finally be able to give everyone something to look forward to, especially us in Auckland, who have been through a lot.”

Pacific Fusion Fashion Show founder Nora Swann (Photo: Supplied)

When fashion-loving attendees watch Heketoa’s 14-look collection this weekend, they will see clothes that aim to stand out. “I have always been that way. When I was younger, I used to make it a fierce point to be completely opposite because I was a lot more rebellious,” he says. “As you get older, you become more comfortable in yourself and you realise ‘it’s just clothes. If you have a problem, don’t look’.”

Heketoa is still getting used to calling himself a designer, having left a comfortable 18-year career teaching special effects makeup and hair artistry in 2020 to upskill himself in sewing and pattern-making. But the Niuean designer, who works nights at The Warehouse in Manukau to support his studies, is looking forward to Saturday night. “The collection is the introduction to who I am as Lipo – Phillip – and the designer I am still becoming,” Heketoa says. “And that I have a point of difference and something to say.”

One of Phillip Heketoa’s designs (Photo: Supplied)

Emerging designer Susana Tasi, born and raised in Ōtara and based in Tairāwhiti, has waited 30 years for this moment. She says giving back to others has been her purpose. “How selfish of me to go ‘oh my gosh, I’m going to be the next Chanel’ and then my family is starving and I’ve got bills to pay,” the 49-year-old says, explaining her work in the social services sector, including as an adult counsellor at Women’s Refuge. “I’ve always wanted to do this so I thought ‘well, I’m going to put together a collection, start designing and boom’.”

Tasi never wavered in choosing to tell the story, through her debut collection, of her mother in the 60s – a young woman from the village of Falelima in Sāmoa, living in Tāmaki Makaurau, going to church in her best attire and shopping at Rendells department store. Tasi remembers her mother would use an old Singer sewing machine to make clothes from everyday materials, which she would also use to make tablecloths and curtains – a sensibility the designer, a keen op-shopper, has put to use in scrounging curtain nets for one of her garments. With her own daughters set to model the collection, Tasi can’t wait to see them shine as she pays tribute to the woman who raised her.

Womenswear isn’t something Massey Williams has experience or expertise in – and he’s taking a gamble including it in his collection. The former Project Runway New Zealand contestant, of Tongan and Ngāpuhi descent, draws heavily on workwear, sportswear and military wear ­– staples of utilitarian fashion that typically read masculine because of their rigidity and structure. But the 42-year-old secondary school alternative education tutor, who works with students that have disengaged from mainstream schooling, wants to push himself out of his comfort zone. “This could work or this could fall flat on my face,” he says. “I’ll find out on Saturday.”

Nevertheless, Williams is embracing the challenge – and the opportunity to demonstrate his talent. “I’m just an amateur dude sewing from his bedroom, who doesn’t sell anywhere. It’s purely a case of me learning the craft,” he says, “and hopefully getting to a level where I’m able to feel confident enough to put the clothes on the rack and go ‘yep, I’m happy with these garments’.” Swann, PFFS’s founder, is looking forward to crossing the line. A call was put out in April 2021 for designers to apply and the stop-start nature of the last year alone has made the event harder to see through, she says. There may be a lot more left to tick off the to-do list before Saturday, but “one action point at a time. We’re getting there”.

The six other designers are Alexandra Simpson, Vivian Hosking-Aue, Maggie Anitelea, John Tanuvasa, Tanirose Tausie and Penina Schmidt. PFFS begins 6.30pm on old Papatoetoe shopping strip (31–65 St George St). Tickets are on sale at Eventfinda.

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