What's it like to want in to an industry that's barely acknowledged your existence? And in the age of demanded diversity, is it a matter of too little too late? Lofa Totua reflects on her relationship with New Zealand fashion.
From what I remember, fashion in Aotearoa was first introduced to me as a complex but energising experience. Fashion wasn’t about dressing ‘well’. What I saw was an industry founded on self-expression.
From a young age, I attended - or rather participated, as one does in a Church Mass - a number of fashion shows, often styled or directed by my cousin Daniel [Ahwa, the creative director at Viva]. With each show I remember being in awe of the rush. There were so many people in one space, (obviously my crowd experience was limited then) and the music would either be overwhelmingly invasive, or so quiet you could hear the heels echo down the runway. Layouts were mostly simple, some more elaborate. Bold lighting enhanced the dramatic mood and other shows required audience engagement.
As I got older, I started to notice how music, art and political themes intersected with the shows I went to. But for some reason, I became more and more uncomfortable with the fashion industry in general. For a long time I couldn’t pinpoint why.
In 2014, my best friend, her older sister and I (at 14-years-old) sat in the third row at a Salasai show, on foldy white wooden chairs among photographers, artists, celebrities and fashion folk. The brand’s autumn/winter collection was called Self Portrait, and I remember a face doodled on one of the garments looking very similar to work by Brooklyn-born Jean-Michel Basquiat - one of my favourite artists. Almost like a sign of respect; it was also the label’s debut at New York Fashion week that year. To me, the show as an experience proved what I had always believed: that fashion was about identity.
To me, the show as an experience proved what I had always believed: that fashion was about identity.
For months after, I would search for dark overalls and shirts with boxy cuts whilst thrift shopping, inspired. Hearing the final song at the show made me laugh and dance. 50 Cent’s Candy Shop was familiar and I remember breathing a sigh of relief, like it was okay for me - a brown kid from Mt Roskill - to be there. I was reminded of how the gangster genre that had shaped my upbringing, also had a long history with fashion. The song matched the attitude of the models walking and their confidence seemed untouchable.
The casting of models are integral to the success of a brand but more importantly influence what we as a society value: lighter skin, thin bodies, looking young and feeling young. Admittedly I have grown to have a deep respect for models and their work. I used to feel helpless with how Eurocentric and young models were across agencies, not to mention the teams at shoots, the writers and everyone else behind the scenes.
The Salasai show was the last one I went to for a while. I thought about why it took for me to see Ngahuia Williams walking to 50 Cent to feel slightly better about being at a NZ Fashion Week show. I began to question whether the mainstream fashion industry actually knew or cared about what messages their work sent out to the world. In 2015 I wrote for Viva: “I definitely think there is a need for more diversity in modelling, especially as Auckland is known for being a multicultural city. There also seems to be more teenage models, some as young as 15-years-old.”
Thanks to globalisation (lol), the drama, the shoots and the model transformations on America’s Next Top Model also shaped my negative perception of the fashion industry here in Aotearoa. ANTM is just one example that exposes the bitchiness of fashion and how harmless humour disguises degrading comments and bullying - usually on the low - that runs rampant across the industry. I say this as an outsider looking in. We live in a patriarchal society built on white supremacy, there is no doubt that there are still remnants of this competitive, toxic culture hidden at every level.
What do we see in fashion? Who determines what is important? What sets the standard for high culture - the designers and their work, the audience… or money? That same year I went to see Salasai, Trelise Cooper opened her show with headdresses from Indigenous American culture. Do people ask for cultural appropriation or do designers and their teams decide what’s best? Who’s to say what is accepted today as a fresh concept or design, will be deemed harmful, racist or unacceptable this time next year? These questions are necessary as I reflect on the ever changing nature of the industry and my own personal observations.
My religious searches through op shops, looking for a deal on unique pieces that said “me”, didn’t align with what I saw on glossy magazines and the airbrushed shoots on the IG profiles of models. In the grand scheme of fashion in Aotearoa, growing up I very rarely saw my friends, my family or myself. It’s more than representation; it's about colourism, tokenism, what sells and what is valued as worthy of selling. Are brown features, brown hair and brown skin not of value?
I often struggle with sustainable fashion too, which can be sexy for everyone but poor people. Well-made clothes are a luxury so many cannot afford. Shaming communities for buying fast fashion, gentrifying charity shops and turning environmental activism into a commercial good, is not helpful to anyone.
My favourite fashion shows growing up were always the Pacific Couture competitions. The garments were usually inspired by the environment and made from recyclable materials; plastic packaging, metal, and natural resources like flax were popular. Maybe a hint at the way all Indigenous people once dressed and lived before it became a trend: sustainably.
Today, my thoughts on Aotearoa’s fashion industry are still complicated. Sometimes when I’m reading a fashion article or appreciating a New Zealand label's latest collection, I feel like a dick. Almost like, enjoying fashion is parallel to engaging with an elite, high culture section of society... Exclusive to the rich, cool and famous. Somewhere between, ‘I shouldn’t be here’ and ‘I am contributing to capitalist principles’. Sometimes, I have to remind myself, the price tag has no influence on what fashion is to me.
Looking forward, I want the industry to take notes on everything that is going on and refuse to go back to normal. Just last weekend, I was on the set of a fashion shoot and listened to models who were informed, models who were political and models who knew what they deserved. Fashion is political!
I want the industry to throw Western ideas on high culture and low culture out the window. I want designers and writers to stop reproducing colonial attitudes and behaviours through exploiting other cultures. I don’t want to hear about what is the “right look”. Today, more people of colour, gender and age diverse folk are and should be at the front. I hope that we can shape a better industry that listens, learns, addresses and celebrates people, culture, beauty and fashion.