This story was originally published in Sunday magazine
Fashion has a longstanding obsession with the enduring art of craft, whether it be the DIY works of young and inventive designers or the intricate artisanal craft and couture in the luxury space.
This year, especially, has seen a renewed appreciation for what has traditionally been seen as ‘domestic’ crafts, like embroidery and quilting. Locally, the embrace of Māori and Pasifika crafts has been, admittedly, slower to take off with our own fashion designers, but hopefully it’s just a matter of time.
Artist Sulieti Fieme'a Burrows MNZM is a figurehead with genuine mana (and style) in the Pasifika creative community, with deep knowledge of the heritage art of Tongan tapa cloth art and weaving - crafts that require a commitment and hours of work.
Having been taught these skills by her own mother, Sulieti then passed them on to her own daughter Tui Emma Gillies - and today, the pair regularly work collaboratively on creating striking works with a unique blend of tapa tradition and artistic modernity (often adding colour onto their ngatu (large tapa cloth) and kupesi (traditional stencil) designs, as well as using Indian ink and acrylic paint as materials).
The creative mother-daughter pair are prolific, producing a number of striking works for various exhibitions - the duo’s latest, Nima mea’a, has opened as part of Artweek Auckland, and they have also recently been crowdfunding for their project The Last Kai (a large scale Pasifika version on Tongan tapa cloth of the namesake artwork).
The contrast of formality and newness is also an approach in Sulieti’s wardrobe, which combines treasured Sunday best church ensembles alongside pieces discovered from her travels, from Northland to Europe.
She shares six items from her wardrobe that she cherishes.
I love my kiekie. It is a piece of traditional cultural clothing worn by women around the waist as a sign of respect or to ensure a strong sense of Tongan identity.
This is handmade using kaka, which is the fibrous tissue wrapped around the growing fronds of the coconut palm. It was made by a Tongan woman called Lita in Ōtāhuhu, and while I've owned it for only two years, I now wear it with pride at most outings.
I purchased these miniature bag earrings from a stall with many handmade items during the 2018 Wairoa Film Festival, where a film, Back in The Waterhouse, featured my daughter and I. I love the colours and how they are woven; they have become a staple part of my outfits.
My mother Ema Topeni made this Ta'ovala and gave it as a gift to my son when he was one year old in 1979. My daughter Tui wore it too, and her three children. It's like a family heirloom.
I like drinking a kawakawa tonic because we also call it Tongan medicine. We drink the same tonic in Falevai and these earrings are like wearing the little green leaves. I walked into a Māori gift shop in Kawakawa in Northland earlier this year, and immediately fell in love with them. It was my 70th birthday so I thought I'd treat myself. The shop, Taonga O Te Ao, sells Māori things made by local Māori makers.
This woven bag is a gift from the time I visited my homeland, Vava'u, in 2014. It is made from the Tongan flax, pandanus. I use this as my hymn and bible bag. It accompanies me when I go to Manurewa Methodist Church and on some outings. I haven’t been to church for a long time now as it has shut down since 2020 [the church has been shut due to repairs].
This silk kaftan is a beloved souvenir from a trip to Austria. I purchased this in Austria in 2015, when I went with my daughter to present a paper about our tapa art at the University of Vienna. I still remember the little fashion shop filled with beautiful big hats and clothes. I really admired the way the women dressed in Europe.