By Sera Tikotikovatu-Sefeti
Fashion designer and artist, Epeli Tuibeqa knows how to make an entrance. Before the start of his runway show, he performs an opening dance–the elegant flow of his hands mesmerising – before he takes a bow and gives a cheeky grin to the crowd, making way for his models.
The KuiViti designer is a triple threat. “I’m a dancer, I used to sing with Pasifika Voices, and I like learning new things,” he says.
So it’s hard to picture this dynamic individual at a desk crunching numbers, but Tuibeqa originally studied accountancy.
However his grandmother, who was always creating something incredible with her God-given talents, intrigued Tuibeqa too, and would be the source of his creative flow.
Now Tuibeqa is keeping the memory of his muse alive through his KuiViti prints.
He took an unconventional path into fashion, competing as a contestant in what was once Fiji’s premier pageant, the Hibiscus Festival.
It opened up a new world, connecting him with musicians, artists, and fashion designers. In 2010, he returned to the festival, this time as a fashion designer, dressing participants.
“When my contestant won that year, I was approached to dress her for the Miss Pacific Island Pageant—I was scared,” Tuibeqa confesses.
While this challenge entailed many sleepless nights, the sacrifices he made were worth it.
“I got three months’ worth of marketing from the pageant through the Queens, that people would usually pay thousands of dollars for.
“When I went with Alisi Rabukawaqa to the Miss Pacific Island Pageant in Samoa, I was amazed at all the Pacific designs and how proudly each girl was donning their country’s prints,” Tuibeqa says.
“For evening party events here in Fiji, the girls come in big ball gowns and party dresses, but at the Pacific pageant, the contestants rock up with their country’s designer prints.”
The experience fuelled his passion for proudly featuring iTaukei prints in his brand.
“My design mainly focuses on promoting Fijian culture through fashion. People ask me what I’m selling. My answer is, ‘I’m not selling clothes, I’m promoting my culture,’” Tuibeqa asserts.
Each design has a story. “The comb was my first ever print and it was inspired by my grandmother, aunt, and mom, who used the comb for their Fijian hair.”
The Teteva design was Tuibeqa “being rebellious” in response to Fiji Airways’ attempts to copyright that design.
A large scale masi print was also inspired by his grandmother, who loved to print ‘kesakesa’ on her masi. “The motif I used on that print was one I saw her do countless times.”
His most recent print design, which is flooding local social media feeds, is called the ‘Laca Drau’. “It was also inspired by my grandmother’s cutting up [of] different fabrics in squares and putting them together to make gloves, quilts, [and] chair covers – so I just cut different designs and prints, mix and mash them together to create a laca drau print,” Tuibeqa says.
The designer is also inspired by friends working as climate activists.
“Most of my friends are heavily involved in climate change activism, so wherever I can use my talent to amplify their voice, I would, whether it’s through photoshoots, designs, or creative direction,” says Tuibeqa.
He sees KuiViti contributing to the fight against climate change into the future.
KuiViti is a sought-after brand with the Fijian diaspora, with Fijians living overseas feeling connected to their land when they don one of Tuibeqa’s garments..
“I used to get four orders a month before, but now I get an order almost every day. Sometimes in a week I get ten or more orders to ship overseas,” he says,
“Currently, I have orders from the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand, and just recently from Switzerland, so it’s exciting,” he says.
This article first appeared in the October-December print issue of Fiji Traveller.