By Ben Wheeler
Sitting in the darkness at the final night of the Fiji Fashion Week, having already seen several designers parade their collections up, down, and all around the catwalk, I take a moment…
I am enjoying this far more than I thought I would. Perhaps I am now a Fashionista? It would certainly make for an interesting new hat. Metaphorically speaking, that is. Suddenly, gently, my inner monologue is interrupted. Woozy synths fill the Vodafone Arena and paint-spills form psychedelic swirls of colour and light on the venue’s huge electronic backdrop.
A complex emotional chord had been struck. Thinking back now, it still gives me goosebumps. I decided I must know more.
“Those were my intentions,” Suva-based Sugarose designer Atelaite Daunibau tells me as I excitedly recount the experience. “I wanted people to feel a certain way.”
She conceived of the collection’s storyline, inspired by her return to Fiji Fashion Week after a nine-year absence, while traveling across Viti Levu for work. When she arrived at the gig in Nadi, serendipitously, she would hear the music that tied everything together.
“We were out on the beach for a wedding,” she explains. “They were saying their vows, the sun was setting, it was getting dark, and it was going to rain.” The soundtrack to this decidedly cinematic moment was ‘Innerbloom’ by Sydney-based creators of sublime dance pop RÜFÜS.
“I was going through some stuff,” she says and pauses. “Just life in general.”
“While I was watching and listening, it resonated with how I felt at that time. I knew I wanted to call my collection ‘In Full Bloom’ and when I looked up the title of the song, it all just merged, it married together. It was like I’d come full circle.
“So, I called the collection ‘Na I Dabedabe In Full Bloom.’”
We’re sitting in her Suva shop, its ceiling fretted with fluorescent bulbs that seem to fire directly from her mind, in a visual analogue of this moment of inspiration.
She explains ‘Na I Dabedabe’ is a reference to handwoven ceremonial mats, an important part of Fijian and Pacific cultures.
“You sit on it when you’re coming over as a visitor and the hosts want to pay their respects, or they want to thank you or appreciate you. It’s a Fijian way to say thank you. We also use it during weddings, for a new-born baby, for death.”
As I listen to her speak, I gather that both the title and the incorporation of these traditional materials and practices in these pieces are, in a way, a long-awaited and much deserved kindness to herself – an acknowledgement and celebration of how far she has come.
Daunibau burst onto the fashion scene with her first collection ‘Black V Tiri’ at Fiji Fashion Week in 2010. There she received the Emerging Designer of the Year Award. The following year she presented her ‘Emotions’ line.
Looking back on this busy and difficult time, she explains that she felt like she was substituting feelings of grief and loss with an urge “to create for the sake of being in a show; because somebody else was telling me to be in the show.”
These feelings of detachment gave rise to feelings of inadequacy – the Imposter Syndrome that clouds so many vibrant creative minds.
“I knew how to design, I knew how to storyboard,” she says. “But I thought to myself, ‘How can I be a real designer if I’m not going to make my garments? I cannot call myself a designer if I’m not able to sew!’”
Despite these doubts, another successful and celebrated collection, ‘Gypsy Heart’, followed in 2014. It was shortly after this, however, that her beloved grandmother passed.
She allowed herself to mourn, processing her feelings, and at the appropriate time, re-energised, Daunibau enrolled with the Australia Pacific Training Coalition to study Certificate III Applied Fashion.
“I decided to stop messing around!” she says with a smile.
She has since graduated, and this year marks an important – and triumphant – return to Fiji Fashion Week.
This is a fantastic coming-of-age narrative: the story of a young designer growing to accept herself, an acceptance marked by a mature approach to complex emotions and feelings in her personal life, and the ability to conceive, design and make garments on her own terms in her professional life.
The flower that adorns many of the garments in ‘Na I Dabedabe In Full Bloom’, is a repeated motif that seems more essential, more impactful, after hearing about her incredible journey.
During a regular visit to the Jade Spirit & Spa in the centre of Suva, she noticed a large door and was suddenly drawn to it.
“I’ve been going there since 2016, but I’ve never thought to open that storage room. When I did, there was a hot water system, some brushes and mops,” she says. “But then on the side I saw this painting, and I was like, ‘Oh man this painting is so beautiful and it’s sitting in darkness!’”
She brought it into the light, fell in love with it and incorporated it into her developing designs.
These layers of influence and inspiration involving birth and death, darkness and light, transformation, becoming, maturity, and the movement of circles and cycles only serve to emphasise and deepen the message of ‘blossoming’ that is at the heart of ‘Na I Dabedabe In Full Bloom’.
The profundity that sat behind the ten-minute Sugarose show captured my imagination so spectacularly and refused to let it go in the weeks that followed is quite breath-taking.
For her part, Daunibau talks of how impressed she was with the professionalism of those wearing her designs and the organisers for encouraging a more empowering and diverse selection of models.
“Not everyone has a skinny type of figure, especially for the Pacific culture, you know? We’re not size 8, size 10. So, I think it’s really important that we have that diversity, and I think Ellen (Whippy-Knight) notices that too, because a lot of the women we saw were pretty voluptuous.”
“Honestly, this year was one of the best years I’ve seen in Fashion Week. The models were top-tier in terms of attitude and front and backstage energy – it was sublime.”
I’m reminded of a word that seems to capture everything we have discussed: INFLORESCENCE, which literally refers to blooming flowers but has connotations of natural cycles of creation and beauty. It also calls to mind fluorescence, and the interplay darkness and light.
Whippy Knight’s closing comments for Fiji Fashion Week 2023 chime perfectly with these concepts. The journey of these last 16 years, she says, has at times been difficult, at times intensely frustrating, but the benefits to be reaped in this moment seem clear as day.
This article first appeared in Fiji Traveller, July-September 2023.