Tongan Fashion Designer Adds 'Contemporary Twist' To Traditional Garments


By Sela Aholelei

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (Radio New Zealand International, May 30, 2017) – A Tongan woman is pushing the boundaries of Tongan fashion by taking traditional Tongan garments and adding a contemporary twist to the items.

During the day, you can find the rising Tongan fashion designer Mele Tamanilo working in IT for the Ministry of Justice.

But outside working hours, the Auckland based owner of Kanumez designs different types of kiekie, using non-traditional material to decorate the waist garment.

The kiekie is traditionally made out of plant fibres from pandanus, hibiscus and coconut.

Mrs Tamanilo said the materials used definitely take the look of kiekie to the next level.

"My kiekie designs use different kinds of embellishments such as rhinestone, studs, spikes and chains. My kiekie have that 'bling bling' effect and most Tongan women love their bling bling. I wanted to make it more appealing to the younger generation especially, to encourage them to continue to wear the kiekie."

"I recently started using leather with my designs. I actually liked it a lot. A lot more than the previous materials I was using," she said.

Mele Tamanilo began experimenting with her fashion line for two years and launched her brand last October.

She said fashion is something she's loved since childhood.

"I used to use pillow cases to sew clothes for my barbie dolls. I told myself when I get older that I don't want to just design clothes. I want to do something unique," she said.

"One day, I saw a video of Xena the Warrior Princess and I was admiring her waist garment that she wears. That's when it finally clicked for me. I could take the traditional Tongan kiekie and modernise it by blinging it up and using different kinds of material."

Fast forward to June 2017 when the owner of Kanumez will be hosting her first fashion show in Auckland.

Twenty-four models from different age groups and walks of life will showcase the kiekie.

Veronica Maka, one of the volunteer models, applauded the work of Mele Tamanilo.

"I am all for entrepreneurship and people stepping out of their comfort zones, testing the waters."

"The fact that she's taking a chance on what she believes is bringing Tongan culture into new age fashion is a big challenge to the way we think about culture and I commend Mele for it."

"I am a big supporter for taking Tonga to the world stage."

"The best way to describe Kanumez' kiekie is that it's like a Beyonce version of what Tongan women are so used to traditionally seeing," she said.

Mele Tamanilo said that she had also looked into modernising other traditional Tongan garments.

The Kanumez fashion show will showcase contemporary style kiekie as well as contemporary style ta'ovala (a Tongan mat wrapped around the waist) samples.

"We are always looking for different ways to expand. Hopefully from kiekie and ta'ovala, we'll move on to teunga tau'olunga outfits," she said.

The Kanumez fashion show will take place at the auditorium of Tamaki College in Auckland.

Proceeds from the event go towards Kanumez' attendance at Australia's Pacific Runway in October.

Radio New Zealand International
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