Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air
Award-winning Samoan Fashion Designer, Afa Ah Loo has proven time and again the endless possibilities of his talents.
From being a contestant on Project Runway, to styling Polynesian celebrities, meeting the late Queen of England, and featuring on global magazines, Afa takes on a new role for 2023 as co-founder of Utah’s first ever Pacific Fashion Show.
Pacific designers from across the globe will showcase the best of Oceania. Prepare yourself to be wowed by a taste of Polynesian infused evening gowns, kids and vintage wear and much more.
“This show is the first of the many, and it is only the launchpad for something big,” Afa says.
“We have huge plans for Utah Pacific Fashion (UPF). [We’re aiming] to provide education and resources for people to bridge the gap between our island nations and the fashion and arts industry here in the USA.”
Afa is excited to use tapa and traditional materials for the first time for UPF. He will intertwine modern fabrics such as silks, chiffons, and satins to create an island couture collection. His main inspiration are Polynesian women, with his mother at the heart of it all.
“My mom sewed growing up, so I grew up around her always creating and making things,” Afa says.
“While the kids were out playing rugby and volleyball, I was at home learning how to weave a fine mat from my mom or learning how to play the guitar from my dad.
“I guess you can say I grew up in a creative environment that sparked the creative interest in me.”
But with an interest in fashion comes with judgements and challenges. Being a straight male in a field dominated by women and members of the rainbow community, Afa’s sexuality was often questioned by those around him.
“It’s a funny experience for sure. It’s very rare you see someone like me – a straight Samoan male in this space,” Afa says.
“But I have always lived by the saying ‘work hard in silence, let your success be your noise’. I hope that the youth in Samoa who have seen me, and my journey will feel that if I can do it, they can too.”
His advice for straight men who want to pursue a career in fashion is to “feel the fear and do it anyway.”
“At the end of the day, if I’m not living my best life, I’m not living a happy life. I know that it’s easier said than done but it is worth every minute.”
One of Afa’s unique skills that sets him apart from other fashion designers is his ability to sew in a short period of time. When Afa appeared on Project Runway’s Season 17, he was the fastest sewer on the show, and he often had extra time to help his fellow contestants.
Afa explains, “the way that I approach sewing is very different from the way the fashion industry usually approaches sewing.”
“The fashion world goes through a lot of steps to produce the perfectly fitted outfit i.e., draping, muslin fit, patterns and multiple fittings. But I work the way that I see women in Samoa work – fast and efficient. You measure the body, pin those measurements on to the fabric then cut and sew.”
Afa’s skill for quick sewing has been put to good use through his collaborations with Miss World Samoa contestant Latafale Auvaa and Polynesian singers Dinah Jane and Tenelle.
One of his favourite fast turnaround looks was for Tenelle for her semi-final performance on NBC’s American Song Contest.
“It was a length floor mermaid gown, with a high slit in the front, and an added mat, siapo and afa for some Samoan flavour. It was everything!”
Before reaching out to Tenelle, Afa noticed she wasn’t wearing any Samoan inspired looks for her performances which led him to create her finale and grand final outfits.
“Both of those times, I flew in the morning, measured her, went to the fabric district to get fabrics, then me and my sisters Jolene, Ofeira, Emme and Sharm worked on her looks for 10 hours straight,” he shares.
“Tenelle tried [her outfits] on the morning of her performance with no alterations needed and I flew back home the same day. I didn’t even see how her finale looked on her until I saw it on TV.”
Afa says that his career in fashion has truly blessed him to do what he loves. With the Utah Pacific Fashion show on the way, Afa and co-founders Benjamin Powell and Kalolaine Pahulu Rapp are excited to give back to their community.
“This is a space created by our people for our people, where they can come and show and appreciate our arts and culture,” Afa says. “It is the very first Pacific Island fashion show here in Utah and the first of this magnitude, so it is very significant.”
Utah Pacific Fashion Show kicks off Saturday July 29, at the Utah State Fairpark Grand Building in Salt Lake City.