Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television
since 1987

Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television
since 1987

Fashion Week designer happy he took the risk to change career mid-life

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

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Soana Aholelei | Reporter / Director

New Zealand Fashion Week’s been and gone for another year and one of the standout Pacific Islands designers this year was Niuean Phillip Heketoa aka, Lipo.

Part of the Viva Next Gen show at Fashion Week, Lipo showcased 13 looks all made from donated and scrap fabrics with sustainability uppermost in mind.

“I had an opportunity to go to Papua New Guinea but due to circumstances it didn’t go through, so I took that initial inspiration and channeled into this Fashion Week and now it’s inspired by Pacific Lipo Style,” Heketoa says.

With brown flowing dresses, outfits adorned with shell earrings and black and white summer tops with splashes of colour on pants, it was all on show at fashion week. 

But far from the catwalk and the flashing lights is where Lipo channels his creativity, he finds it working out of a small converted garage at his home in South Auckland. And he admits, he’s always had a creative streak in him.

“Where I come from, creativity was never, it was never in the forefront. It was always sports or music  and so I  had to find other ways to express myself creatively,” Heketoa says.  

“So I usually did that with my body or the way I dressed or my haircuts. That’s how I would express myself and just stand out from what was, the norm, what was going on. Back in the day also, there wasn’t any kind of form, or school that you could be creative in.”

As a youngster watching his nanna and aunties at the sewing machine, becoming a fashion designer just came naturally.

“Two of my aunties were sewers but they used to sew toys. And my nanna was a solderer so she did, like ironing work and hand sewing and all of those island tivaaevae’s and all of that. And so I’ve always just reckoned, I can do that. That was my attitude,” he says.

“It didn’t happen until my first show as a student when something clicked in me and I decided that, if I was  going to be good at this, and the passion was still there, then I was going to pursue it. But that wasn’t like an overnight thought or, like, anything, it was like, this is going to be a short term long term goal.”

In the 1990’s Lipo was a backup dancer, then for 18 years he worked as a hair-dresser and make-up artist before deciding in 2020 to study design at Whitecliffe Art School.

I started off with hair, went to makeup and then body arts, special effects. I really wanted to make sure that I was good at everything that I wanted to do and, to do it, I had to go and do certain different levels outside of my natural comfort zone.”

But changing careers after 18 years in hair and makeup, Heketoa knew he was taking a risk.

“I knew I was going to be 50 years old, so I didn’t know any 50-year-olds who were going, leaving a secure job, going back to school and an allowance. like I thought, I  made sure I thought everything through, and made sure I was super comfortable in what I was doing and how I was going to survive,” he says.

“And I just fell in love creating the garments, creating these characters and I think that’s been anything that creatively you want to do, that automatically comes out of you and just channels into what you’re doing.”

Looking back, taking the risk was worth it. Now having his work strutting down New Zealand Fashion Week’s runway, it’s a dream come true.

“I would like to be known as an all-round designer. And so learning my craft and making sure that I still enjoy it, that’s really important to me. Also, just the diversity side of it, like, and the affordability, that’s, that is like, huge for me.”

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