Sheena Taivairanga’s journey towards studying Fashion Design really began when she was just 11 years old. “When I was a child, my father and I were doing an assignment based on what I wanted to be when I grew up and he suggested I become a fashion designer. I didn’t know what that meant at the time or how to pursue it. But subconsciously I remembered, and now I am about to graduate with a degree from Whitecliffe and have just competed in the second annual Pacific Fusion Fashion Show, which was held in my home town, Otara, Auckland.”
The event, held during the 2017 New Zealand Fashion Week, showcased eleven emerging Pacific and Maori fashion designers from NZ, Samoa, Australia and the US. For Sheena, who went to Otahuhu College and was raised in Otara by parents who came from the “beautiful Cook Islands” and met here in New Zealand, “telling stories through my designs has been my biggest strength.” She has managed to integrate something cultural and personal every year into her end-of year-collections. Last year, she created a collection called Milk & Honey “paying homage to my parents and in particular my mother as well as the many Pacific Islanders like them who migrated to the land of milk and honey (New Zealand) in search of better opportunities.” Sheena was influenced by the clothes factory workers wore in the 1960’s in New Zealand, and was inspired by a photograph of her mother in her work uniform in 1968. This same collection was presented at the Pacific Fusion Fashion Show; Sheena was featured on Radio NZ as a result. This year, Sheena’s end of year collection "is more process driven and pays homage to my Cook Islands culture. My research is about pacific handcrafts, which lead more specifically to Cook Islands clothing and costumes. My culture always inspires me and there are always elements to draw from. The lost of our traditional handcraft techniques due to religious conversion struck a cord with me and that’s what I have translated into a collection."
“Choosing my major at Whitecliffe happened organically. What I most loved about studying Fashion Design within the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree was the fine arts component.” She continues, “I naturally have a passion for art and studied it all the way through high school. It wasn’t until my last year of schooling that I went on a whim and just decided to pursue fashion. But in hindsight, I wasn’t ready yet. Fast forward ten years later now with being at Whitecliffe, I am more passionate and more determined.”
When Sheena speaks of her experience, she mentions that she chose Whitecliffe known for its “smaller class sizes and one to one contact with the lecturers. I have made the best friendships and met some of the most creative people at Whitecliffe. Most of the students in my major are young, passionate and ambitious. Being around them really motivates me. The lecturers have provided me with so much knowledge and skills to constantly think outside the box and challenge my thought and creative process. I love all the challenges I have faced at Whitecliffe both as a student and parent. I believe it’s made me a stronger person and more resilient.”
Now married to Fred and with three children, Sheena lives in Pakuranga and her advice to prospective students is to “be open minded, to be willing to try something new and be prepared to work hard. I’ve learned that the fashion industry is a challenging industry to get into. But if you’re passionate and convinced by your beliefs, you will succeed.” She states that her family is her motivation and that in a Pacific community “everything is family-oriented.”
In the next five to ten years, Sheena hopes to start her own fashion brand. She says that by participating in the Pacific Fusion Fashion Show and by seeing her peers start their own brands, it has only made her “more determined.” She continues, “my Pacific community inspires me. I like to see what other Pacific creatives are up too. It’s exciting to see people who look like me follow their passions and achieve.” Sheena says, “I believe all the experiences and opportunities I have gained through my studies at Whitecliffe have given me a platform to venture out and make my mark on the world. I am excited, ambitious and can only imagine the possibilities. The sky’s the limit.”
Image: Sheena (left) and her model Diamond at the 2017 Pacific Fusion Fashion Show. Photo by Penina Joy Photography.