Nostalgia hits me when I walk through the doors of Fiji’s newest fashion boutique on Butt Street in Suva City.
Cut the Jazz by De Phazz is playing softly in the background but it’s the loud, vivid colours and prints hanging elegantly on floating racks that eloquently states ‘Samson Lee Fiji’ has arrived.
I’m in tow with my 8 year old daughter and I look at the wonder on her face when she walks through the door and I’m instantly catapulted to my memories at her age going shopping at the ‘Tiki Togs’ boutique with my Nanna in Nadi, located at the then Regent hotel now Sheraton.
If you’re a child of the 80’s your Mum, Nanna or Dad spent a pretty penny on a signature ‘Tiki Togs’ Mumu or ‘Bula’ shirt. Tiki Togs was Fiji’s answer to France’s Chanel.
You see, Fiji has been starved for a fashion house that is distinctly Fijian in style and prints when they closed in 90’s.
Enter the business and fashion savvy Samson Lee. Samson is foremost a businessman, he confesses that it’s his ‘Chinese side’ of counting pennies. Samson has consistently grown his signature Fijian contemporary ‘masi’ motifs over 3 years with collection after collection as an online business through social media platform Facebook.
Samson Lee admits that his standard for his label is ‘Tiki Togs’. "How can it not be, our parents, grandparents wore their mumu's and shirts to parties, it was our first taste of fashion in Fiji"
The tiny boutique is packed with walk in customers, Samson is measuring a customer who is there to get a custom fit piece and I ask him about getting started in fashion.
Samson Lee in his boutique with Serenia in his 'Coral' dress shirt (Kokonati Talk/Dean/2017)
His friends will tell you; fashion has always been an extension of Samson’s personality.
Samson’ s parents wanted him to have the safety net of a degree so that’s what he did even though he was interested in an arts/fashion career. He got his degree in Social Work from BYU Hawaii came back to Fiji and worked for ‘Empower Pacific’ for 3 years.
Samson realised that the lack of resources in Fiji was taking a toll on his outlook on the work he was doing so he took a 2-year break travelling to the States and doing a lot of soul searching.
During that time Samson suffered the devastating loss of his sister to cancer. He realised then that he had nothing to lose so he took the plunge and decided to start his fashion label ‘Samson Lee Fiji’
On Butt Street, I call this the 'Power Shot', reigning and former beauty queens of Suva city wearing SL's 'Lase' print, they're also wearing signature magimagi jewellery pieces by artisan 'Seniloli'. (From left, sitting) Marie Fall, Miss Hibiscus 2015, Anne Dunn, Miss Hibiscus 2016 and reigning Miss Pacific Islands. (Standing) Patricia Naisara, Miss Hibiscus 2007. (Bottom) Mere Nailatikau, Miss Hibiscus and Miss Pacific Islands 2009. (KokonatiTalk/Dean/2017)
Samson Lee Fiji the label
Samson’s first hurdle was to let his parents know about his plans and he said “They were cautiously supportive when I started 3 years go, it took a lot of convincing and fighting but after losing my sister I knew what I wanted out of life and they eventually got there”
He was initiated into the world of fashion by trial and error when he went about looking for a tailor to bring his visions to life, in Fiji they are a dime a dozen.
“I paid my first tailor the full amount and he didn’t deliver a single piece, my second tailor over charged me, on my third try I found a lady that is still with me today, though I’ve diversified and added 3 more tailors to my team”
Other designers such as Andrew Powell who helped him when he first started also mentored Samson.
Samson also realised the power of social media and used Facebook and Instagram as marketing tools to launch his brand.
Samson Lee wearing Hawaiian designer Kini Zamora's fringe jacket (KokonatiTalk/Dean/2017)
He strategically sent his products to friends who were holidaying around the globe and made sure they took pics that he curated for his social media platforms, the end result is ‘Samson Lee Fiji’ being the new lux brand on the Fiji fashion market.
Slowly Samson’s door was being knocked on by some of the heavy hitters in the Fiji Tourism industry such as Rosie Tours and Fiji Airways.
Samson was also honoured to be invited to launch his label with his collection ‘Moods of Paradise’ at Style Fiji 2015.
“This was a very big deal for me because the only way for you to show is by invitation only, so I was very honoured. Last year I closed, this year I’m opening but importantly this fashion show is about giving, something that is very close to my heart”
He then started stocking at Pineapple Boutique and House of Design in Nadi.
Samson opened up a little design studio in his home where he started seeing clients where he would take measurements for his made to measure pieces.
“The traffic into my home started to increase as my online orders did, so I had a lot of people coming into my personal space and I realised it was time to make the jump to a physical shop.”
Reigning Miss Pacific Islands and Miss Hibiscus 2017, Anne Dunn (KokonatiTalk/Dean/2017)
Two years to the day when he launched his first collection, Samson opened the door to his first boutique located in the heart of Suva city on Butt Street.
What initially was supposed to be a joint venture with his friend as a café turned into his first shop.
Samson also realised the potential of the space if he stocked other designers. So he invited veteran designers Zelda Thomas and Naina Sayed Khaiyum and he hasn’t looked back.
“A lot of people don’t realise that Suva is the ‘fashion capital’ of the Pacific, we are the hub of regional organisations and UN agencies and Suva is constantly hosting events, cocktails which equals an appetite for fashion”
He’s been overwhelmed by the response, on opening day he had to lock the doors to limit traffic inside the shop.
“It’s such a satisfying thing to see that financially you’ve done it and you’re making money”
The King amongst his Queens (KokonatiTalk/Dean/2017)
Cultural Identity as self-expression through fashion
“It’s our identity” he pauses and looks around his shop after I ask him about what his clients are drawn to.
“A lot of my clients are in the diaspora community and here in Fiji they are proud of their heritage and as Pacific islanders we can instantly identify Samoan prints, the Tongan prints, the PNG prints. It’s who we are.”
I ask Samson about cultural appropriation and what role fashion designers play in sharing and protecting culture, he glares at me and says “Neisau, OMG put me on the spot” but laughs as he says “Our culture is constantly evolving, I’ve taken our masi motifs and made it more contemporary for my clients and that’s what it’s all about, gaging your market, I'm connecting through fashion"
He stares out the window of his shop as people pass by and peep in through the windows, "I am also very aware of the vanua (land) these motifs belong to different provinces and as designers we have a responsibility to protect the intellectual property, we are borrowing from our ancestors, so we must make every effort to pay tribute when we can”
Samson’s prints are big, bold and abstract masi motifs that are printed in bright vivid colours that are intrinsically ‘Bula’. He also realises that Fiji is rich with creative artists so he’s collaborated with artists such as George Evans for his collections ‘Ika’ (fish).
Samson also shares his views on intellectual property rights of the Fijian people.
“I know people have tried to trademark certain motifs, my view is you can’t do that, that belongs to the people of Fiji but having said that it’s an exciting time to be an artist because we are moulding the new Fiji through our designs”
Marie Fall, Miss Hibiscus 2015 (KokonatiTalk/Dean/2017)
We’re interrupted by Samson’s phone ringing, he said, “It’s my fabric lady, sorry I have to take it”
He’s excited because a new shipment has come in and he’s scheduled a time for him to peruse the new stock. He hangs up and I ask him about his future plans.
“The goal is to keep going, to see where this leads me. I want another shop, not sure where but I know I’ll be opening one up soon, somewhere” he laughs out loud.
It’s an exciting time for fashion in Fiji with the emergence of designers who are carving out names for themselves. Samson has set the benchmark for our budding designers and it’s just the start of his journey.
You can visit Samson Lee Fiji’s website at www.samsonleefiji.com
List of vendors
Photographer: Niyaz Dean Hair: June White Makeup Artist: Atelaite Daunibau of Sugarose Jewellery: Seniloli Wardrobe: Samson Lee Fiji
Models: Serenia Rainima, Marie Fall, Mere Nailatikau, Patricia Naisara, Anne Dunn