Sheena Tavairanga

1981-

The traditional tivaevae received a glamorous makeover by Cook Island designer Sheena Taivairanga for her graduate show at Whitecliffe College of Art and Design in 2015. This mix of 'tough' leather panels and tivaevae motif embodies the ethos of Sheena’s label, Sheenz, which she describes as representing the ‘in-between woman’, caught between the society she lives in and her ancestral home.

"Being an 'in between' woman myself, I felt having a brand that represented the urban, Pasifika woman is really important," Sheena explains. "Especially having grown up in one of the largest Polynesian cities in the world. I believe it’s about being empowered to use your craft as a tool, to tell your story." 

Sheena with the leather and tivaevae gown that she made for her graduate show at Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design in 2015. Image © Sheena Tavairanga.

The gown showcases Sheena’s expertise in her craft, and also that of her mother Tepora Tamariki. The highly textural design combines the toughness of leather panels layered for the top half; while the bottom half is a sweeping fish-tail silhouette that highlights a tivaevae floral motif, created by Sheena with her mother. "I was fortunate enough to have my mother here in New Zealand at the time of design, so we were able to collaborate and do the traditional tivaevae embroidery/appliqué on these pieces."

Sheena was born in Auckland in 1981. Her parents are both from the Cook Islands and she grew up watching her mother make tivaevae quilts and cushion covers. "I think the art form of tivaevae is a direct connection to where we come from as Cook Island people. A lot of these giant quilts reference vibrant, bold and colourful flora and fauna representing who we are and our home in the Pacific. I always wondered what it would be like to create a dress using different tivaevae techniques."

As well as sewing at home, Sheena’s mother worked as a seamstress. Sheena joined her at Skelton’s Manufacturing one school holidays, where she made clothes for brands including Max Fashion and Shanton. When it came to choosing her own career however, Sheena found a job in administration. After a while she realised that something was missing and so in 2007 she embarked on and completed a garment construction course at Das Training (now Sewtec).

The short course gave her the basics but Sheena wanted to learn more about design, fabric and the fashion industry. In 2015, when the timing was right, she enrolled in a degree majoring in fashion at Whitecliffe College of Art and Design.

The degree included annual internships. "My first and final year internships were with Charles Parson in their sample room. On both occasions I had a really awesome time there.  I love working with textiles and I’m always in my element when I’m surrounded by beautiful fabrics." In her second year she interned at New Zealand Fashion Week, which she described as a fabulous environment to learn. "Studying has challenged my thought process time and time again, but it’s exciting; I love the challenge."

In 2017 Sheena launched her brand. "I started it accidentally because I wanted to take part in the local fashion show, Pacific Fusion Fashion Show. I already had a concept and a collection, I just quickly needed a name and 'Sheenz' was created."

Sheena’s collection for Pacific Fusion included coats and jackets embellished with text by the Pacific writer and artist Lani Lopesi. "The messages are part of a quote written by Lani Lopesi – her artwork influenced a huge part of my research into this collection, which was inspired by my mother’s journey to New Zealand during the late 1960s."

One of Sheena's designs modelled by Diamond Langi at Pacific Fusion in Sydney, 2018. Photos © Penina Momoisea.

Sydney’s Pacific Runway event provided more exposure for Sheena in 2018. The event was launched in 2012 by Jannike Seiuli, a New Zealander now living in Australia. Designed to showcase the talents of Māori and Pasifika creatives, New Zealand participants have included Dru Douglas of Lumai, Talia Soloa and Lavinia Ilolahia from Layplan and Richard Tekeu of Varu - designers who, as Sheena describes, "are influenced not only by where we come from in the Pacific but also by how we’ve adapted". Maggie Marilyn is another inspiration. "At such a young age she showed the world on a global scale that sustainability and having ethical practices is the way of the future. I am working to incorporate a more sustainable practice, because it’s something I believe as Pacific Islanders we lived by before colonisation."

Sheena is part of the New Zealand Fashion Museum exhibition, Moana Currents: Dressing Aotearoa Now

Text by Kelly Dix. Banner image of Sheena Tavairanga backstage at Pacific Fusion show, 2018. Image © Penina Momoisea.

Published February 2020.

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