Tropical prints in earth and ocean tones with fresh-from-the-sea accessories are par for the course in the Pacific, but Rako stands out. One would expect a fashion line to reflect and embellish contemporary culture for style’s sake. Rako does one better. The prints and the catwalk soundtrack reference Rotuman culture – a unique inheritance that Rako Pasefika, the creative collective behind Rako Designs, is working hard to celebrate.
Part of the Fiji group of islands, Rotuma lies to the north of Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu. Rotuman culture is distinct from Fiji’s, bearing a closer ethnic and linguistic resemblance to the Cook Islands, Tahiti and other Polynesian islands to the east. More Rotumans live in Fiji and abroad than on the 43 square kilometre volcanic island. Rako Pasefika founder Letila Mitchell says much of Rotuma’s material, particularly its arts, voyaging, architecture and other tangible culture, has been or is at risk of being lost. Rotuma’s elders are passing on without their knowledge and skills being retained and transmitted to younger generations, she says.
Mitchell, a well-known cultural arts figure of Rotuman heritage, founded Rako Pasefika in 1998 as a dance and music troupe. Under the direction of Mitchell and her husband Paul Dominiko, the group has evolved, venturing into clothing, homeware, art and accessories.
The South Pacific arts industry has yet to offer artists a steady income stream outside of Australia and New Zealand, so diversifying their creative pursuits has bolstered the earning potential of Rako Pasefika’s 60 or so members. Despite branching out, the group remains true to their performing origins, touring internationally and currently working on an album.
Rako Pasefika’s aesthetic is steeped in Rotuman history, but it is unmistakably contemporary. Drawing on interviews with elders and painstaking searches through Rotuman archival materials, every piece of Rako Designs’ clothing and jewellery proudly proclaims a unique heritage while moving fearlessly into the future.
Mere Nailatikau lives in Suva, Fiji. She is a graduate of the University of the South Pacific and participated in the Commonwealth Writers Pacific Prose Workshop in Suva in February 2015.