SYDNEY — Ten days after mingling with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex at the state dinner thrown by Fiji’s president in Suva, Fijian Australian fashion entrepreneur Ellen Whippy-Knight was at another black tie gala, this time in Sydney.
Friday’s Bula Ball at the Darling Harbour Dockside venue was the inaugural fund-raiser of Whippy-Knight’s new Fijian Fashion Foundation, which aims to support emerging Fijian designers.
The foundation’s chair, Sydney-based Whippy-Knight is also managing director of the 11-year-old Fiji Fashion Week, an annual Fijian resortwear showcase that is staged in Suva every May.
She is well-acquainted with the limited opportunities facing young designers in a developing country of just 884,000.
Fiji has only one technical school, the Australia-Pacific Technical College, offering basic certificate courses. Established local names such as Robert Kennedy, Hupfeld Hoerder and Samson Lee were either self-taught or had the resources to study in Australia and beyond.
Whippy-Knight hopes to open up opportunities for new names such as 21-year-old Laisiasa Davetawalu, who has applied to study next year at Sydney’s high-profile Fashion Design Studio, whose alumni include Dion Lee, Nicky Zimmermann and Jordan Askill.
“Some of the funds raised at the Bula Ball will go to Laisiasa’s fees and the rest for designer workshops,” said Whippy-Knight, who recently organized six designer workshops in Suva helmed by the recently retired Fashion Design Studio head Nicholas Huxley.
In February, Whippy-Knight attended the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange exhibition at Buckingham Palace, where Fiji was represented by Hupfeld Hoerder. She briefly discussed this with Prince Harry in Suva, with the prince encouraging her to “keep supporting Fijian fashion,” she reported.
The royal tour, which provided a boost for many featured designers, was nevertheless something of a lost opportunity for Fijian designers, according to Whippy-Knight, who made several unsuccessful representations to both the British High Commissioner to Fiji and the Fiji Ministry of Foreign Affairs in recent months, in the hope of promoting Fijian designers to Kensington Palace for the Duchess of Sussex’ consideration for her tour wardrobe.
Both offices declined assistance, she claimed, with one reason cited being the embarrassment caused by a 2012 snafu when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge wore designer merchandise made in the Cook Islands while visiting the Solomon Islands.
Neither office responded to a request for comment.
“I’m very angry about it,” Whippy-Knight said. “We’ve been slaving away at this for the last 10 years, trying to bring Fijian fashion designers out into the open.”