The ever-demanding want to accessorize one’s wardrobe is due largely in part to the ever-present need to accessorize one’s life. There’s no denying that the purpose of fashion is to make a statement and Lopeti Etu’s hats do just that. By creatively fusing his avant-garde imagination with the influences of his care-free culture, Lopeti Etu is turning heads while styling them. It is refreshing to learn how this talented milliner made the cross-Pacific and cross-country journey to New York City and well, no one tells his story better than him.
TWID: Why hats? Why have you chosen hats as the means by which you showcase your creativity?
LE: I love hats because it connects me to the roots of how I learned to love in life, thanks to my grandfather’s endless love and care towards me. Some memories in life just stick out and my grandfather making me a hat was special to me. I started my fashion career with hats in San Francisco in the mid-80’s. I moved to New York in the 90’s and went back and forth between hats and clothes.
TWID: You mentioned on your website that your grandfather once made you a handmade hat for a dance. Did he also teach you how to make hats, or did you learn elsewhere?
LE: Sione Ma’ama is my grandfather and he could do anything. I was so young and it still has a profound effect on me today as a creative adult. Sione taught me how to be kind. Being creative is a survival skill in my hometown of Kolonga and throughout the island [of Tonga].
TWID: How did you end up where you are today and what did you do to get there?
LE: My grandfather and grandmother, Latu Ma’ama, were instrumental in my journey. I hope everyone has someone in their life that showed them kindness. I do not believe I would [be] alive today if I had forgotten their voices and faces engulfing my heart and mind. I had a very brief time with them, but it is all I know to keep strong. I am here today because David Balluff believes in me and you only need one person in life to believe in what you are most passionate about.
TWID: What is your design aesthetic and from where do you draw inspiration?
LE: More is just that – more. I do not subscribe to the “less is more” theory. Inspiration is a broad word when you are talking about art. I draw from within after I have witnessed my surroundings. It is rare when you go deep inside your mind and pull inspiration out; it’s when you are most vulnerable.
TWID: Do you also design clothes?
LE: Yes, I do make clothes and would love to do more in the future. I just cannot afford to do it now. Doing a clothing line in New York is crazy expensive and if you do not have a backer, there might be a homeless center in your future. Okay, get ready for this list of crazy names for labels I designed for and are now discontinued: 1). H.O.R.R.S (Habana Outpost Recycled Reject Shop), 2). FIDUCIARY, 3). FAIS DO-DO, and recently, my partner and I have started a t-shirt company called GENERAL ASSEMBLY. I make dresses that go with the t-shirt line. I never wanted to use my own name for a label; I was not proud of the name. I use it now because the other half of the millinery company, David Balluff, insisted. It also helps when you are dealing with people you know in the business.
TWID: What is your vision behind Lopeti Etu, the brand, and what do you hope your designs do for your customer?
LE: I want to be successful and to do well financially. I want the label to be synonymous with generosity. I want my customer to feel like I did when I put on my plaid bell bottoms in Samoa. I felt new and airy; I just thought I was the coolest thing since sliced bread. I want people to feel special when wearing my hats.
TWID: What have been some challenges you’ve faced in your journey to becoming a designer/milliner?
LE: I wish this on no one. I had no one and no support, and I wasted many years just floating through life with no focus. I cannot tell you enough the importance of having someone to care for you and who believes in you.
TWID: What has been your greatest accomplishment and what are your goals/dreams?
LE: Getting on the cover of Paris Vogue. We hope to get Italian Vogue and V [Magazine] in our future and every other magazine. My dream is for us to have a financial cushion and travel the world and find a way to give back and allow someone else to realize their dreams.
TWID: What can we expect from you in the near future?
LE: Great hats for daring patrons.
TWID: What advice do you have for others who wish to pursue a career in fashion (apparel/accessories)?
LE: Do accessories; it will not deplete your wallet as badly as doing a clothing line. If you do not have money, start out with t-shirts. Everyone buys them and we all wear them; it will never die. You just have to start somewhere and you find yourself where you need to be. Tell people to f**k off if they do not believe in what you are doing as long as you are not hurting anyone. If you are a total stud and you think you only need yourself to begin a business, I envy you and good luck. I am too insecure for that. I have a great support system and I love it.
Lopeti Etu is a beacon of inspiration to any Polynesian aspiring to make their mark in the fashion industry. His work has graced the pages of Glamour Magazine, O Magazine, and The New York Post as well as the runways of New York Fashion Week. Lopeti Etu shares, “Do what you love in this short life and do not give up on it. Your way is good enough and stop believing in negativity; that is an internal battle buil[t] inside of you. You need to know you are great; even if you are not now, you will be in your future. It’s about you and only you.” With that said, hats off to Lopeti Etu for sharing and making the best of his creative talent and doing so in style.
-Article Written by: Juliet Uata
*Exclusive Photo courtesy of Lopeti Etu and Marc Bouwer
*Paris Vogue Cover courtesy of Condé Nast and Paris Vogue
*YouTube video courtesy of satanspitbucket