Building a fashion legacy – The rise of Rosie Emberson Semisi

Some of the designs by Rosie Emberson Semisi. Picture: FACEBOOK

Rosie Emberson Semisi’s contribution to the fashion industry in Fiji is unsurpassed.

With a career spanning more than 30 years, Rosie has participated in more than 29 runway shows, has a successful design business under her belt, and an active advocate, teacher and mentor to the industry.

She has held positions on the Fashion Council of Fiji and the Fijian Fashion Designer’s Alliance.

She has shared her creative and technical knowledge with innumerable students, many of whom are working in the industry.

Fiji Fashion Week talks to this much-loved and lauded icon in the industry about her life and love of fashion.

Rosie, there are many in Fiji who know about your work in the fashion industry, but for anyone who is not familiar with you, can you tell us a little about Rosie Emberson Semisi, the person and the brand?

I have been designing for a very long time but my business was registered in 2016. This was a period where I decided to start retailing, consulting and doing part-time teaching whilst looking at starting a school of creative arts and fashion in Fiji.

My first showcase was at the Tiki Togs competition in 1983 and have shown collections since that time including in Fiji, Australia, New Zealand and at the Festival of Pasific Arts in Western Samoa in 2008. I’m a regular on the Fiji Fashion Week runway and showed my first collection in 2009.

I completed a Certificate III/IV in Visual Arts from FIT in 2005-2006. I also successfully completed Expressive Arts and Art History as an elective at the University of the South Pacific (USP) while doing my Bachelor of Arts in Education.

Having enrolled at USP to do my Post-Graduate diploma in Pacific Studies, I want to also do my Masters with special emphasis on fashion and textile in Fiji and Pacific in my thesis writing. I will continue to study and invest in our education system. I want to be able to write books on fashion in several languages so that it can be used in remote areas in communities and schools for education purposes. I want to one day leave a legacy in the Fashion Industry.

It’s obvious from your collections that you place a lot of emphasis on the visual arts. Your collections are highly decorative and use really unique shapes and silhouettes. It is always more than recreating a simple shape of a skirt or dress. No two collections are the same. Can you tell us a bit about what inspires you?

What inspires me are things that emotionally affect me; it could be emotionally good or sad — everything in life inspires me and I try and contextualise my feelings to substantiate my storyboards, hence my different collections. I’m inspired by my culture, my identity, my history, events, art, music, people — everything and anything at any given time.

I usually work from how or what I am emotionally experiencing at that particular time and try to apply that to what is happening locally or globally.

How do you turn that inspiration into a garment and a collection?

My design process revolves around developing a storyboard which draws upon inspiration, concept, emotion and mood boards. When I fulfill my boards I then look at the different frames: subjective, structural, cultural and modern. All these put my storyboard into perspective to represent my inspiration in my collection. I maybe inspired by different things and once I am satisfied with my collection I then look at the following:

  •  Textile — Textile and textile prints are very important. We have identified our color palette in the Mood Board so for a fashion show I have to ensure the principles and elements are applied creating a relationship on the garments
  • Styles  — These are usually created in the Conceptual Board BUT having swatches of fabrics will confirm styles, its drape, its fit etc…
  • Pattern making — This is a very important component of a collection. Usually styles shown on the catwalk are not for the retail stores but a way to draw attention to your collection and marketing strategy. Nevertheless, having the proper pattern is very important. With this comes grading but for most designers, custom-made for models ensures a perfect fit and this makes a great difference on the catwalk.
  • Production — Very important as quality is the defining factor when it comes to selling your product. Production plays a very important role in the Fashion Industry and for the catwalk, needs all the expertise one can get. Several fittings are involved and final garments are properly pressed, labeled and hung.
  • Finishing — Quality checking, ironing or pressing is toward the final stages. Usually garments are folded neatly into extra large containers with wheels so there is less movement during transport.
  • Display — Must be easy for the models and dressers to access during fashion shows at back-a-haus. For me as a designer my final product is a final product when it comes off the catwalk.
  • Marketing — This is a very important part of the success of my collection as I am identifying my markets and supplying them with a coherent and cohesive collection to satisfy their needs and fulfill my creative innovation and my quest for perfection and satisfaction.

Fashion is very competitive, yet very unique. Every designer will have their own unique composition, their own unique clients and their own unique marketing strategy. We must also be on par with modern technology on marketing, yet we need to network as much as possible.

We are right in the middle of this COVID-19 pandemic and around the world we have seen the impacts of this on many businesses, including fashion. Can you tell us about how COVID-19 has affected your business? Are you doing anything differently?

When COVID-19 surfaced and China was in lockdown, I as a designer was concerned about stock with the wholesalers as we are dependent on their supply. And then when we first experienced the confirmed cases people started to produce face masks. My experience was very interesting because

I wanted to ensure that my masks were compliant with World Health Organisation (WHO) standards. We discussed with other designers on the ‘dos and don’ts’ and I even visited the Health Department in the Ministry of Health for certification as I had used my little knowledge on the chemical and physical structures of textile. Nevertheless the quest for face masks has come at a very crucial time where the need is paramount.

As a designer, our garment sales stopped as people prioritised. What did I do? I continued to employ my machinist but this time I delivered cut pieces to their homes where they produced to practice physical distancing. Our mask sales have helped us sustain ourselves and also single mothers or mothers who are bread-winners. The lockdown has made us see things differently. I am more concerned about those hundreds of women who depend on the Tourism Industry to sell their craft, the performers, the fashion designers, the carvers who are most vulnerable and have submitted a paper to the Government to engage every woman with sewing machines to produce masks for the Government. I realised that clothing at this point and time is not a priority, but masks are so I will concentrate on production.

This has also given me time to re-look at what other areas in fashion will be able to assist me after this pandemic goes, as people will not be in a rush to purchase new clothes. For my business we are producing protective masks because it is an essential service and we are looking at diversifying into handsanitisers as a way to work with women. Whatever the circumstances we need to be proactive, brave and smart at the same time. Taking advantage of the situation and turning it into something successful, something rewarding is my motto.

It’s so true that the circumstances around COVID-19 have made people stop and look more closely at their lives and needs and wants. And I think that this finely tunes into the thinking globally about the fashion industry and what it stands for. Is the current system and industry what is needed? Is it healthy? Does it create opportunities or exploit? Is it a sustainable industry the way it is? What are your thoughts on sustainability in the fashion industry?

Sustainability in the fashion industry can only happen when there is collaboration between all stakeholders. Sustainability can happen when we are able to identify common goals, invest in those potential areas, nurture and grow. We cannot expect growth when we are divided. We need to work together, be more inclusive and implement strategies like capacity building and up-skilling.

Sustainability in the fashion industry can only happen when you address the education system. Fashion needs to be included in the school curriculum. Fashion is a technical subject that is similar to technical drawing, introducing E-learning in fashion with cad and visual arts. All these components will help build a strong and solid foundation for the fashion industry Which in turn will be more sustainable. It needs tenacity, it needs unity, it needs change — only then can we have a sustainable industry. When a structure is in place, then growth and development will happen, only then can the Fashion Industry survive and succeed.

Sustainability in the industry is very important to me because I can see potential. I believe Fiji is a very young and developing country and Fiji can be the fashion hub of the Pacific. It is important to me because it will help sustain our Artisans, build lives for our people, the marginalised, the unemployed, the single mothers, the country as a whole. It is important to me because Fiji will be investing in SMEs to help generate revenue for our country. Sustainability is important to me because there is a huge potential in this industry for our people, physically, spiritually and mentally.

I love that you are thinking and acting in those ways. It is such an inspiring vision for the future of the industry in Fiji with no-one left behind. Do you have any personal goals on how to achieve this?

Well, I want people to know me as a great fashion educator and designer; someone who is able to change the education system to be accommodating and more relevant. I want to be known as the designer who first developed the first durable textile in Fiji using masi and plant waste. I want to be the Designer who changed the industry in its potential and changed th mindset of people that Fashion is just as important as any other study. People get the wrong perception that fashion is not academic. Wrong fashion has its academic component in chemistry, biology, sociology, anthropology, history, art and art fundamentals, TCF Mathematics for pattern making, financial literacy, fashion business and so on.

I want to be the first designer to enable people to believe in themselves and to always ‘get up, dress up and never, never give up’ and share this message in my motivational presentations in professional grooming and development courses. I want to be the first designer to ensure that Fiji has access to fashion education and to fully explore and invest in its potential. I want to be the first designer to help stimulate growth in the fashion industry in a more sustainable manner. I want to be the first designer to create the first-ever school of creative arts and fashion.

I want to be the first designer to ensure every woman in Fiji has access to proper medical care through fashion events, every woman has access to start-up capital and build their businesses, that every woman is able to sustain themselves as stipulated in the 2000 and 2030 Millennium Development Goals.

And we see you doing this Rosie. You have amazing skills and talents, great vision and such commitment to the community. You have so many talents, supporting designer education, mentoring, teaching – if you weren’t a designer, what would you be doing?

If I wasn’t a fashion designer I would be teaching visual arts. I would be a painter and teaching art history as well.

Thank you Rosie. Let’s hope that you achieve all that you set out.

Rosie’s collections can be found at Dinosaur Boutique, My FNPF Centre Suva or online through Rosie’s Facebook: Rosie Emberson Semisi.

  •  Ellen Whippy-Knight is the managing director of Fiji Fashion Week Ltd.

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