Reese Fernandez-Ruiz, is co-founder and president of fashion and design house Rags2Riches (R2R), which works with community artisans in the Philippines. She visited Aotearoa in 2017 as part of a group of social entrepreneurs from across Southeast Asia who were invited by the Asia New Zealand Foundation as part of the ASEAN Young Business Leaders Initiative. They attended the Social Enterprise World Forum during their visit.
After being inspired by Aotearoa’s culture and tāngata (people), Reese reconnected with the Asia New Zealand Foundation in early 2021, as she looked for someone in Aotearoa to work with. The Foundation was able to put Reese in touch with Māori fashion designer, weaver, and artist Kiri Nathan. From there, a “soul sister” collaboration was born.
Kiri founded the Kāhui Fashion Collective in 2017, a community created to support Māori fashion designers, and took five Māori creatives to China to introduce and guide them into trade. She has continued to play a significant leadership role in supporting Māori designers to connect with China since then.
A match meant to be, both Reese and Kiri were struck at how similar aspects of their cultural traditions were. This was noticeable in the weaving styles. Kiri recognised the weaving patterns in the Philippines as being like the tāniko weave that Māori use. They noted that being able to use these traditional methods of creation to produce something that’s not only modern, but reflective of different histories, is unique. As Kiri has mentioned on her site, ‘the world shifts in powerful ways when indigenous cultures come together.’
The two connected with each other on the experience of running a female-led business, but also through their indigenous connections and backgrounds. They found a shared interest in learning more about the cultures of their respective countries, and the mutual desire to incorporate Filipino and Māori elements into their work.
Kiri says that when going into any new collaboration or project, the first thing to think about is their responsibility to culture – ensuring they’re respecting their own Māori culture and, when working with another culture as in this case, ensuring that culture is respected and safe.
“It’s kind of hard to pull it apart and articulate it, but it is the foremost importance of anything that we do. Our taonga is our taonga,” she says.
“When you start moving into contemporary pieces from contemporary mediums, it shifts into a slightly different place, but that level of respect and responsibility is still there.
“The fact that this is creating employment and cross-cultural relations, the fact that it’s one indigenous-owned wāhine business working with another, these things are all really important to us, and we feel like this is part of our responsibility in ensuring that we’re respecting our cultures.”
Reese — working with R2R designer Chris and team — has been developing a bag collection with Kiri since February 2021, overcoming Covid-19 travel restrictions and working across oceans via zoom and email.
“We [R2R] collaborated with Kiri to put in the elements that could marry and connect our cultures together, and we explained that to our artisans as well. They were very thrilled to know that it’s ideas and images from a different culture, but it seems still so familiar,” Reese says.
The collection features a mix of bags and clutches - Pāhi iti, Pāhi nui, and Terapēke. The collaboration has been launched in New Zealand; and will soon have its debut in the Philippines.
Consciously made with waste materials and durable fabrics, and handwoven by artisans in the Philippines, the bags were made with the intention to carry the story behind them into the future.
Kiri notes that the designs recognise the shared importance of natural elements for both Filipino and Māori. “When Māori introduce ourselves, we introduce ourselves via our pepeha, so which maunga to we belong to, which awa, which river do we belong to. And so that sort of whakaaro (thought) came into pulling this design together; and what we landed on was although the ocean separated us, you can stand on your maunga and connect to each other. And so the patterning on each of the bags is handwoven maunga separated by ocean.”
When you think of what these two designers have achieved together, it goes to show that opportunities to connect to Asia are not all lost, even in our ever-changing environment.
Quotes in this article have been taken from video recording and edited for clarity.