Pac Islanders in New York to protest against Nanette Lepore and her 'Aztec' dress

Photo Credit: 
Ralph Misa Photography/Ralph Misa
Tongan writer, artist and activist Vaimoana Litia Makakaufaki Niumeitolu.


(New York City, NY)--Fijians irate over the naming of New York designer Nanette Lepore’s ‘Aztec’ dress – which they say contain Fijian masi (or tapa) designs – will have their concerns voiced in the Big Apple, during a protest being organized by Tongan writer and activist Vaimoana Litia Makakaufaki Niumeitolu.

Masi – called kapa in Hawai’i, ngatu in Tonga, siapo in Samoa and hiapo in Niue –are decorative cloths made from the bark of the paper mulberry tree. The strips of bark are pounded together to make one cloth; the cloth is then dried and decorated, painted and personalized in various ways utilizing motifs and patterns that are unique to each island group.

Controversy over the ‘Aztec’ dress began brewing last month when a number of Fijians blasted Lepore on her Facebook fan page, demanding that she acknowledge the designs are Fijian. The drama came after Women’s Health Magazine ran a spread on Lepore called “Passport to Style”, that features the new ‘Aztec’ dress. While the dress is called ‘Aztec’, a photo caption in the spread informs readers the designs are African. Fijians maintain they are Fijian masi designs.

“The South Pacific Islander community in New York City is very close,” Niumeitolu told from Utah early this week. “I will be organizing a protest in front of her office building. Whether the whole world has heard or not, Oceania solidarity is in full force. We mean business. We are not going to be silent about this.”

The New York resident has drafted an open letter to Lepore titled “Passport to Stealing” in which she makes several requests. The letter has gained support from people around the world: in Fiji, the United States, New Zealand, Australia, United Kingdom, Japan, Chile, Spain, Tonga, Canada, Netherlands and the Republic of Korea. An activist in West Papua has translated her letter into Indonesian, for publication.

“My goal, which is also the intent of my letter to Nanette Lepore, is to make a difference,” Niumeitolu explained. “My goal is not to condemn Nanette Lepore. My goal is to educate her. That would make a difference. I actually would love to have a conversation with her and invite her to take one of my educational workshops.”

She says there is an abundance of knowledge and education on art, culture and countries, adding that the days are long gone where one can just “pilfer another one’s art and culture and have people be silent about it.” Niumeitolu alleges the designs of the ‘Aztec Dress’ have been stolen from Fiji.

“I will not be silent in having a major international fashion designer steal designs and patterns from Fiji, especially when this knowledge is so clear for anyone and everyone,” she said. “In addition, she is generating profits from these designs and patterns that are sacred and revered. Furthermore, not only is Fiji and Fijian art not acknowledged but the information (she describes them as Aztec) is incorrect and misleading. I am here to share and stand for the truth. I am here to educate and bring awareness to those who are unaware and unfamiliar.”

The polyester dress has a Made in New York label and the manufacturer’s suggested retail price is USD$398.

Hawai’i resident Kat “Manu” Lobendahn, born in Fiji’s capital of Suva, has joined Niumeitolu and demands that Lepore “give credit where credit is due.” She drafted an online petition early this week on The petition seeks to collect 1,000 names by midnight, Saturday, Sept. 21. As of 4 a.m. (Hawai’i Standard Time), the petition had gathered 598 supporters.

Asked how one can be certain that the designs are Fijian, Lobendahn told “one only needs to look at the Fijian masi to see that those are same designs that Nanette Lepore has used without authorization.”

“[T]o make matters worse, she labels the designs as Aztec and African,” she added. “Those Fijian designs are traditional and have been around for hundreds of years.”

Lobendahn pointed out when Fiji Airways (formerly Air Pacific), the flag carrier of Fiji, sought to patent 15 masi motifs as part of their rebranding “there was a huge outcry from Fijians and Pacific Islanders all over the world.” She alleges theft and fraud on Lepore’s part.

“So if Fiji’s national carrier can’t even do that, where does Nanette Lepore get off thinking she can get away with this,” she asked. “I was born and raised in Suva, Fiji and have lived in Hawai’i most of my life. If the designer gave credit where credit is due and acknowledge the Fijian authenticity of the masi designs on her dresses, I don’t think there would be such a large outcry against her but instead of doing that, she has plainly pilfered these Fijian masi designs (I can’t emphasize Fijian masi designs enough) and attributed their origins to African and Aztec cultures which is so far removed from the truth. She has committed an act of fraud and has yet to sincerely account for her theft.”

On its Web site Aug. 7, 2013, Mai Life Magazine, a publication based in Fiji, reported that after being harshly criticized by Fijians and other people on her fan page, Lepore posted a status saying sorry.

“I am truly sorry for misnaming the Aztec Dress. I respect local artists everywhere and I apologize for any offense this has caused,” Mai Life quotes Lepore. inquiries inboxed Monday to Lepore on her Facebook fan page, have not been answered.

Fiji Fashion Week says it stands by the indigenous people of Fiji and the Pacific who own these masi/tapa designs and expressed their disappointment “at the blatant disregard for the intellectual property rights portrayed by Nanette Lepore,” Mai Life reports.

One person who commented on Lepore’s fan page, called on Fijians to do their research.

“To all ‘Fijians’ claiming their tapa/masi designs are stolen by this company, take some time and do a mild research. You will see great similarities between Aztec art and the art of the Fijian masi/tapa,” Mai Life Magazine quotes Facebook user Faraaz Mustapha. “I feel there is no real infringement on cultural heritage. And if it is, it will only go to the Aztec people, since they are referenced in it. This bickering is like fighting who made the first spear.”

A quick Google search this morning showed that the dress is called the ‘The Artisan Dress’ on On, the dress is listed as the ‘Aztec Linen Dress.’

Niumeitolu has returned to New York. She will soon host a meeting to organize the protest.

Republic of Fiji, part of Melanesia, is a group of more than 333 islands in the South Pacific Ocean, located 3,159 miles southwest of Hawai’i. The population is more than 850,000.

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