Twenty five year old Vili Tonu once splattered a black suit in shades of pink paint down one side, from shoulder to shoe, to win first prize at an Otahuhu College masquerade ball as a teenager.
Vili Tonu and Kylie Bax
Seven years later the talented young spatial design graduate and now fashion student has won a top fashion prize again. And this time, thanks to international supermodel Kylie Bax and a unique fashion education collaboration, Vili’s work is expected to capture global attention.
Vili Tonu designed and made a softly layered, finely pleated Paper Dress made from Kleenex® Cottonelle® toilet paper, along with 31 other fashion Diploma students from NZ Fashion Tech, in the high-stakes Kleenex® Cottonelle® Paper Dresses Challenge, taking just four weeks.
Vili’s work captured the attention of Bax and a panel of judges and took out the top prize. The achievement meant that Vili’s winning dress would be centre-stage – modelled by Kylie Bax – in a high-level photo-shoot for NEXT magazine.
His winning Paper Dress is called ‘Both Worlds’. A softly-orbiting skirt contrasts with a more tailored, architectural bodice. The skirt’s thirteen circling layers are drawn from Vili’s memories of Tapa cloth design and they also hint at the way early colonial cloth dolls were contoured by layering soft fabric circles together.
The pleated detail of the bodice is a salute to the kauri canopy of the Auckland Art Gallery which is Vili’s favourite place. He says it is “a warm, natural example of New Zealand’s built heritage – and in particular its meaning to Maori.”
Raised in South Auckland, Vili brought the duality of his proud Tongan heritage and his New Zealand life together in elegant harmony with his Kleenex® Cottonelle® Paper Dress.
“Some young people in South Auckland where I live identify with pop-American culture. When I left high school I became aware of the distance that had come between me and my Tongan heritage. Through design I am paying respect and embracing it more,” Vili says.
Vili’s mother used to make all of the Tonu children’s clothes. Vili says he and his brother would get mocked at school for the pants she sewed for them out of blanket material, but he liked his Mum’s “bespoke fashion”.
“It was an early form of upcycling,” says Vili, but he describes one fashion near-miss. “Once Mum made us pea-soup-yellow tracksuits with grey cuffs and neck bands,” he says.
Vili’s favourite celebrity dress is the Tom Ford gown Gwyneth Paltrow wore to the 2012 Oscars and also admires Australian designer Dion Lee who designs for Cue. In New Zealand he’d like to be an assistant designer for a label like World, but his immediate goal is simply to “get a job”.
For the young man who hadn’t sewn a stitch when he walked through the doors of NZ Fashion Tech’s Auckland fashion school 18 months ago, it has been an epic first-chapter.