For all its perceived vanity and exaggerated grandeur, fashion means more than a mass-manufactured winter coat with a price tag that requires you to sacrifice half of your monthly wages. For some, an item of clothing is a labour of love, carefully thought through with each stitch in place to remind us that clothes are a reflection of one’s identity.
To Lela Tuionetoa, fashion is all this and more. It is also a homage to her cultural roots and a metaphorical fist-pump to the youth of Canberra, inspiring them to charge fearlessly into the great unknown – and look fabulous while they’re at it.
Lela is no stranger to adversity. Her clothes label, FOREIGN, is the manifestation of her efforts to take charge of her destiny and forge ahead with nothing but sheer determination, love for fashion and a whole lotta courage.
This born-and-raised Canberran has always harboured a deep love for fashion and textiles. She had a constant, niggling feeling that she would be happiest turning this passion into a career. So when she was made redundant at her job of 12 years with Telstra Wholesale, she considered it a blessing in disguise and figured it was all the affirmation she needed to follow through with her life-long dream.
Hope renewed, she got to work, completing her certificate 4 in Business management and her diploma in Business to help her learn the tricks of the trade.
Motivated by the thought of being her own boss and creating a name for herself, Lela created FOREIGN after months of researching, designing, sampling and testing the audience and making contact with various suppliers and purchasing samples to start selling online. With the launch of FOREIGN in March, Lela’s dreams finally came to fruition.
Perhaps even more fascinating than her drive to achieve is the inspiration that steers her brand of contemporary designs – which, ironically, is derived from her grandparents. “My grandmother is half French and my grandfather on my mother’s side is half British – however, they both grew up in the islands of Tonga,” Lela says, making her an eclectic mix of cultures, something she has embraced and celebrated through fashion. For Lela, fashion is a universal language, constantly evolving and inspired by designs from around the world -hence the aptly-named title ‘FOREIGN’ for her brand.
Lela is also determined to contribute to the growing market within the fashion industry that caters to all women, regardless of size. It was why she fell in love with US and UK-inspired fashion. She particularly admired how freely the women there expressed themselves through their wardrobe selection.
“I love that they create more fashionable styles of clothing to suit bigger and thick women. Growing up, I always had issues when shopping with the sizes available so I always had to shop from the US or UK. The culture is so free in the way they dress,” she says. A culture she believes Australia has not fully embraced yet.
With FOREIGN, this tenacious Canberran is aiming to celebrate Streetwear and pop culture fashion, bringing it to the streets of the nation’s capital the best way she knows how.
The team at FOREIGN constantly takes feedback on board and are continually improving the brand and creating new lines. “Feedback has driven me to push my designs and ranges,” Lela says. Her exclusive shoe-line – Eclatant collection ’18 – was also launched last month.
FOREIGN is currently based online, however, Lela plans to eventually open up her own store in Canberra.
“I’d love to create a small team and own my own factory and shop based here in Canberra where I can go and create no downtime and jobs as well. It would be a dream and the next step for me,” Lela muses.
FOREIGN also hopes to do consignment work with other fashion companies in the near future. For now, they are using social media promotion strategies and word-of-mouth to deliver on their goals in the upcoming years.
“You only live once, dream big,” quips Lela.