Aside from a natural drive for creativity and design, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree for Sandra Tupu. Growing up in Pōneke, her mother and grandmother both had a knack for knitting and making clothing.
“I was lucky to be around all that talent and learn from such gifted mentors,” says the menswear designer. “This resourceful mindset has rubbed off on me, instilling a desire to create for others.”
Originally pursuing a career in technology and living between London and Melbourne, Sandra returned to New Zealand to raise a family in the late 80s. After making her children’s clothing along with her own for years, she eventually enrolled at Auckland University of Technology in 2009 and studied a bachelor of art and design in fashion, specialising in menswear.
Post studies and now based in Tāmaki Makaurau, Sandra set about starting her own business, Flying Fox Clothing, a brand that utilises natural fibres and recycled elements. Her designs reflect her interest in the spaces, shapes, and forms that clothing can create surrounding the body as much as upon the body, often drawing inspiration from culture.
As well as being a busy mum of four and managing her label, Sandra offers an alteration service in her local Waitakere community and has a hand in costume designing for local productions and theatre shows. “My focus is on creating high-quality, custom pieces in a sustainable way for both individuals and the performing arts community,” she says. “I’m equally passionate about extending the lifespan of clothing and finding ways to reduce and upcycle.”
Most recently, Flying Fox Clothing was selected to show in Sydney at Pacific Runway 2023. Sandra displayed a small capsule collection called ‘Afi Vao’.
Tell us about what your day-to-day role involves and what you like about the job as a creative person.
I am a busy mum and prioritise my design projects around family commitments. My happy place is my small studio space in West Auckland, where I always have music playing and where I can feel inspired and creative. When I start designing, I like to explore draping using shapes in fabric on the mannequin. This gives me a good feel and a starting point
What, in your opinion, makes style?
An expression and extension of one’s personal interests and personality. The tings around you that make you feel good.
Describe your personal style and what do you wear when you want to feel your best?
Quirky, vintage and original. I love pieces that hold a memory or have a story attached. I often love adding a hat.
Tell us about a piece of clothing or item you have inherited that’s particularly special to you and why?
I have a beautiful silk purple coat from my Great Aunty Edna, she was a milliner in Wellington in the 1930s and 40s. I loved her style, even into her more senior years she would always visit decked out in full matching outfit — hat, brooch, coat, gloves, shoes, and handbag — and would drive a classic old Humber car. She even painted her old house in Wellington purple!
Tell us about your earliest fashion memory.
In my early teens, my best friend, Stephanie, and I would dress up and head into Wellington on the bus. We thought our newly bought secondhand old gentleman’s slinky dressing gowns looked so cool as overcoats. Hers was maroon and mine was navy. I also loved my voluminous pants made by Maida (a local Wellington label at the time) and my flats, black velvet-like sequined slippers as shoes. I remember saving up for some Vamp pieces also.
Dream fashion collaboration?
What has been the most rewarding thing about creating a label, and what has been the biggest challenge?
Gaining recognition and feedback regarding my designs, whether it’s from an alteration client happy with an improved fit or a wider theatre audience is very rewarding.
The biggest challenge would be promoting myself in our increasingly digital world. As a sole operator, becoming more well-known as a label means I also need to understand which digital platforms are the best fit for my brand, and how to use them effectively.
There are a lot of challenges ahead for designers, from navigating the post-Covid world to working towards sustainability. Is there anything that you hope will emerge creatively from this time?
What the Covid lockdown taught me is to diversify my approach. I’m trying to broaden my brand while staying true to my ethos, including making clothing for all genders. I love being part of a larger creative team and have found a great fit in working with the performing arts community, and in education. I’ve just completed an amazing creative experience on Witi’s Wāhine, designing and crafting the costumes for the special piece of theatre by Nancy Brunning.
I also lecture part-time at AUT, as part of the fashion faculty. I love giving back and connecting with students, and feel I’ve gained immensely by joining a superb creative teaching team. It’s an important aspect of my ongoing direction and is incredibly rewarding work.
How do you incorporate your recycling and upcycling process while still maintaining brand identity?
I’m exploring and extending my knowledge into eco-printing on natural fabrics as well as ways I can use the fleece from our small herd of alpaca.
My first love, however, remains creating my own designs for the individual and increasing my small, timeless collections. Any spare moment I have, you’ll find me in my studio working on these.
What inspired you to work predominantly using upcycling processes?
Incorporating upcycling has always been a part of my design thinking. During Covid lockdowns here in Aotearoa, I started designing and making my latest range, Afi Vao. To start, I tried to use what I had in front of me, the fabrics I already had in stock. No access to specialist finishing services meant I went back in time and used traditional techniques to finish my garments, including hand-stitching some details. I fused in the same way as my grandmother did rather than with modern adhesives. I used fabrics from secondhand clothes as some of the trims for my new designs.
What can we expect to see from you in the Viva Next Gen show at NZFW 2023?
Afi Vao, which means ’wildfire’ in Samoan. I was inspired by the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in February 2009, that from the ashes of devastation comes a frenzy of new life. I visited the Kinglake area one year on, in 2010, and was astonished at some of the regeneration of the bush area. Out of such a disaster, there seemed to be real hope and such a vibrant amount of new growth after such a short time.
Researching the history of the cycle of fire in this beautiful old country and being fascinated by Koorie beliefs about the “living body” of Australia, and their tradition of fire spurred me to create a small capsule range driven by shape, nature and hope.
Afi Vao is my response to the question, “How can we live alongside nature in a more harmonious and respectful way?” My collection incorporates natural fibres, eco-printed designs using fire, flora and metal. The colour palette is rich, earthy and moody. The style has a soft, vulnerable silhouette, using draping. It’s casual, comfortable, layered and loose.
5 Quick Questions
Three Girls Blush pinot róse by Kina Cliffs (Mapua).
Dream holiday destination?
Satuiatua, Savai’i, Samoa.
Top three accounts you follow?
@Yuthanan_, a Japanese style blogger called Nicolas Yuthanan Chalmeau.
@Vintagecustoman — Designer Mitsugu Sasaki, who makes entirely handmade patchwork pieces.
@Pikolclothing — Their sustainable one-off shirts are handmade from repurposed vintage tablecloths in London.
What are you reading at the moment?
Think Like A Horse by Grant Golliher.
What are you listening to?
Turn Around by Sola Rosa featuring Iva Lamkum.