Waist adornment is a surprising feature of the craft revival happening across the Indo-Pacific. Mele Tonga Tamanilo is a designer who celebrates the traditional Tongan dress known as kiekie by inventing new designs and introducing new eye-catching materials.
We chatted with Mele one Friday evening to learn more about her wonderful kiekie. Here’s a summary of what we discovered.
Covering the waist is a sign of respect. Growing up in Tonga, Mele remembers wearing the kiekie to church functions and family events. It’s a festive adornment, though for more formal events like funerals, the aveave waist garment is worn. For special White Sunday church services, they wear the ta’ovala mat around the waist.
At school in Tonga, Mele learnt to weave baskets, but it was later in Aotearoa New Zealand that she learnt to knit from her grandmother. While most adornment in Tonga is made from plant-based material, in Auckland they gather materials from what they could find in city markets.
Mele launched her business Kamunez three years ago and she takes commissions through social media for special occasions, like graduations. She is particularly fond of rhinestones as an embellishment and some of her kiekie end up hanging on the wall as souvenirs.
As Mele says herself:
I absolutely love making modernized kiekies because it always amazes me that people, even celebrities want to wear our work. It’s a blessing and one that I’ll always be grateful for. Not only that, but I believe that our modernized kiekies encourage our people, especially our younger generation to maintain our culture and tradition no matter where in the world we are, because the new and modern materials being used enable women to also stay in line with modern fashion—a win win situation.