HELIAKI is an Indigenous Pacific Islander-owned clothing brand that highlights the community's culture.

Heliaki Uses Fashion as a Movement

The brand honors the Pacific Islands, one culturally focused garment at a time

HELIAKI is an Indigenous Pacific Islander-owned clothing brand that highlights the community's culture.

Photos courtesy of HELIAKI

TV host Jeannie Mai Jenkins spoke at the White House’s Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander event in May, making an ignorant comment regarding the inclusive AANHPI acronym: “Nobody’s remembering that, just use #AsianHeritageMonth,” Mai said. It was a throwaway comment that illustrated how often NHPI people are erased even by Asian Americans, preventing them from being a part of the conversation—particularly harmful because it bears such sinister resemblance to the erasure in many country’s histories.

Celina Tupou-Fulivai

Courtesy of HELIAKI

Heliaki, an Indigenous Pacific Islander-owned fashion brand created by community organizer Celina Tupou-Fulivai, challenges that erasure one garment at a time. The company creates pieces that use fashion as a conduit of cultural resistance. Heliaki’s namesake comes from a Tongan poetic device that encourages the layering of meaning from experiences, culture, family, neighbors and community. The brand, as Tupou-Fulivai puts it, believes that “at the intersection of art and activism is storytelling…Using Tongan Heliaki, our garments are a form of storytelling that promotes critical thinking, sparks conversations, and inspires empathy when you unravel their hidden meanings.”

The brand has created thought-provoking garments designed with culture at the forefront, from their “Pacific Islanders Are Not Invisible” Tee to their cultivated “Pasifika Futurism” collection. Through fashion, Tupou-Fulivai hopes to utilize these garments as a way to represent NHPI people while bringing about awareness to the colonization, militarization, climate change, and nuclear testing negatively affecting the Pacific and its communities.

I recently spoke with Tupou-Fulivai about the brand's emergence into the fashion world and the impact of these cultural-forward garments they create.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Andre Lawes Menchavez: I want to start off by asking a little bit more about how Heliaki got started. What was the inspiration behind creating a collection that's so identity focused—a collection that really pays tribute to where you come from? What was the genesis of the story?
Celina Tupou-Fulivai: I'm gonna preface all of this today by apologizing in advance if I get emotional! [Laughs] But, essentially, the brand was born from a lack of representation. Although I work in the community, in tandem with different community organizations, and do a lot of amazing things for our people, I was kind of like, “What else is missing here? Where do we still not have quite the representation in this cultural climate?” And I figured [in fashion], there is the potential of something, something also easily consumable to people. So why not create t-shirts as a super accessible medium for change?

ALM: That’s incredible. Fashion is long overdue for more creatives of color behind its helm. I’m curious though, that because this representation doesn’t exist, have you had any issues creating this brand?
CT: I'm in the third year now of establishing this brand. And it's been great, really, until sort of this year, when I started speaking out more about some of the invisibility and disparities there are [for NHPI people]. One thing I do understand is that my brand represents the thoughts and cultures of our people all throughout the diaspora. And that doesn't just mean in the United States. It's been really cool to sort of have a brand or a platform that sort of cultivates conversations.

ALM: That’s especially important too given that when we think of the AANHPI community, oftentimes NHPI people are physically not even present in celebrations, and their ideas and thoughts are rarely shared aloud in the conversations we have on heritage months like last May.
CT: Yeah, for sure. I think about what happened, you know, at the White House for AANHPI Month. I shared that clip of Jennie Mai sort of being like, “Oh no, AANHPI is too long. So yeah, let's just call it the Asian month." And I used our social media to speak about it and it’s just been so chaotic in the comments. But the one thing that I do find good about it is that it sort of sparked this conversation on a different level. And I think other people who aren't Pasifikas sort of got to see where we're coming from, how we feel about these sorts of things. Having this brand and platform gives me a way to cultivate these conversations about representation, and although I've been getting some flack for it, more than anything, I see this as an example of the importance of civic engagement. I’ve been able to speak, and actually be heard, when we haven’t been listened to from our “allies” for so long.

ALM: Exactly, and that’s what makes Heliaki to me so special. I can tell you are authentic in your direction and intentional with how you lead your brand; it’s beautiful to see. I do want to ask, in your perspective, what ways do you feel you’ve been intentional with your creation of Helaiki and your pursuit of creating a fashion brand the industry hasn’t seen before?
CT: I feel like there's a lot of soul and heart and good intention that goes into creating this brand. Because I think about people like my mother, who has been in this country for over 40 years now and just due to language barriers and access, she's still undocumented. My hope in all of this is, like, okay, maybe Heliaki won’t make a lot of money. Maybe it's not lucrative. But maybe if it's just one t-shirt that talks about one issue, whether it be climate change, or whether it be about what's happening in West Papua, or whatever…if just a single shirt of ours is seen by someone—it doesn’t even have to be seen by a Pasifika person—to me that’s worth it. A shirt can spark a conversation, right? Our pieces can lead to tolerance, change, and humanizing people.

ALM: Yes! And these pieces can be worn and take space in places all over the world! I think it’s really amazing to see fashion used in such a culturally forward way! I know, too, that in your mission statement for Heliaki, you really want the brand to serve as a “healing vessel for the community.” From one community organizer to another, I am really curious to know: do you feel your background as a community organizer has provided inspiration at all to the creation of this brand?
CT: Oh, yeah. 100 percent. A lot of Indigenous people place this sort of holistic, sort of, I don’t know how to explain it, like, your “mana” I’d say, that goes into things, our spirit. And that mana is in the foundation of this brand, community organizing is 100 percent the foundation of this brand. Also, the beautiful thing is I learned a lot of lessons about community organizing, activism, and inclusivity that are in the foundations of Heliaki, from the Black community, straight up, 100 percent. I grew up in a town, you know, over here in Seattle, where there were no other Polynesian people, there were no other Pacific Islanders. And so it was the Black community that took me in and taught me about what it means to unite. I feel we do that with this brand.

ALM: It's incredible to hear how cross-cultural organizing really played a part in the creation of Heliaki. We can definitely learn a lot from each other's struggles and experiences and Asian/Asian American brands could definitely learn something from you. But with this foundation in your brand established though, what are some of your hopes for the brand going forward?
CT: Well, Heliaki is small. My hope for the brand is to grow it even more, hopefully, to the point where it is able to create economic opportunities for other people. I have a lot of dreams but unfortunately with the lack of representation, there's not anybody there to model what that looks like for me yet, and that's the challenge that I face. And we also have a huge impostor syndrome sort of built into who we are in this country, and then there’s also no blueprint for us, for real. Like, everything I’ve done I’ve had to teach myself how to.

ALM: That’s so real. As a first generation person myself, I feel the struggle in having no clue on how to take on the journey ahead. But as we end the interview, I wanted to ask if there were any releases ahead we should keep an eye out for from Heliaki?
CT: I'm working on making actual textiles and different prints and thinking about what ways they can be used either to make dresses, or even to make a mixture of things too. Like, we can make prints of our indigenous symbols, but we can also create, on the other hand, like, a corned beef bathing suit! [Laughs] Because it’s funny and it’s relatable! And so I am trying to be good about adding things to the brand in the future that are fun and relatable, but then also adding pieces to the collection that are also educational. And so I'm figuring out how to sort of incorporate the fun and the educating through our brand in the future, but with textiles right now. And I think that's kind of the next iteration of what Heliaki will look like going forward.

You can shop Heliaki’s existing collections, and keep up to date with their garments coming out soon, through their website.

Published on July 21, 2023

Words by Andre Lawes Menchavez

Andre Lawes Menchavez (he/him) is a Filipinx, Indigenous and queer community organizer who uses journalism as a tool of activism, constantly seeking to lift up marginalized communities through his work. He received his bachelor of arts degree in law, societies and justice at the University of Washington and his master of arts in specialized journalism—with a focus in race and social justice reporting—from the University of Southern California. Find him on Instagram at @itsjustdrey.