Linda Lepou is marketing a Pacific brand. [CHRIS SKELTON/Fairfax NZ]

Lindah Lepou's garments have always been astonishing, but it has taken years, she says, for people to understand what she is really on about: Pacific haute couture as art, from natural fibre, with reference to her own Samoan ancestry.

While she was painstakingly creating enough work to brand her an artist, she was obliged to be a dressmaker.

''I can't stand those brides,'' she says.

She remembers one Auckland client who dismissed a finished bridal gown because it made her hips look big. Lepou told her she needed a surgeon, not a dressmaker.

Yet it was a wedding dress that confirmed Lepou as an artist and began to pave her way to bigger things, bigger cities, bigger ideas. In 1994, her design, Flax tutu, was a runner-up in the Benson & Hedges Fashion Design Awards and bought by Te Papa. After that, and other awards, she was asked to make a wedding dress for Unveiled: 200 Years of Wedding Fashion, shown at Te Papa and curated by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The dress, made of tree bark, took six weeks of intensive work.

Lepou, funded by Creative New Zealand, has just been showing work in a Pacific fashion show in London.  Meetings with curators from the V&A and the British Museum ''killed 500 birds with one stone''.

''After all the drama I had in New Zealand trying to make people understand, they just got it. I left London thinking that was so effortless, feeling relieved. Someone's got me.''

Within a fortnight of her return, her current City Gallery exhibition, Aitu: Homage to Spirit, was open. It's a multi-media show involving clothes, photography, film and songs relating to three legendary Samoan folk heroines.

The London trip and the City Gallery show, says Lepou, have opened ''a giant door''.

''I don't know what's through the door but it represents a new chapter in my life.''

New doors have not always heralded happy journeys for Lepou who, as a child, struggled with change, and being fa'afafine - Samoan men who adopt feminine behaviours. She doesn't believe fa'afafine are made rather than born.

''I've always been fa'afafine. There's a lot of talk about no daughters, let's make up a son as a daughter. That kind of grates. How can anyone be changed like that?''


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