"I'm not a Maori or a Polynesian, I'm a Cook Islander"

Tuesday December 10, 2019 Written by Published in Weekend
Designer Paul Hagai with his ‘Kinera’ and muumuu dress: “Our people are too shy and humble, but not me no.” 19112917. Designer Paul Hagai with his ‘Kinera’ and muumuu dress: “Our people are too shy and humble, but not me no.” 19112917.

Paul Hagai’s fashion design has a strident story, and he’s not too worried whose delicate sensibilities he offends with that story. Melina Etches meets him.


Cook Islands designer Paul Hagai’s garments are inspired by history, genealogy and his desire to showcase and acknowledge his heritage to the world of fashion.

Confident and vivacious, he has embraced the world of designing garments for 24 years.

“I’ve done my European designs, but for the past eight years I’ve focused on my heritage and the Cook Islands,” says Hagai.

“Our people are naturally beautiful and hospitable, we are unique.

“What I love about creating garments in my journey now, is reconnecting my genealogy to my culture.”

Raised in New Zealand, Hagai is the son of the late Vaevae Rosaline Ngere and father Kinika Hagai, and has three brothers and three sisters in Mangere, Auckland.

He discovered his interest in fashion while attending high school, worked in the industry, and completed a Bachelor of Arts.

Designing some 15 years ago, “I was just a Polynesian or a Maori in New Zealand”.

But that’s changed. “Fast forward to now, I’m not a Maori or a Polynesian, I’m a Cook Islander.”

This is what motivates Hagai.

Every garment he makes has meaning and connections to his genealogy – he makes an effort to discover more information, such as when his ancestors were born and much more.

“I ask relatives, visit the burial places, talk to the aunties …” He laughs: “Only if they’re in a good mood!”


This month, Hagai participated in the Ministry of Culture’s first Te Ata o Avaiki creative clothing event, which included a muumuu inspired category.

His garments represented branches of his family of the Ngati Koro tribe and Roimata Rosaline Pareanga’s.

Muumuu are beautiful, but sometimes people forget that the muumuu originates from Queen Victoria’s dresses, says Hagai.

He notes that back in the day, Queen Makea was never smiling in the photos of her wearing the dress.

“Our women were annexed, were forced to wear these dresses,” he explains. “This dress also represents the pain our mothers and grandmothers were forced to wear by missionaries.”

His creativity shines from the experiences and aspirations of New Zealand born Cook Islanders, “searching for quality guidance in experiencing and learning their heritage and culture through fashion.”

“I’m here to connect with people and show my creativity.”

Hagai has experience in New Zealand Fashion Week and is the founder of the Aku Yanga Cook Islands fashion show in Auckland, now in its fourth year.

His focus for the event lies solely with promoting and acknowledging Cook Islands artists, “from our models, make-up artists….”

Most of the young Cook Islanders who model in the show are New Zealand born, “some of them don’t know what island they’re from, they join the show and learn, they embrace their culture.”

“Some don’t like cultural dancing or going to church, but they love fashion – so this offers them another platform to connect with their heritage”.

Hagai is outspoken, some might say confrontational. He’ll speak up, seemingly unafraid of whom he might offend.

“Cook Islanders are the trend setters of the Pacific, every other Pacific Islander wants to copy what we wear, I’m not going to shy away from it, it’s the truth … from our rito, the ei katu, poi tiare and black pearls.”

He’s right, he’s not one to shy away from saying it how it is. “Cook Islanders need to just get up there and say, that belongs to us, you copied us, and own it.”

“I say it in New Zealand, people love my work, but people also hate what I say, but it’s the truth. You have to be straight up and say, that’s from the Cook Islands the rito, pate drums, et cetera. Know that it is from the Cook Islands and acknowledge it.

“Our people are too shy and humble, but not me, no!”

His creations have been displayed in Australia, Europe, Japan, Hawaii, Malaysia and in Museums – not just fashion shows.

In between his fashion designs, Hagai sews for commercial clients, including some big firms.

But fashion design is far more than a job – it’s a poorly-paid passion.

“Fashion is not full time, that’s the life out there, I still need a normal job, my bread and butter.”

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