Dumile Dlamini and Tivamile Dlamini are from Swaziland, one of the two African countries that have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Their father being a diplomat, the sisters spent their teenage years in the U.S. and moved to Taiwan for the next fifteen years. They completed their academic studies and pursued their careers respectively in Taiwan, and finally decided to create their own fashion brand. Thus, LIHIYA — Siswati for “covered and inclusive” — was born in 2016.

Dlamini sisters debuted their collection at African Fashion Week London in 2015, presenting the designs influenced by their African-Taiwanese background. Afterwards, they continued to work with tribes in Africa and Taiwan. Through developing their cross-cultural design concept and a fair trade practice, they aim to “speak for those who can not speak for themselves,” helping rural communities to generate income, educate and inspire their youth through fashion design.

First contact with Taiwanese indigenous people

During Dumile’s master's studies in Product Design Management at Ming Chuan University, she was introduced to the Amis tribe in Taitung, located on the eastern coast of Taiwan, for her thesis. It was her first contact with Taiwan’s indigenous people, and she assumed that her skin color would make it difficult for her to befriend with them. However, the Amis’ friendliness and hospitality soon dismissed her concern. They welcomed her warmly, “Hey, your skin is as dark as ours!” Dumile’s interactions with the tribe revealed, unexpectedly, a lot of commonality between her African origin and the Amis people. “It was as if something was awakened inside me. The tribe was a place that felt like home where God was there.”

As Dumile spent a lot more time with Taiwan’s indigenous tribes, she began to learn of the many issues with their development. For example, although the government authority provided subsidies for indigenous people, they did not seem to solve the fundamental problems. Subsidies were used for upgrading hardware and improving agricultural skills, while educational resources for children remained insufficient.

As a designer, Dumile decided to implement participatory and co-design approaches to inspire tribal children to unleash their talents. She invited them to sing and dance together, to draw down what they felt at the moment, or what their tribes looked like in their eyes. The drawings created by the Amis and Rukai tribe have been integrated into the LIHIYA’s latest collection as printed totems.

Debut in Africa Fashion Week London

Dumile’s multi-cultural experiences permeate her designs. When she was invited by a friend to attend Africa Fashion Week London 2015, she decided to explore the theme of “Blend” to showcase LIHIYA as a cross-cultural ambassador. “We are from Swaziland. How can we show Asians what is Africa? How can we introduce Taiwan to Londoners? Through fashion design, how can we present Swaziland and Taiwan, the two small countries, to the world?” Tivalmile explained the motivation of LIHIYA.

Recalling the experience of attending London Fashion Week, Dumile said it was definitely not as romantic as it sounds like. At the time, Dumile was overwhelmed by her master’s thesis, and the only income she had was from tutoring. To attend the Fashion Week, she had to borrow money from friends to cover the fee. Fortunately, this was also when she met her new partner, Ethan Liou, director of IdeastoBiz, who helped her develop LIHIYA’s business model, and started a crowd-funding project on flyingV to make the London debut possible.

The night before leaving for London, Dumile just flew back from Africa to Taiwan. She rushed through the final adjustments for her collection, and even Tivamile’s students came to help pack the clothes so that the sisters could make the flight. “Although only ten pieces of design would be showcased on the runway, we had to bring more designs in different sizes to fit the models,” explained Dumile. Backstage, she was still adjusting her design until the last minute, feeling that it was not perfect enough. She and Tivamile even went to the washroom to calm down and pray for the success of the show.

Breaking the boundary between nationality and culture

LIHIYA received positive reviews in London and was invited again the following year. “The best thing about London is that they encourage designers to be creative. Designers don’t have to think about market reception, and we can focus on the message we want to deliver.” In her show, Dumile did not use up-tempo background music, selecting “No Longer Slaves,” a Christian song from Bethel Music instead. “There are many African immigrants in London. We hope that they can overcome the fear they confront in an unfamiliar environment. ‘No matter where you go, you will always be loved.’”

“Love” is the core value of LIHIYA. The sisters always sign off their emails with “LIHIYA Family,” for the LIHIYA team is exactly that — a beloved family. They believe that every piece of clothing is a storyteller that carries a cultural history. It is the medium through which one learns about different cultures. Only when you try to understand others will you learn to include and love each other.

“LIHIYA is like an ambassador in the design industry. We transfer tribal cultures of Africa, Asia, and Oceania into products that attract market’s attention.” Tivamile shared the vision of LIHIYA with us. “As a person, we need to know who we are, what the world is like. Then learn to be who we are, and make it a better world.”

Beyonder Times has authorized publication of this article. The original text is published here.

Editor: Olivia Yang