Florence Jaukae, turning negativity into success with ‘bilumwear’

Florence Jaukae is a pioneer in fashion art that has gained popularity over 15  years.

Commonly known throughout the country as the ‘Bilum Meri,’ Florence began experimenting with clothing made from the ‘bilum’, something that is distinctly Papua New Guinean.

“It started when I was helping my kids with their homework. I saw the patterns on a carpet snake. They looked like the letter ‘K.’ Then I saw the green Christmas beetle used in the headdresses. I started weaving it.”

Florence Jaukae was born and raised in Goroka. After completing grade 10 from  the Goroka High School in 1989, she couldn’t continue due to the difficulties she had in finding schools fees for college.

It took some time before her artistic streak shone through.

“I am a creative person and I guess I wanted to be different.”

Then when the lure of politics beckoned, Florence Jaukae ran for office and was elected a ward councilor. While she faced serious personal challenges, her political office gave her the opportunity to expand on the work she was doing.

“Each year, councilors are given K5,000 for service delivery. For me, K5, 000 for 18, 000 people was not enough. So we had to find a way for the women to earn an income.”

Through a small local program, women were encouraged to make bilum dresses.

The decision opened up a floodgate of creativity and created a nationwide movement that spread to other parts of the country.

Soon, a traditional art that had remained in the realm of the home and the village, took center stage in  international fashion shows.

Florence Jaukae took PNG fashion and the newly coined word “bilumwear” to Australia, London and various other countries.

“We’ve been exporting to Sydney since 2009.”

The exports began from a very small Bilum Festival nine years ago, held in Goroka town where she comes from.

“We invited bilum weavers from Goroka. Then we brought women from Mt. Giluwe and Morobe.”

When she lost her local level government seat, it gave her new resolve to go on when women still came to her for help.

“I couldn’t just let it go. The women trusted and believed in me.”

For Florence Jaukae, there was no doubt in her mind that the humble bilum would become a big ticket item in fashion circles. But it took 15 years of hard work and a lot of negativity from critics to create the successes.

“People thought I was an idiot and that I was foolish. One person even said I was ugly when I posted pictures of myself in a bilum dress. I am a person who gets what she wants and the negativity pushed me on.”

Today, Florence Jaukae, is a respected pioneer of the art who remains close to her roots.

“I am proud of what little I have done. Today, women have food on the table. They buy roofing iron for their houses.”

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Scott Waide

Scott Waide

is the Lae Bureau Chief and began his career with EMTV in 1997 as a News and Sports Reporter and Anchor and has been a media professional for over 19 years. Having previously worked as a Producer and Researcher for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Port Moresby Bureau, he is a recipient of multiple awards including the Asia Pacific Broadcasting Union Prize in 2005 in Iran for best news feature, the Pacific Island News Association Award and the Divine Word University Media Freedom Award.

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