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From the catwalk to businesswoman

Fiji's Marla Singh Walton uses experience to set up design business

Cheryl Singh

She may be as well known as Vijay Singh, Paulini Curuenavuli or Lote Tuqiri, but Fiji born Marla Singh Walton has certainly notched a few achievements in her time. Walton, 43, a cousin of golfer Vijay Singh, is the first Fijian international model.
Being a model 20 years ago in Australia let alone Europe was not an easy feat. It was harder if you were not of Anglo Saxon decent.
Walton did not let this stop her. Spotted in the exclusive department store, David Jones, by a make-up artist who later became a close friend, he urged her to pursue a modelling career in Europe.
All I wanted to do was to go to Europe and travel,she says.
He pushed and pushed me to pursue modelling. It was through him and his connections actually that I ended up going to Europe right after school.
It was a bold and timely move for Walton.
When I started out [in the early 90s], it was actually a period where it was all about India, the fashion influenced by India and people were looking for Indian, exotic looking girls and they liked the fact that I was from Fiji.
They were like, this is amazing what are you are walking around Milan rather than being in Fiji. I had an interesting story I guess. It's just being at the right place at the right time, says the shy and modest 43-year old who has modelled with the likes of Naomi Campbell and Charlize Theron.
The first six months were a bit of a struggle but then I did not stop for 12 years, she says.
It [the modelling scene in Europe] was quite different [to Australia] and people warmed up to the way I was as I was quite different to everybody else, my personality, she says
At the time, the real supermodels ruled the catwalks and covers of major magazines worldwide and she landed modelling assignments around the world, modelling in exotic locations such as Cuba, Brazil, Turkey, Asia and throughout Europe.
Based in Amsterdam, she modelled for Italian Vogue Italia, Vogue Paris Marie Claire, Elle and Donna Magazine among others.

She did a lot of advertising and catalogue work, appearing in advertising campaigns for Dolce and Gabbana, Christian Lacroix and Mercedes Benz.
Her best job came at the age of 32 when Walton was selected as the face of Revlon in their Sandstorm campaign.
I was always thinking that I did not look right but the interesting thing was that I got the jobs because I did look different. I think that was my advantage. I think I was my own worst enemy.
My head was probably the only obstacle. I would go back to the agency and they would say they have booked you for the job and I am thinking, there were five other girls there, all blond girls and then there was me.
On visits to Australia to see her parents with whom she had migrated to Sydney in the late 70s, Walton modelled for Vogue Australia, Harpers Bazaar and various other publications in Australia and New Zealand.
But behind the beauty was also an emerging businesswoman. When I was modelling, I always was thinking about something else to do. I was thinking, this is a career that will end and constantly having to diet, slimming, being slim and all that stuff. After a while, you think there has to be more to life, she says.
So whilst modelling, Walton launched with a friend, a leather clothes label in Amsterdam which sold in 19 countries in nine months.
After a successful modelling career, Waltonreturned home in the early 2000s to be with her mother when her older sister passed away.
Having identified a lack of well designed and quality made affordable handbags in the Australian market, Walton has spent the last few years setting up an online handbag business with her husband, Richard.
Using her experience in setting up her design business in Amsterdam and working with world renowned designers, Walton designs simple, classical and timeless pieces which are manufactured in the leather capital of Italy, Florence.
Since her company, MarlaFiji, began selling online in December 2010, Walton has designed about 120 styles, not all of which have gone online.
She designs and releases about 10 to 20 new styles every six weeks. The design process is intense, with her work being round the clock given the time difference with her manufacturers in Florence.
Once she sketches a design using inspiration from old movies, second-hand shops and archives and gives them a contemporary edge, she liaises with her manufacturers about the material to use, colour and look of the bag.
We try to do very functional and practical pieces, we don't go overboard putting studs, and all those things that would date. It is something you can pick out of your wardrobe 20 years later and say I can use this today and the thing with leather is that it will always be leather because it is durable material and will last.
I have also taken the formula from designers that have lasted like Hermes, I like all the things they have done and Armani. The key to their success is making classical things, not too crazy, in today, out of fashion tomorrow she says.
Taking a very sensible approach to her business, Walton is developing her business the old fashioned way, slowly and without fanfare, hype and neither does she waste money on publicity and big parties. Being online has also allowed her to reach the world.
She also intends to develop a cheaper range for the Fijian market. I want every Fijian woman to have a MarlaFiji handbag, she says.
And what was easier, the modelling or setting up a business, Walton says, I had no expectations with either and every way that it has gone is a nice surprise. I have been lucky. I have been blessed with things I do. I put a lot of thought into what I do...I just really want to make a good bag, something that is affordable. Women can't afford $1800, $2000 for a bag. You can and buy 3 or 4 online.
And what does Walton think of the supermodels of today?
I guess they don't have that presence that the models in that era did, the Naomis, the Cindys. It is not as glamorous. I think it has lost a bit of the glamour for me, you know everyone that is tall and skinny is a model nowadays.



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