How stylist Sammy Salsa is shaking up New Zealand's fashion industry

Twice as hard

Raised in Mount Roskill amid great tunes and gang fights, Sam Cowley-Lupo flirted with a pop career before reinventing himself as Sammy Salsa, the self-styled “New Age Polynesian Man” who also happens to be one of Auckland’s most influential fashion tastemakers.

If the New Zealand fashion industry was a garden, Sammy Salsa would be the teuila flower – vibrant, striking, and there to represent beautiful Samoa. Born Sam Cowley-Lupo, Sammy Salsa is the 33-year-old on every fashion insider’s radar: a young creative with singular style who is outspoken and proudly Polynesian.

Sammy is a self-described fashion-forward “New Age Polynesian Man”. His father, originally from Vaigaga on Upolu, moved to New Zealand when he was 16, and found what Sammy says was “a sense of belonging and community” in a Grey Lynn gang with his older brother. He later met Sammy’s mother, who had also moved from Samoa, from the village of Avao on Savai’i. The couple lived together in Grey Lynn, but after a fight broke out with a rival gang, Sammy’s parents relocated to Mount Roskill for their safety. Soon afterwards, in Sammy’s words, “a star was born!”

Sammy Salsa is Mount Roskill, hard. His Dominion Road home was a place where, as a six year old, he watched patched gang members drink to Bob Marley and Herbs tunes at parties that sometimes ended violently for the girlfriends, Sammy’s mother included. “We saw shit go down in our house,” Sammy says. “When I knew exactly what was happening, I told myself, ‘I never want to be this. This is not who I am as a person.’” From then on, he vowed to take care of his four younger brothers, and to make sure that despite being their father’s sons, they wouldn’t live this way.

His parents separated during his pre-teen years, and teenage Sammy stepped into a quasi-father role. At 14, he was changing his younger brothers’ diapers and working the graveyard shift on Friday nights at KFC Balmoral to help support his mother financially. Music was an obsession, whether it was listening to his parents’ records at home, or walking home eating chicken and listening to Sugababes’ One Touch on his Discman every Saturday morning. “The album resonated with me – they were the girl band that was underrated, indie, grungy, and underground,” he says. “That’s how I felt.”

In fact, it was music, not fashion, that offered the young Sammy options. After leaving high school, he entered NZ Idol in 2004 and made the top 20, performing the Righteous Brothers’ ‘Unchained Melody’ in a denim ensemble before being knocked out by the eventual runner-up, Michael Murphy (Ben Lummis won that year). Soon afterwards, he joined The Mt Vaea Band, a tribute to the 1970s Samoan group of the same name. “We remastered and re-recorded all their old-school songs, and it went off – we won a Tui for Best Pacific Group!” he remembers. The group was so popular they did a tour of Samoa, the first time Sammy had actually been there. He was a celebrity, literally signing people’s babies and performing in front of Government House in Apia town.

Upon his return to New Zealand, Sammy landed a job co-hosting Pacific Beat Street, a Polynesian youth TV show. “I had no clue how big a deal it was,” he says. “I still just wanted to be famous. I was ignorant and young, and wanted people to keep recognising me in the club, buy me drinks, and basically watch ‘The Sammy Show.’” Pacific Beat Street was one of the first times Polynesians had been prominent on mainstream television, and the effects were immediately visible. Polynesian youth would greet him with, “hey, you’re Sammy from Pacific Beat Street!”, excited to see somebody who looked like them cracking an industry that felt accessible only to Palagis.

Pacific Beat Street’s eventual end prompted Sammy to reevaluate. His youth had been full of fashion: when his parents were in their 1980s prime, he says his mother was “rocking shoulder pads, power suits, big earrings, and a mullet” while his dad would wear “mesh crop tops with leather biker jackets, Adidas Stan Smiths, and Adidas sweats – that was his thing”. His first styling client, in a way, was his mother. For his speech finals at Mount Roskill Intermediate, he laid out a beige power suit she’d made, trying to convince her that the striking tie-up floral lapels would make her the coolest mum in the hall. When it came time for his speech, he spotted his mum and the flowers the second he stepped on stage, as proud of her as she was of him.

Despite this, he says fashion was never considered “a thing” in his family, and never presented itself as a career option. But blogging was big when Sammy contemplated his post-Beat Street options, so he started one of his own: “Sammy Salsa – The New Age Polynesian Man”. He thought he could contribute a Polynesian perspective to the fashion conversation, and started off by shooting people and garments he liked, and writing about fashion. He started his Instagram account (@SammySalsaStyle) and got friends to take photos of him on his cellphone. The memories aren’t all good. “It was so lame that I’m like, ‘who was I back then?”’ he says.

But he had set himself on a new path. One of his cousins asked if he could help pull together a look for a Servilles Academy hair assessment, work that got a lot of attention when Sammy posted it online. Other creatives took notice, but it took two years of collaborating with up-and-coming models, hair stylists, make-up artists, and photographers to get to a point where he could be paid for this work.

Music helped open the door. He’d met Stan Walker while back-up singing on his tour, and the pair bonded over their love for fashion. Stan asked if Sammy would style him for an album cover, which led to music videos and other opportunities. The showrooms and PRs that had rejected him when he was starting out began showering him with attention. He styled runway shows, musicians, advertising campaigns, and editorials for Mindfood magazine. Ria Hall, Hollie Smith, Ladi6, Ginny Blackmore, Vince Harder, Iva Lamkum and the O’Neill twins are just a few of the people that trust Sammy with their looks, coincidentally ending up in the best-dressed pages every time.

It hasn’t all been straightforward as a Polynesian man in a predominantly white industry. He recalls the time he walked into a prominent New Zealand designer’s store to request samples for a shoot, and was greeted by a staff member saying, “we don’t want to buy anything from you today”. Once he told them what he was there for, the staff member’s tone changed quickly, but still: “the lack of diversity in the New Zealand fashion industry seriously hurts our minorities,” he says. “I feel like I’ve had to work twice as hard because I’m Polynesian.” His rising profile in the industry is a responsibility he takes seriously, celebrating diversity in body types and challenging the white status quo. “This is a platform I’ve been given to voice these opinions and help the voiceless get there,” he says. “If I can get my work printed in a mainstream publication, then the next brown boy that comes along can too.”

There are times when he feels like fashion stylists are a dying breed, as Instagram “influencers” and chain stores appropriate the term and dilute its meaning. “Everybody uses the term so loosely now, and it really frustrates me,” he says. “I’m trying to change that – I want to bring the drama back into the art. I think Samoans are good storytellers. Every time I’m creating something, I’m telling a story. Tusitala means ‘story teller’ in Samoan – everyone has a story to tell, and my canvas to tell it on is fashion.”  

He no longer lives at home, and hasn’t since he was 16. It’s a decision that still troubles him. “Polynesians don’t leave home, and they don’t talk about how they feel,” he says. He was raised in the church, but realised religion didn’t have a place for him in his teens. “In order for me to accept myself, I had to let go of religion – how could I be me if God didn’t want me to be gay?” he says. He never formally came out to his family, deciding that if people didn’t have to confess that they were straight, why should he come out as gay? Instead, he simply introduced his family to his boyfriend. “They accepted it,” he says.

He may have left home, but he is still in constant touch with his family. “My brothers grew up not being able to talk about their feelings, because nobody talked about them at home,” he says. “Dad was staunch – you’d never see him cry. Once I took leadership of my family, I instilled having an open mind in them, trying to make it the norm to talk about how you felt each day.”

The family now operates with a policy of openness, and his father has completely changed too. “My dad didn’t know better,” Sammy says of his father’s violent past. “He was fresh from the islands and had no support in New Zealand. He didn’t even go to high school – that’s not an excuse, but the system failed him.” His father still struggles to show emotion, but is incredibly proud of his son and his accomplishments.

Sammy’s past has been heavy, but he refuses to let it define him. “You can still change your life,” he says. “You can still be a better person.” His goal is to use his life to change somebody else’s, to show brown boys like him that they are more than their circumstances. “To me it’s way beyond fashion,” he says. “If someone has read my story and I’ve saved one life, then my work here is done.”

Sammy Salsa’s Mount Roskill tips

Go for a stroll up Mount Roskill and take in the 360-degree views of central Auckland.

Visit the Wesley Markets at the Wesley Community Centre and enjoy fresh produce, food and music put on every Tuesday and Friday by the local community.

Enjoy authentic Polynesian take-out at Sanbell’s Kitchen (220 Stoddard Road).

Waikōwhai Park boasts the largest block of native forest left in Auckland city. Perfect for families, picnics and recreation activities.

Get a fresh fade from the boys at The Chop Shop (8 McKinnon Street).