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Vol. 14, no. 6
Dec. 2011 / Jan. 2012


Hat Tricks 

Story by Shannon Wianecki

Photo by Alexandra Falk


Maui's Emi Azeka fashions headwear of
the most unique and intricate kind: fans include Ozzy Osbourne and Oprah.
Emi Azeka’s Makawao studio
brims with Old World tools and materials. Wooden blocks are carved in the shape of classic chapeaux: dimple-crowned fedoras, smooth bowlers, sassy boaters, gamblers and pillboxes. Rolls of banana and cactus fiber stand ready to be hand-blocked or sculpted. Drawers open to reveal every color and kind of embellishment: velvet leaves, silk flowers, feathers, netting and beads.


Amid this finery Azeka darts about, plucking up hats and placing them on clients’ heads. “This brings out the green in your eyes,” she says of a particularly flamboyant “fascinator,” those delicate little headpieces that have become all the rage in the wake of the latest royal wedding. This fascinator is a tribute to Kapo-Laka, the Hawaiian forest goddess: To evoke the rainforest’s organic atmosphere, Azeka incorporated shibori (Japanese tie-dye) and sprays of iridescent black feathers. “I wanted the feel of ‘Iao Valley, the West Maui Mountains and of course the color green, which symbolizes life.”


Azeka is a master of millinery, the fine art of making women’s hats. Born on Maui to entrepreneurial parents, she blends artistic vision with business savvy. To create her one-of-a-kind couture hats, she scours the global market for the finest materials, employing top-notch Ecuadorean weavers to harvest, prepare and weave palm fronds to her standards. Two ladies in Scotland snap up any vintage hats they can find for her. A local bird breeder delivers exquisite plumes. “I support eleven people when I sell one hat,” says Azeka. “It makes me feel good.”


Azeka sells her wearable art at the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea, where she’s one of a select cadre of resident artisans. She loves courting new clients there, who are often celebrities. “I get opportunities I would never have as an artist working alone in my studio,” she says. Ozzy Osbourne bought two of Azeka’s hats for his wife Sharon. Oprah has thirteen. Recently, a shampoo magnate tried on an immaculate fedora and then loudly scoffed at its $450 price tag. Azeka responded to his reaction with modest pride, “Sir, many of my hats sell for $1,200.” He grunted but returned later and bought two.


 Chapeaux Emi Maui