story by Deborah Boehm
photos by Kyle Rothenborg
Blame it on Project Runway, that addictive celebration of cutting-edge chutspah. Or credit the Internet, which can now stream video of high-gloss Milan and manhattan catwalks into tiny studios in Kaimuki or Kailua. Whatever the explanation, fashion in Hawai‘i—with Honolulu as the epicenter—is in the midst of an incandescent erruption of enterprise and creativity. The archipelago is now alight with boutiques, events and inventive designers who have seen the truth . . . An Inconvenient Truth, that is.
Fashion has long operated (and prospered) on the principles of planned obsolescence and disposable chic, but Hawai‘i’s new-breed designers are waking up to the wastefulness of the “so last year” mentality. They’re passionate about aesthetics—indeed, they often describe their creations as wearable art — yet many of them are also deeply concerned about our fragile, shopworn planet.
Although they acknowledge that it’s a challenge to be environmentally conscientious, these apparel artists truly believe that you reap what you sew. Some have switched to fabric made from bamboo, a plant with a high sustainability quotient. Others are inspired recyclers, transforming vintage cloth or secondhand garments into new incarnations and enlivening their retail spaces with quirky décor reclaimed from landfills, thrift shops and garage sales. Conversations are sprinkled with terms such as Decon (struction), Recon (struction) and D.I.Y. (do it yourself).
Another leitmotif in Hawai‘i’s fashion boom is the idea of “keeping it local.” The new couturieres tend to do all their production (pattern-making, cutting, sewing) in the Islands. For local-born designers especially, pursuing their careers in Hawai‘i allows another kind of conservation: preserving talent as a natural resource. Many got their first exposure in the locally owned boutiques that “seem to be popping up on every corner,” to quote Tiffany Tanaka, co-owner of Queens Candy Store, where hip-hop meets D.I.Y. couture. “People here love fashion and they want it all,” she adds. And they can get it at modish, eclectic shops like The Butik, Bamboo Sky and Split Obsession. Also fanning the flames is Fashion Week, featuring FACE of Nu‘uanu, the brainchild of 2Couture designers Eric Chandler and Takeo. (FACE = Fashion/Arts/Culture/Entertainment.) The first FACE event in fall 2006 attracted an appreciative crowd of 10,000, along with generous media coverage.
For nurturance and support, there’s the Hawai‘i Fashion Incubator, better known as hifi, a nonprofit whose aim is “to see fashion evolve as an art and industry in Hawai‘i.” A more specific goal is to find a permanent home for UH Manoa’s rarity-filled costume collection, lovingly curated by Professor Carol D’Angelo. For starters, they’d settle for an Aloha Wear Museum, perhaps in Chinatown.
That’s yet another spark: the emergence of Honolulu’s raffish, slightly shabby Chinatown as a cleaned-up crucible of fashion and art, with boutiques, design studios, galleries and frequent runway (or trunk) shows at the hip-crowd nightspot, thirtyninehotel. Chinatown seems poised for a rebirth as the working garment district it used to be in the 1930s and ’40s: Honolulu’s answer to Seventh Avenue, with starfruit and pho instead of pastrami on rye.
But it’s the designers who are at the heart of the moment. Honolulu’s current crop of clothing creators is varied: Some are homegrown, while others are happily assimilated transplants. Some were formally trained in fashion design, others crossed over from studio art and a few are completely self-taught. Some set out to make a splash in fashion, while others more or less fell into it, with a gentle shove from destiny. These are stories of genesis, germination and determination: how seven designing women found their passions and are making them work in an environmentally principled way.