|Story by Julia Steele
Photo by Elyse Butler
Twenty-five years ago Danene Lum took $200 of her rent money, bought twenty-four T-shirts, silk-screened them all with a papaya print done by her partner Pono and sold them for ten bucks apiece. They went so fast she sold the next batch for twelve apiece. And she and Pono were on their way.
Today, a quarter-century later, walk into Danene and Pono’s store, Manuheali‘i, and it’s like being in Hilo during Merrie Monarch week. Everywhere is festive color: The place is populated by aunties and titas and hula girls, all trying on dresses, skirts and shirts emblazoned with lyrical renditions of Island plants. “Auntie, you like me try find this in your size?” a shopgirl asks an older woman who is holding up a shirt with a print festooned with ‘ilima blossoms. “Oh, that looks sooo nice,” sighs another shopgirl to a woman who has just emerged from the dressing room clad in a skirt covered with drawings of silverswords. From its humble two-dozen-T-shirt beginnings, Manuheali‘i now sells tens of thousands of pieces of clothing each year, Island chic that shows up everywhere from baby lü‘au to the opening of the Legislature. In the small vibrant world of Hawai‘i clothing design, Manuheali‘i has become a mainstay.
Pono and Danene still do it all together: An architect by training, Pono draws the prints; a fashion designer by training, Danene devises the colors and clothing concepts. “Ours really is an artistic collaboration,” Pono says. “Our patterns come from the people and experiences in our lives.” Danene, for example, one day told Pono a story of picking pakalana flowers at an auntie’s house in Kailua when she was a girl. Pakalana became a print. Pono remembered gathering uluhe ferns as a boy in Ka‘a‘awa. Uluhe became a print, too. When their first son went off to college, they did a naupaka print, for the naupaka flower symbolizes separation and love; when their second son went, they did a cowry shell. “The cowry,” explains Danene, “ensures you return home safe.” The couple comes up with a new print every eight weeks. “It’s art on fabric,” says Pono. “We’re doing our own thing,” adds Danene, “and we thank our lucky stars every day.”