Story by Liza Simon
Photo by Monte Costa
In 2006 Jamie Makasobe
and Ane Bakutis were in Papeete, Tahiti, one afternoon watching the rush-hour crowd pass by in bright, breezily tailored clothing. The designs and prints were unmistakably Polynesian, a fact not lost on the two visiting Hawaiians. They went home and described the scene to friend Hina Kneubuhl. Four years later the three—all young, gifted and Native Hawaiian—are the owners of Kealopiko, a clothing line that eschews the typical symbols of Island apparel (no pink plumerias, please) in favor of images that foster environmental and cultural awareness. The company’s debut launch, for example, included men’s and women’s apparel emblazoned with designs of wiliwili
, the balsa wood tree once used to make surfboards that suffers today from attacks by invasive pests.
“There are so many native Hawaiian plants and animals with stories just waiting to be told,” says Hina. It is she who most often researches Hawaiian proverbs for the mo‘olelo (story) tags that accompany all of Kealopiko’s garments; Ane, a botanist, and Jamie, a forest and fishpond enthusiast, are the ones who bring the imagery to the sewing table.
Kealopiko, which is Hawaiian for “the belly of the fish,” is on the cutting edge in all kinds of ways. It has unveiled separate lines for the seasons of the Hawaiian calendar: the time of Ku and the makahiki. It has put into cloth a celebration of the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation chant. It has even begun to create clothing with wry political commentary: for example, its recasting of the “Big Five” not as the five corporations that once dominated Hawai‘i’s economy, but as the five Kamehameha monarchs who ruled the Hawaiian kingdom.
The popularity of Kealopiko has been bolstered by musicians and hula halau (hula troupes), which have selected the company to design garments. But as much as the trio has put hipness into Hawaiian wear, the three say they are really just reiterating the values of their ancestors. “We knew for a long time that we were searching for a way to articulate the ideas of our kupuna,” says Hina. “Who would’ve guessed we would do it with fashion?”