Issue 11.3: June/July 2008

Green Chic

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.


 

“We’re about completely saving the world in stylish eco-chic fashion,” says Deb Mascia of Mu‘umu‘u Heaven, and a tour of the celestial-themed boutique leaves no doubt that the proprietors, Deb and husband/co-owner Eric Mascia, are putting their money where their mantra is. Mascia delights in sharing the joyfully no-budget provenance of her surprise-filled shop’s fittings: garage sales, dumps, demolition sites, serendipitous strokes of luck. The theme of creative recycling continues, colorfully, on the racks. One-of-a-kind skirts, tops and dresses are confected from exquisite vintage aloha wear, sometimes combined with bamboo fabric.

And the clothes virtually sell themselves. “If I don’t want to get stopped by strangers on the street—whether it’s Kalakaua or Melrose Avenue—I don’t wear my own designs,” Mascia says. The Australia-born eco-diva (whose favorite color, naturally, is green) is a completely self-taught designer. A lifelong thrift-shopper, she was working at the Honolulu Academy of Arts when she started remaking old aloha wear into contemporary garb for her family. Her bedroom floor was wall-to-wall with deconstructed secondhand mu‘umu‘u, and when a visitor exclaimed, “This is mu‘umu‘u hell!” Eric Mascia retorted, fatefully, “No, it’s mu‘umu‘u heaven.” The business that ensued is a runaway success (clients include Eva Mendes, Jada Pinkett Smith and Mrs. Kevin James), but Mascia still knows every dress by heart.

“I think some of my mu‘us have danced with Marlon Brando—or maybe Elvis,” she says dreamily, then adds, “I really believe this is heaven for things that otherwise might have reached the end of their existence.”


 

Having the vision to set up shop in the red-and-gold heart of Chinatown puts Fighting Eel in the vanguard of that district’s art-and-fashion renascence. The five-year-old wholesale business occupies an airy second-floor space that looks like the archetypal design studio, with tall windows framing mountain views and white walls offsetting racks of ergonomic, go-anywhere dresses. Designer Rona Bennett’s degree from the University of Hawai‘i is in studio art, but after working at the Honolulu branch of the French boutique Agnés B., she made the leap to creating clothing. Bennett’s business partner is childhood friend Lan Chung, a fellow Agnés B. alum whose UH major was fashion merchandising (she is also a partner in The Butik, where the bestselling label, felicitously, is Fighting Eel). After a rocky beginning—“We wanted to quit so many times,” says Bennett—the graceful, easy-to-wear dresses found their audience, and the line is now carried in 300-plus stores.

The principals are enjoying this success; recently, they even made a reconnaissance trip to Paris. But Bennett and Chung have vowed to resist the temptation to send their production work overseas and are now looking for ways to join the trend toward sustainability. In the meantime, Fighting Eel opens its doors every Friday for devotees to rummage through sale bins filled with still-stylish garments: seasonal recycling in action.


 

A funny thing happened on the way to the Life Aquatic: Katrina Bodnyk discovered that she didn’t want to be a marine biologist after all. “I felt like a bottle shaken up, about to explode—I had all this creativity inside and no outlet,” she recalls, explaining her decision, upon arriving from Indiana in 2001, to change her UH major from science to fashion. After graduating, Bodnyk found the perfect outlet for the fizz: vibrant, witty, one-off dresses pieced together from a polychromatic palette of thrift-shop scarves. “I love finding all this cool vintage fabric,” she says. “It’s flowy and feminine, and every scarf tells a story.” One of those Scheherazade-ish scarf dresses won the Resort Wear category in 2007’s FACE of Nu‘uanu competition, and every time the designer steps out in her effervescent assemblages, strangers beg to buy them on the spot.

Bodnyk, who made her first dresses in 2005, relishes the quest for reusable treasures and extols the ecological aspects of post-consumer resourcing. Her next eco-creative step will be to open an all-vintage store in Chinatown, called HI State of Mind. “It’ll be about reusing old things and making them new again,” Bodnyk enthuses. “I’ll have scarf dresses and T-shirts made from old ones cut up and reinvented, and I’ll decorate with old fixtures to create an Alice-in-Wonderland feel.” Not surprisingly, in HI State of Mind’s logo, the “o” in “of” is the circular, three-arrow symbol that means “recycle.”


 

Growing up in Seattle, Zana Akane Tsutakawa of Akane Clothing didn’t fantasize about becoming a fashion designer. On the contrary, she laughs,

“I went to art school because I thought clothing design was really shallow.” When her senior project ended up being an avant-garde-style show, “My profs chided me for not making studio art for a gallery.” After moving to Honolulu four years ago, Tsutakawa started creating idiosyncratic garments, combing the city for reusable fabric and distinctive trimmings. Back then, thrift shops and garage sales weren’t thronged with designers hunting for vintage swag. “It’s great—the more the merrier,” Tsutakawa says of the current boom, adding wryly, “but now you have to go to Amsterdam for interesting buttons!” Tsutakawa’s attention to detail extends to the environment, via fervent recycling, and she’s an eloquent proponent of
keeping it local.

“Every business that’s owned by someone here, that’s where I want my dollars to go,” she says. Akane Clothing’s line includes jewel-toned raw-silk skirts, “surf-tested” bathing suits and saucy minibloomers, but Tsutakawa is still a resourceful practitioner of Decon/Recon, whether she’s using antique fabric or reimagining gargantuan men’s T-shirts as body-conscious minidresses. “Akane,” incidentally, is a Japanese name meaning “the color of the sunset,” but it’s often mistaken for Hawaiian—which seems to confirm that Tsutakawa has ended up where she’s meant to be, doing what she’s supposed to do. And every Akane garment is one of a kind, hand-rendered and personally signed, just like the “serious” artwork in any gallery.


“I consider myself an artist, not a fashion designer,” says Roberta Oaks. “This just happens to be my art form at the moment.” Trained as a studio artist, Oaks had “never been a shopper or a fashion maven,” but while studying in England, she was bitten by the clothing-as-art bug. “London’s so fashion-forward; I always felt like such a frump,” she recalls. Then in 2003, en route back to Missouri from New Zealand, Oaks stopped off on O‘ahu and never left. She taught herself to sew and started playing with Decon/ Recon; her decoratively “funked-out” dresses made from thrift-shop slips were a hit at craft fairs, but after two years of conjuring up unique handmade pieces, Oaks decided to take things to the next level. One day, she sat down and designed a batch of bold, sexy, distinctively detailed dresses. After a few Mainland trade shows, Roberta Oaks (Hawai‘i) took off; the line is now carried by fifty-three stores nationwide, and Oaks receives frequent email from “stoked” customers.

A dedicated environmentalist, Oaks was thrilled to discover bamboo fabric online. “Bamboo jersey is an excellent eco-conscious material,” she says. “Bamboo grows four feet a day, and you don’t need to spray with a lot of chemicals.” Oaks now uses bamboo jersey mixed with organic cotton and a soupçon of Spandex for about half of her dresses. Her business card reads, “FUSING FASHION AND ETHICS,” which means, she says, “try to be low impact, use sustainable fibers, use ethical factories and just be more conscious and responsible.” Currently working on her fifth and sixth collections, Oaks still considers herself a designer of wearable art rather than a fashionista. “This is me,” she says. “My name’s on it, so everything has to be just right.”


 

Allison Izu (Nagato) mastered the conservationist art of Decon/Recon long before the terms were invented. As a child, she used to cut up standard-issue Barbie clothes and resew them into Vogue-worthy outfits for her dolls. After graduating first in her class from Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology, Izu came back to Honolulu and, while working for her family’s wastewater recycling business, started Reincarnation, featuring jersey tops hand-embellished with snippets of vintage fabric, obi cloth or aloha prints. In 2007 she launched a line for petite women, beginning with an assortment of denims (all with Hawaiian names); it’s called AI, which, besides being Izu’s initials, is the Japanese word for “love.”

This FIT graduate’s obsession with fit was born from personal frustration. “I’m 5’2”,” the designer explains, “and I had a terrible time finding jeans that fit. If you’re short and not a size 0, you’re out of luck.” Izu is erudite about the subtleties of proportion, and her goal is to create an entire wardrobe, in sizes 00 to 10, for the often-overlooked short but not necessarily small woman. Her audacious, award-winning riff on a traditional black kimono —high-slit skirt, one bare shoulder—shows that she has the design chops to do it with fearless flair. Izu’s social conscience is anything but diminutive; she devotes much of her spare time to environmental and altruistic pursuits, ranging from recycling and water conservation to serving on nonprofit boards to “trying to uplift the self-esteem of young girls” by example and mentoring. “When I was younger, sewing for my Barbies, I didn’t think I could ever grow up to be a fashion designer,” Izu muses. “How times have changed!”


Call it pre-consumer recycling: Maui-based designer Maggie Coulombe takes vivid gossamer-silk pareus from Bali and transmogrifies them into ingenious garments that could go directly from the seashore to an awards-show red carpet—and sometimes do. A classically trained designer who sews with dervish speed, Coulombe can single-handedly crank out fifty impeccably finished garments in a day. (She earned a virtual Ph.D. in Decon/ Recon by doing alterations on Maui’s haute-est couture: Prada, Gucci, Chanel.) “Hard work isn’t work if you’re passionate about what you’re doing,” says Coulombe, who moved to Maui from Toronto in 1995 after marrying Canadian expat restaurateur Louis Coulombe. Her business partner, Arid Chappell (a Virginia-born filmmaker and jewelry designer), seconds that emotion: “We love what we do,”
he declares.

They love where they are, too: in an oceanfront boutique in Lahaina that has become a magnet for celebrities—Halle Berry, Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Love Hewitt and more—who are often photographed wearing Coulombe’s floaty, flattering, exuberant creations. The designer also has an atelier (by appointment) on O‘ahu, adding her verve to the arty mix in Chinatown. She and Chappell are outspoken partisans of the “keep it local” cause (“Made in Maui, all the way!”). They use only natural fibers and recyclable paper and are thinking of adding bamboo fabric to their repertoire. A compassionate conservationist at heart, Coulombe expresses concern about the talent drain. “We want to inspire people to stay here in the Islands,” she says. If aspiring designers want to see a real live made-in-Maui success story, they need look no further than 505 Front St. in Lahaina.

It’s tempting to look into a crystal ball and imagine the local scene ten years from now: Chinatown’s a spiffy, bustling fashion district; there’s a line around the block for the Aloha Wear Museum; design studios and local-flavor boutiques are as ubiquitous as the big juice-and-java chains. The way things are going, that isn’t a far-fetched scenario.

Whatever surprises the future might hold, this is a heady—and challenging—time for Hawai‘i’s new wave of fashion designers. As a frog once sang, “It’s not easy being green.” True, but any eco-goddess will tell you that it’s gratifying and necessary. Mu‘umu‘u Heaven’s Deb Mascia hits the recycled nail on the head: “Every little gesture helps the planet,” she says. “I really believe we can save the world, one dress at a time.” HH