Issue 15.4: August/September 2012

Sew Your Own

Story by Julia Steele

Photo by Olivier Koning


Toby Portner

The words “Make. Learn. Shop. Connect.” stenciled on the windows of the HiFi Co-op succinctly describe what the place is about: It’s your home ec class all grown up. The jazzy blackboard inside gives another clue to how the place works (“Cooperate. verb: to work together”) along with lists of classes: learn to tie-dye, make a pattern, make your own undies. A neighboring room is filled with sewing machines, bolts of fabric, bowls of buttons, mannequins. The floor, “tiled” with the pages of fashion magazines, is a riot of color. Light pours in through big windows, and everything seems to urge: Create!


Which was just the idea. The seed for the co-op was planted six years ago when mutual friends introduced Toby Portner to Melissa May White because “we both love fashion,” says Portner. They had other things in common: Both were from Michigan, both had successful careers (Portner in education, White in environmental planning) and both were full of energy. They began exploring what they could do to promote fashion in Hawai‘i: not just selling it, but actually building an industry. They put on panels, collected surveys. “We need a resource center,” they heard again and again.


They kept their eyes on the prize and started HiFi (the name is a nifty acronym that stands for Hawai‘i Fashion Incubator). They put together a “dream” board of directors, built membership and hosted events, mostly at nightclubs, that showcased designers. In 2010 they teamed with their members and did a ten-day pop-up store at Ala Moana that was a smash, with over twenty local designers and some twenty classes and events. Now, as of April, that longed-for resource center finally exists: HiFi has a permanent home in Ward Warehouse. In addition to workspace, its shop features the creations of local designers. There are kids’ classes, too. “Fashion doesn’t have to be brand new and cost a lot of money,” says Portner. “There’s a lot of value in knowing you can make something that you need with your hands.” For now she and White are thrilled. “Melissa and I love it— it’s fun,” she says. “That guides our choices: Is it fun and does it move people forward? If those are true, anything’s possible.”