Issue 20.2: April/May 2017

Facing Future

Manaola Yap’s designs bring ancient esthetics to contemporary fashion
Story by Katie Young Yamanaka. Photos by Elyse Butler.

Backstage at Carrington Manaola Yap’s first Honolulu Fashion Week solo show this past November, the mood is calm and quiet, hardly what you’d expect before a major runway event.

No one’s yelling across the room for a pair of shoes or a missing earring. Manaola, as he’s called, is dressed in black from head to toe, including a pair of Cole Haan slippers—a casual contrast to the rich gold and bronze metallic hues of the collection he’s about to unveil.

“Did yours have a bag?” he asks one shirtless model, whose body is covered in Polynesian-style tattoos, his hair a mane of brilliant black curls. Manaola sits on the floor and adjusts the model’s pants. “Step back,” he asks politely. Then, turning to his sister, Asia, he says, “Should we tuck the pant into the shoe?” Asia comes to look. She’d usually be a model in a runway show like this, but today she’s supervising the final preparations. “Huli,” she says. “That means to turn. So huli, then step, one, two, three … stop. Take off the glasses, look and whip your hand.”

Designer Manaola Yap (seen above) strives to bring Island fashion into the global mainstream. Manaola weaves elements of Native Hawaiian traditions, history and mo‘olelo (stories) into his clothing designs.

The models follow her instructions. “Yes!” Asia exclaims, clapping her hands. “Living! Living!”

Manaola’s mother Nani is in one corner, steaming wrinkles out of garments, while his father, Edward, is attending to details. “It’s gotta be flawless, Bubba,” Nani tells her son. That’s what he’s called by those close to him. “Think about that. Details.” There are so many details: the bags, the shoes, mesh jewelry pieces made by basket weavers Manaola happened across in Indonesia—all essential to the look.

Manaola has named his Fashion Week collection Kōlani, “belonging to the heavenly ones” or “belonging to royalty,” referring to a traditional seated hula ancient Hawaiians performed for monarchs. That theme is also the reason the designer is so calm. “It’s been hectic before,” says Manaola of some of his past runway shows.“We’ve had collections where I was freaking out in the back. But this collection, because of what it stands for, I really can’t go to that place. Every aspect of the journey to complete this collection has been … heavenly, almost.”

Native Hawaiian traditions have always been an integral part of the family’s world; Nani is a member of an award-winning hula and musical family and the kumu hula (hula teacher) of Hālau Manaola. Manaola’s grandmother, aunties and mother instructed him in drafting patterns, construction, dyeing fabrics with natural materials, stamp carving and making lei. “When we wanted to do something creative, our parents did what they could to help make whatever creation we were into happen,” says Manaola of the way he and Asia were raised.

The collection’s Kōlani line, seen above at last November’s Honolulu Fashion Week, represents Manaola’s vision of how Hawaiian ali‘i (royalty) and their entourages might dress if they lived in modern times.

It’s how, he says, he ended up “like this,” as owner-designer of the Island luxury brand Manaola Hawai‘i. His designs include everything from couture to leather bags and home décor, tailored men’s pieces and women’s ready-to-wear items. Less than two years after launching his label, Manaola has seen meteoric success. His annual pop-up shops on Maui and during the Merrie Monarch Festival on Hawai‘i Island attract customers willing to wait in line for hours.

Kōlani is Manaola’s vision for Hawaiian opulence and how the ali‘i (royalty) might dress for travel abroad had they lived during modern times. It is also his way of paying homage to the kings and queens of the past. “If the Hawaiian monarchs were alive today, this would be my way of styling them,” says Manaola. “They were very into travel and popular culture, so I envision them traveling to places like Dubai, London, Paris and New York.”

A six-year-old Manaola stands at the ocean’s edge in Kohala, Hawai‘i Island. He’s gathering seashells with his mother to be part of a costume she’s creating for her lū‘au show at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. As they pluck the shells from the sand, Nani tells her son of the legend they are going to re-create on stage: a tale of sea goddess Nāmaka o Kaha‘i and her sister, Pele. “This is the story,” Nani says. “What do you see for the costume?” The finished costume includes a headpiece of shells for the sea goddess and a tattered skirt to be set afire along its hem for the volcano goddess. “That was the first piece we created together,” says Manaola, now 30. “That’s how I grew up. Arts were passed down through the generations. My fashion inspiration was fueled on a daily basis at home.”

There was always some sort of project going on at the house, he recalls. Whether it was making kukui nut oil for painting costumes, collecting berries, bark or red dirt to make dyes or learning how to use coral and sea salt to draw out vibrant colors without using chemicals, Manaola kept busy learning the traditions of Native Hawaiians. “People always ask me if I went to school for fashion,” Manaola says. “Did I go to Parsons? No, but was I schooled in fashion as far as ancestral knowledge is passed on? Yes.” Manaola helped his mother create costumes for the family’s lū‘au shows well into his teens. From there it was a natural step to studying the fashion of other cultures as well.

The more he learned, the more Manaola came to see what he calls “a huge gap” in Hawai‘i fashion. Participating in fashion shows that Nani staged with her close friends—local designers who were influential in their own right, including Manuheali‘i, Princess Kaiulani Fashions and Sig Zane—left Manaola exploring ways to bring Island fashion into the mainstream. “We are still about the mu‘umu‘u and the aloha shirt,” he says. “I honor those because they are part of our fashion history, but where are we going from here? My goal is to bring Hawai‘i fashion into the twenty-first century.”

He started that effort with a pair of men’s underwear. Manaola had been invited to the Maoli Arts Month Wearable Arts Show in 2014. His reasons for wanting to do men’s underwear were threefold. One, men’s underwear had never been done on the runway in Hawai‘i. Two, you need to wear underwear every day. Three, the best-selling fashion makes you feel good, and good underwear is sexy.

Manaola almost backed out of the show at the last minute because every designer who went before him showcased aloha shirts, surf shorts and t-shirt dresses. People were going to think he was crazy, he worried. But Nani gave him the confidence to believe in his designs, and when the model dropped his robe at the end of the runway—and the audience dropped their jaws—a new era in Hawaiian fashion began. “It made me feel like if I could do this, I could do anything,” Manaola says. “There was no turning back.”

Manaola often starts off a show with a chant while his sister Asia performs hula. Their mother, Nani Lim Yap, is a respected kumu hula (hula teacher).

Since then Manaola has created several collections, including Modern Hawaiian, Ready-to-Wear and seasonal lines as well as bags, shoes and home interiors. Bold florals and aloha prints are nowhere in sight, yet nature is omnipresent, as is the Hawaiian mythology Manaola learned as a child. Story elements are transformed into geometric patterns—ranks of shark teeth, the textured rind of a breadfruit, the night sky pinpricked with stars—then hand-carved onto bamboo stamps, a traditional process known as ‘ohe kāpala. The carvings are then digitized for transfer onto the fabric to create distinctively modern Polynesian patterns.

Some of Manaola Hawai‘i’s patterns derive from ancient kapa (bark cloth) in the Bishop Museum’s collection. Others, like Niho Kū (standing shark tooth) and ‘Āko‘ako‘a (coral), are inspired by the shapes he saw as he paddled his canoe along the Kohala coastline. Repetitive geometric patterns, he says, translate well to modern-day fashion because they are timeless. “They go back to something very simple,” Manaola says. “Even a child notices a pattern.”

Take for example his Pewa (wedge) print, a metaphor for bridging or mending broken connections, or the Nanaka (breadfruit pattern) print, which symbolizes abundance and growth. Hula taught me why we dress the way we do when we dance, and the beauty of taking repetitious patterns found in nature to create geometrics that complement the body. It’s something so ancient and traditional.”

Manaola’s approach is proving wildly successful. Hula Lehua, Manaola Hawai‘i’s storefront at Ala Moana Center, received an award for highest percentage sales increase for general merchandising in 2015. At the end of last year, Manaola launched his online shopping site and collaborated with Disney on a print collection inspired by the animated film Moana. He also has plans to open a storefront in Japan later this year.

“Before we stepped in, I hadn’t seen Hawaiian fashion in the mainstream market anywhere,” says Manaola, whose name translates to “life force.” “But the future is in culturally based designs, and I believe Hawai‘i has a great chance to be that inspiration.”

The models walk regally down the runway to a music mix Asia put together blending Hawaiian instrumentation and modern house. “We played with a lot of newer textures in this collection,” says Manaola. For instance, “a polyester/satin crimped fabric that we found in Indonesia. And we had some Italian silk for the gentlemen’s black shirts. There was also lots of spun rayon and embroidery work, sheer netting, tassel and fringe. I love fringe.” I nod. Who doesn’t love fringe? And those knee-high boots that have an ankle zipper so you can convert them to a cute bootie? I’ll take three pairs.

The patterns in the Kōlani line are handmade according to an ancient technique using ‘ohe kāpala, or bamboo stamps. Manaola gathers bamboo, cuts it into strips and carves a pattern into them. In pre-contact times, these would be inked with a dye and then pressed onto kapa (bark cloth). Today, Manaola creates a digital image of the carving for transfer onto fabric.

For all his invention, Manaola still infuses traditional elements with even the most modern designs and materials. ‘Ahu ‘ula, the feather cloaks worn by ancient Hawaiian royalty, are mimicked on the male models with hand-stamped paint and flecks of gold leaf. Then there are the gold-painted hairlines, alluding to a ritual practiced in ancient times called kiki pūkai, where women bleached their hairline with a white paste—a sign of chiefly status.

“He was always reading, and he’d tag things that were interesting and the things he felt the Hawaiians imagined,” Nani says.“He was always so aware of everything that was happening around him.” And his thinking, even from a young age, she says, was “out of the box,” but he always had a purpose and a way to connect it back to traditional culture.

“Every level of this Kōlani collection has that type of vision and detail,” says Manaola. “That’s really what our label is about: bringing Hawai‘i, the culture, to the forefront. We must protect culture; it’s a never-ending source of inspiration.” HH