Native Intelligence: Hawai‘i Island

Hala Heaven

Story by Spencer Kealamakia. Photo by Megan Spelman.

Michele Zane-Faridi keeps the old stuff in a pair of wood-and-glass cabinets at the back of her Hilo bayfront boutique, Hana Hou Hilo. Laid out just so on the cabinet shelves are handmade Hawaiiana curios from the territorial days—finely woven lauhala pāpale and purses, delicately strung Ni‘ihau shell necklaces and earrings, and plaited pe‘ahi lauhala, the kind of fans that flutter in church pews on humid Sundays across the Hawaiian Islands. “To me these pieces are all museum quality,” says Zane-Faridi. “They’re probably about a hundred years old.”

Zane-Faridi, the sister of renowned local designer Sig Zane, has been collecting and selling antique Hawaiiana and collectibles for decades. In fact, Hana Hou Hilo began as an antiques and collectibles shop, specializing in clothes and furniture from the 1930s and ’40s. Since then it’s become a destination for the savvy shopper and a venue for artisans, designers and cultural practitioners from Hawai‘i and greater Oceania to showcase and sell their work.

Kawehi Kahanaoi is one such cultural practitioner; her kaula hau (cordage made from hibiscus tree fiber) work is among the modern crafts on offer in Hana Hou Hilo. In addition to selling her work in the shop, she also teaches classes on traditional fiber art. One of the reasons she does this arduous work in the manner of her ancestors, she says, is because she wants people to see Hawaiian cultural traditions not as dead and gone but present and alive.

Still, if Hana Hou Hilo is known for anything, it’s lauhala—the dried leaf of the pandanus tree, used to weave everything from hats to mats to purses. In addition to the vintage pieces in her collection, Zane-Faridi is an expert weaver who has studied under some of the most revered masters. She’s applied traditional weaving techniques to nontraditional projects. She’s woven cases for Hydroflasks and ornate Kentucky Derby-style hats. She’s even made a wedding dress with a lauhala and leather bodice. “Hana hou,” which means to repeat or to make new, is the way Zane-Faridi lives. “My mission,” she says, “is to perpetuate and honor the traditions my kumu [teachers] have taught me.”