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A Life in Fashion

They do more than create apparel. They can see a bird and turn its colors into a fabric print. They can whip up costumes for an entire opera company. Meet the multitasking magicians we call fashion designers.


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Anne Namba relishes the colorful, fantasy aspect of constume design.

Photo: Rae Huo

The Explorer

If there was a job for a fashion designer in the polyglot city of Babel, Anne Namba would be a shoo-in. Her work speaks languages, from the rich brocades of Iran, where she lived briefly while growing up, to the obi details a stylish Honolulu bride wants incorporated into a wedding gown. 

Namba got into sewing as a child on Oahu, after her grandmother passed away and left her a sewing machine. “It was the kind you pump with your feet. It was that old!” Namba decided to whip up an ensemble—shorts and a top. “It was blue kettle cloth with a yellow zigzag trim. I was so proud. And it didn’t fit at all. My mother thought, ‘Hmm, maybe [Anne] should take some sewing lessons.’”

While she loved art and sewing, Namba lacked the confidence to pursue fashion as a career. “I thought that was kind of like saying, ‘I’m going to be a movie star!’” But once she had taken a few design classes at UH, she realized she had what it took. She later transferred to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and worked in the costume department at Radio City Music Hall.

Her signature style is Asian, exotic silks, and she uses many vintage fabrics, though they can be tricky to work with. “There are condition issues, dry rot, limited yardage. You think you’ve got it and then it falls apart!” She also designs her own fabric prints, working with her nephew, artist Kamea Hadar.

The line has a reputation for being pricey, but actually, Namba says, “We work very hard to keep our prices down. Silk prices have gone up, rent and taxes keep going up. It’s also much harder to find the vintage kimonos then it used to be. We try to keep the prices reasonable.” Her line ranges from $70 for a camisole to $600 for a pants/top ensemble to $3,000 for a made-to-order wedding gown.

Compared with when she first opened her store, in 1989, Namba says Hawaii now has greater fashion sophistication. “If something was ‘in,’ we’d never know it for years. But that was before the Internet, and people travel more. We’re less of an island than we used to be.”

Her clients have changed in other ways. “I used to get an older demographic, but I’m now getting more young women,” notes Namba, a shift she attributes to her bridal business. “And older women are fitter than they used to be. My mothers of the bride don’t need to cover this, or wear something down to here,” she gestures. “Some of them are really fit and can show off.”

Namba continues to do costume design, such as for Hawaii Opera Theatre’s Pirates of Penzance, and, more recently, for Madame Butterfly, presented at the Savonlinna Opera Festival in Finland.

Unlike her regular clothing line, “Costumes aren’t beautiful on the inside,” she says. “They’re lined to absorb sweat, they have big seams so that you can easily alter them [for different actors]. They have to be sturdy. With a regular gown, I’m not worried that my client is going to be murdered and fall on the ground, or roll around singing.”

Namba is having a fashion show on April 18 to benefit Ballet Hawaii. It’s part of her “Fashion in Motion” collection, which will also involve a May 6 benefit in New York City for Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Arts Center. “For Latin dancing, [the clothing is] reds, golds, black—I’m even doing some leather. Short and sexy. Then softer prints, pastels, for more lyrical dance styles and evening gowns for waltzes.”

In this era of reality shows like Project Runway, people might have a skewed view on what it takes to be an internationally known designer like Namba. But she knows better. “A lot of what you do is grunt work. If a trash can needs emptying, I empty trash cans!” 

Where to Shop:

Anne Namba, 324 Kamani St., 589-1135, annenamba.com


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Honolulu Magazine September 2020
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