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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Her Chinatown shop is both a flagship boutique and a workspace for Roberta Oaks.

Photo: Rae Huo

The Free Spirit

With her lithe figure, chunky boots and tiered dress, Roberta Oaks looks like the cool sister you wish you had. 

In the five-and-a-half years she’s been designing women’s clothing, her eponymous line has grown quickly, and is now carried in 150 stores nationwide. She also just opened up a flagship boutique in Chinatown. “I needed a change from working at home,” she says. “I felt disconnected from my customers. I love Chinatown and when I saw this space vacant, I thought, ‘This is it.’” Oaks says the location is an opportunity to reconnect with her local customers—and a way to do research, too. “Seeing people try the things on, how things work on them. I need feedback, not just numbers.”

The boutique also houses her workshop and her shipping operation. (The clothing is sewn elsewhere on Oahu.) That’s why she only opens to the public on Thursdays and Fridays, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. 

The Roberta Oaks label runs in the $100 to $150 range, and is largely made up of dresses. “I’m all about dresses. Mini dresses, long dresses, party dresses, casual … I think dresses are forgiving.” Oaks uses super-soft, eco-chic materials, such as bamboo jersey and organic cotton, as well as some flattering, stretchy Lycra. 

For summer 2010, she created tiered dresses with tiny polka dots, and continued to indulge her passion for stripes. While she’s a well-known designer around Hawaii, many of her customers are not Islanders. “I do well in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Arizona and Florida,” she says. She thinks her use of bright colors appeals to customers there.

Oaks grew up in Missouri with artistic, self-employed parents. Fashion design, she says, sort of found her, rather than the other way around.

“I moved to Hawaii after traveling. I had like $50 and stayed with my sister. I was so lost. I never imagined doing this. I have a degree in photography and graphic design but I took it too literally. I am really lucky—I was just doing my thing and I got good feedback.” 

With her new space open, Oaks seems even more inspired. “Chinatown has a lot of style. People tend to be more creatively dressed down here.”

Then there’s the proximity to other designers’ outposts, like Fighting Eel (on Hotel Street) and Etown (on Smith Street). Hawaii’s fashion scene tends to be close knit. “We’re all really supportive of each other,” says Oaks. “Hawaii is exceptional in that way.”

Where to Shop:

Roberta Oaks, 19 N. Pauahi St., 428-1214, robertaoaks.com

 

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