How 7 Local Talents are Moving Hawai‘i’s Fashion Industry Forward
Dale Hope, Sig and Kūha‘o Zane, Lynne Hanzawa O’Neill, Ari Southiphong, Rona Bennett and Lan Chung talk about the past, present and future of Hawai‘i’s fashion industry.
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Lettering: Matthew Tapia
At first glance, Hawai‘i’s fashion industry might be mistaken for just another cog in a giant tourism machine, churning out brightly colored matching outfits for visitor photo ops. But a closer inspection reveals a richly nuanced industry with much more to offer, driven by a steadily expanding pool of talented designers and fashion personalities.
The aloha shirt serves as the heart of the industry, a reminder of Hawai‘i’s multi-cultural roots, and as a canvas for local artists to communicate the experience of Island life. It is a style in constant evolution, championed by innovators who include father-son duo Sig and Kūha‘o Zane of Sig Zane Designs, who transform the classic with bold Hawaiian-influenced graphics and modern cuts, and Dale Hope, former owner-designer of Kāhala Sportswear, who keeps his father’s legacy line, HRH, relevant via collaborations with younger brands.
Some major brands started here and have remained committed to manufacturing their clothing here. They include: ‘Iolani Sportswear, Tori Richard and Surf Line Hawai‘i/Jams World.
At the other end of the spectrum, contemporary up-and-coming local designers are branching out aesthetically in exciting ways. Today, there are local labels focused on everything from denim and retro-inspired surf styles to urban fashions and breezy resortwear. There are even a few flashes of the avant garde. At the head of the pack are Rona Bennett and Lan Chung, designers of the knitwear-focused Fighting Eel brand, and Andy South designer Ari Southiphong, the Project Runway standout turned local manufacturing advocate, whose lines are challenging conventional definitions of aloha wear.
A burgeoning scene, however, can only develop so much far from the traditional fashion centers of Paris and New York City. Hawai‘i’s Island setting offers endless inspiration but also isolates. Bridging the gap is fashion show producer extraordinaire Lynne Hanzawa O’Neill. A major player in the New York fashion scene, the Honolulu native is helping to launch the first HONOLULU Fashion Week and propel local talents into the national spotlight.
State economists estimate the Hawai‘i fashion manufacturing industry currently employs only about 1,900 people directly and a total of 4,350 when related jobs are included. The state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism’s Research and Economic Analysis Division tracks direct sales for the fashion manufacturing sector at $383 million in 2013, and $758 million in total sales generated in the economy when related revenue is included. For comparison’s sake, the state’s No. 1 industry, tourism, employs more than 162,630 people and generates more than $14.4 billion annually, according to Hawai‘i Tourism Authority statistics (as of 2014).
While the economic impact of the fashion industry remains relatively small, key industry players remain optimistic about the future of Hawai‘i-based fashion.
First, there was Hope
Hope and his golden retriever Mango in the backyard of his Pālolo home.
Photo: Harold Julian
Since the 1930s, aloha shirts have told a story of color, fun and freedom. Dale Hope, former owner of Kāhala Sportswear, offers his philosophy: “If everyone wore aloha shirts, there would be no wars.”
Hope’s deep-rooted belief in the aloha shirt started young. As a child, he built elaborate forts made of shipping boxes at his parents’ factory in Kapahulu, where his father, Howard Hope, sold fabric to local merchants. The family business soon grew into a small sewing operation that produced its first aloha wear line, Sun Fashions Ltd.
At the time, other industry labels were also gaining momentum. One was Alfred Shaheen, best known for luxurious aloha shirts topped with silk-screened prints. “He was amazing,” Hope says. “He was the most accomplished local garment manufacturer in the ’50s and ’60s for both men and women.” Tori Richard, the creation of Mort Feldman, debuted resort wear with bold Hawaiian motifs, Island-inspired elements and graphic Asian accents. “The Tori Richard look was refined and elegant,” Hope says. And it is still going strong today, with 2,500 national and international storefronts carrying the label.
Hawai‘i fashion was competitive and growing fast. “My parents worked hard and spent most nights and weekends at the office. It was, and still is, a very consuming way to make a living.” Dale Hope set off for college, planning to embark on a different journey. However, sales were down and the family business was struggling. So he returned to the factory floor, not to build playhouses this time, but to help his father construct an epic fashion house that would have a long-lasting legacy.
By the ’60s, the aloha shirt had hit Hollywood. A stream of celebrities that included Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and even an entertainer named Clarissa “Hilo Hattie” Haili gave the garment a certain kind of cool.
In the ’70s, Hope’s first project—selling men’s aloha shirts under the Howard Robert Hope (eventually HRH) label—was underway. He was finally getting into the rhythm of the business, building his professional network and expanding his creative range. He worked with, and learned from, artists and textile designers he admired and respected. But he also witnessed the once-successful company that produced the label Kāhala go bankrupt after 30 years in business.
Then, 10 years later, in 1979, Dale Hope bought the once-iconic brand. In the ’80s he reached out to the Islands’ top creatives, including a handful who doubled as professional surfers. The collaborations that unfolded from these partnerships produced some of Hope’s favorite designs to date. He recalls that time as the best days of his career. “I was collaborating with John Severson, the former owner of Surfer Magazine, at his home in Napili. All of a sudden a wave broke in front of his house and he said, ‘Get your shorts, let’s go,’ and I thought, one cannot beat this.”
Despite the creative rewards, the hard work and the practical realities of running a business took their toll. “A broken central air-conditioning unit would cost us $30,000 to replace. Too often, the days get filled with these matters and take you away from your business, and you find you have little time to enjoy your art,” he says. Hope ended up selling Kāhala but stayed on as creative director for 10 years. In his spare time he wrote a book, one about aloha shirts, a perfect fit.
Hope sees today as an exciting time for the next generation: “I’m anxious to see what they create and the story they tell.” His advice for those entering the ever-changing world of Hawai‘i fashion: “Learn all you can about the industry, from finance and distribution to production and sales. Be organic and sustainable, and inspire with our aloha spirit.”