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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Sig and Kūha‘o at the Papahana Kuaola lo‘i patch.
Photo: Harold Julian
Hilo-based Sig Zane Designs brings together ancient Hawaiian culture and distinct modern style to create bold prints that work equally well on aloha shirts and airplane paint schemes.
While Dale Hope’s aloha shirt was anchored in the surf world, Sig Zane’s journey is rooted in world travel, love and hula. Zane was fortunate to grow up with O‘ahu, Paris, Madrid and the Big Island as his playgrounds. “One year, my dad moved us to Madrid to start a new job,” he remembers. “The job didn’t pan out, but during that time I was exposed to all the great landmarks and museums. I loved it. At 9 years old, I saw the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.”
International travel and myriad Island adventures—catching ulua, four-wheeling around Mauna Kea, hiking the coastline—fueled Zane’s deep appreciation of life, which, in turn, nurtured his view of design. “Fashion is a canvas to express culture, tradition and where we are at that moment. It articulates the energy of a period in time,” Zane says.
Zane, now 62, first studied Hawaiian culture in the ’70s, although many are surprised to learn that he is not of ethnic Hawaiian ancestry. In the ’80s, two things occupied his heart: hula and Nalani Kanaka‘ole—whose family is synonymous with the Hawaiian culture and the hula community. His first clothing design? A white-ginger blossom print on a pareo, a romantic nod to the girl he liked to take to Mānoa Valley, where the flower’s sweet scent filled the air. Sig married Nalani, and that first print lives on as part of his women’s line.
At first, designing clothing simply offered Zane a way to express his artistic side. But in 1985, he opened the Sig Zane Designs shop near Hilo Bay. With a chuckle, he admits, “Truthfully, the reason I turned this into a ‘real’ job was because I heard I was going to be a father.” That store grew into a family business that now employs 13 people.
Today, son Kūha‘o Zane, 31, is a graphic designer who embraces the legacy of his family with its layers of culture. From Sig he learned the importance of being both a gentleman and a successful businessman, to be on time (even when answering emails) and to always show respect. From his grandmother, Edith Kanaka‘ole, he learned to give without restraint. His mother, Nalani, educated him on the value of tradition and how to humbly apply it to all his creative endeavors. The dynamic family saw results early when Kūha‘o sold his first print, an interpretation of Santa Claus being pulled by dolphins in the ocean, when he was just 7 years old.
For Kūha‘o, his two passions, design and hula, feed directly into each other. “When we dance, we learn about the chant, the motion, the location. Nearly all of my hula regalia is picked, braided, weaved or dyed by myself. I pick my palapalai, make my lei and present it with my hula. This shapes my perspective when it comes to design and marketing,” says Kūha‘o. ”I look at a project the same way as making lei.”
Over time, the father-and-son team developed a signature line of color-saturated prints, many using elements of the kukui, kalo (taro) and hala. The younger Zane graduated from a top U.S. fashion school, the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles. This past December, Kūha‘o celebrated 10 years of design.
Still based in sleepy Hilo, the team garners international attention. Locally and nationally, aloha shirts have won recognition as a fashion trend that’s here to stay. The Zanes have helped it transform to a current style.
But, as with Dale Hope, business success didn’t come easy. Survival takes hard work, dedication and long hours. Kūha‘o explains that he takes one vacation a year to Fiji and cherishes the down time. One year, he arrived at his destination but had to keep working on the phone for hours: “By nightfall, I was pissed. I decided to drink, and 30 beers later, I found myself lying in a hammock. As I looked toward the ground, I saw a bunch of rocks huddled together. In my drunken state, I picked them up and formed them into a K. It hit me, at that point: I knew I was meant to design.”
Today, his multi-faceted role includes leading a new branch of Sig Zane Designs, SigZaneKaiao, a design firm that has engineered artistic campaigns for Hawaiian Electric, Hawaiian Airlines and French fashion icon Louis Vuitton. His knowledge of Hawaiian culture informs vividly contemporary graphics blended with sexy masculinity, showing where aloha fashion can go. And while he once saw the design process simply as concept, perspective, creativity, color and placement, Kūha‘o now sees it as a way to share Hawaiian culture with the rest of the world “in a progressive way while keeping the concept rooted in practice and tradition.”