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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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Ambassador of Aloha

Lynne hanzawa O’Neill

Hanzawa O’Neill returns to her roots at the Dole Pineapple Fields.
Photo: Harold Julian

➸ Covetable fashion item: Anything Comme des Garçons is all good.

➸ What grounds you? Wearing my Locals rubber slippers reminds me to walk with aloha.

Lynne Hanzawa O’Neill wears black. Usually Comme des Garçons. Sometimes accompanied by Warby Parker black frame sunglasses, smart but not hipster. And Nars Heat Wave red lipstick, a pop of color that hints at her persona: present, powerful and in charge. Hanzawa O’Neill produces fashion shows, both for top-tier fashion houses as well as for newcomers who may someday own a spot on the Barney’s floor. Her job—one that a million people might yearn for—takes her from New York to Milan to Aruba and now Honolulu—a place she considers influential to the fashion world.

Since she was 4 years old, Hanzawa O’Neill has spent summers in Hawai‘i visiting her relatives after her family moved from their Island home to California. She fondly recalls days of connecting with her ‘ohana, dancing obon, swimming at Ala Moana Beach and tagging along to pick up her aunt at Watumull’s (her first glimpse of Hawaiian fashion). Now 61, she renews that connection each time she returns home. “My first job here, at 16, was working at the pineapple cannery. I inspected the fruit from the sample fields and determined if it was ripe. The following summer I moved to inspector of outgoing cans. I learned how much energy and people it takes to produce one perfect product that people will savor, same as a fashion show.”

Hanzawa O’Neill never set out to work in fashion, although she did wear a Pucci-like dress with shiny gold mules to her prom. She majored in art history at UCLA and seriously considered a career as a physical therapist. “I had no idea this would be my life; I looked at a lot of fashion magazines and loved Twiggy, the Beatles and English bands, but still find it rather surprising that I have a career producing fashion shows.”

From an early job as assistant to a special events manager at Macy’s to booking shows for Vogue, Calvin Klein, Versace, Missoni and Hervé Léger, Hanzawa O’Neill says there’s no secret formula to her success. She worked hard—a trait she learned from both parents. “My father worked at the Waikīkī Aquarium until he was 60, and my mom still waitresses at the Kūhiō Beach Grill at the Marriott.” Visiting her mom is the main reason she comes back to Hawai‘i so often.  The pull of family … and Waiola shave ice.

Hanzawa O’Neill relies on what she calls “aloha zen” to operate in the high-pressure world of high fashion, especially during New York Fashion Week. Running 14 shows in one week leaves no room for error. She does it calmly without raising her voice, or swearing.  (In 2001, Sex and the City ran an episode with a character based on Lynne played by comedian Margaret Cho, who swore a lot.) Instead, Hanzawa O’Neill relies on her inner aloha spirit to help coordinate, orchestrate and navigate. She offers this advice to folks from Hawai‘i striving to make it in the New York fashion scene: “Treat everyone with the same respect, don’t lose perspective and be proud of who you are, show your aloha spirit.”

On a recent trip to Hawai‘i she noted a new tingle of excitement in the local fashion scene. “Definitely more happening, local designers such as Roberta Oaks Power and Jun Jo of in4mation were showcasing aloha prints in dynamic ways, modernizing the Island’s unique fashion heritage,” she says. To Hanzawa O’Neill, these designers are capitalizing on what Hope, Shaheen, Zane and other industry pillars built and strengthened over the years.

For local designers, including Kūha‘o Zane, Ari Southiphong and Fighting Eel’s Lan Chung and Rona Bennett, the aloha shirt serves as the foundation on which they can build alternate points of view, reflecting their own tradition and style. Instead of feeling pigeonholed in this local industry, they’ve challenged themselves to reinvent, recreate and reimagine what is possible. And Hanzawa O’Neill is encouraged by the progress made in Hawai‘i fashion.

Fashion leaders Prada, Marc Jacobs and Opening Ceremony also gave a boost to the popularity of Hawaiian wear when their Spring ’14 collections featured tropical prints. And Hollywood continues to embrace a Hawai‘i vibe, giving it life on the big screen, on magazine covers and on the red carpet.

Hanzawa O’Neill would like to see programs to help up-and-coming local fashion designers thrive here in Hawai‘i: “Mentorships, state support and local manufacturing facilities will definitely help elevate the local fashion industry, while attracting global attention to the amazing talent we have,” she says. She signed on to produce a handful of shows for the upcoming first HONOLULU Fashion Week, to help spotlight Hawai‘i’s fashion talents.

On her way to the airport, Hanzawa O’Neill popped into Power’s downtown Honolulu boutique. After all, shopping is research in her world. She spotted two aloha-print dresses she had to buy: one a mandarin orange, the other an ocean blue, both reminiscent of old Hawai‘i.

Hanzawa O’Neill believes in aloha wear for all seasons, even in other states and countries: “You don’t have to be living in Hawai‘i to wear it. Mix it with pants, a shirt, fun accessories; incorporate it into your look and make it your own.” She sees it as an opportunity to spread that aloha zen through the latest aloha wear: “Everyone should wear aloha from the inside out!”


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