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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Photo: Courtesy Fighting Eel
When they got started in 2003, Honolulu designers Rona Bennett and Lan Chung knew it wasn’t going to be easy to build a clothing brand from the ground up, much less a contemporary brand competing in a traditional Hawaiian-print market. But, as the name of their label Fighting Eel suggests, these women are up for a challenge.
In 2014, Fighting Eel is more than just surviving, it’s flourishing. The knitwear brand boasts three successful boutiques with a fourth set to open in Kāhala by the end of the year and enjoys a cultlike following among local women who appreciate the label’s versatile styles and playful, occasionally tropical prints.
The duo’s survival skills were put to the test from the start. How did they know where to begin? “We didn’t, we just started,” Bennett recalls with a laugh. Chung had studied merchandising at UH Mānoa, and both women had retail sales experience. But for the most part they learned the ropes as they went along. “When we realized that we wanted to do it, we went out, bought airline passes and learned everything along the way,” Bennett says. “When we wanted to buy fabric, we went to one manufacturer who explained how to go about it and what our minimums were. We decided that we needed a sales rep, so we just walked into an agency.”
They faced manufacturing challenges, when rising costs and a lack of resources prompted them to shift production to California. “At the time, there weren’t any jersey cutters here,” Bennett says. They set up in Los Angeles and traveled back and forth to make it work. A recent stroke of good fortune means that Fighting Eel’s sewing will soon once again be done in the Islands, which aligns with the Made in Paradise label stitched into the brand’s clothing. “Our sewer in L.A., who is from Hawai‘i, is actually moving back.”
They’ve also been quick to adapt to an ever-changing retail environment. “When the economy tanked in 2008 and 2009, our wholesale business wasn’t doing well because there were all these boutiques that were closing. So we switched things up, selling straight through our own retail stores, which ended up being more profitable.”
After 11 years in the business, Fighting Eel has become the veteran among Hawai‘i’s young contemporary brands. Currently, the label puts out seven to nine collections a year. Ava Sky, its 2-year-old sister line, offers up a monthly delivery, and both have expanded to include girls apparel.
Chung and Bennett are optimistic about the future of the local fashion industry: “There are a lot more local boutiques and a lot more small designers, which helps.”
They are proof positive of the possibilities for up-and-coming fashion designers: “When you first start out, you get so much rejection. Even locally, not a lot of people wanted to take a chance on us. Now, people are more behind the idea of supporting local.”
THE EEL DEAL
The Fighting Eel brand hasbeen going strong since 2003. Owners-designers Rona Bennett and Lan Chung share some of the secrets to their staying power.
➸ Know your clientele. We really try to think about what our customers want. They’re not afraid to let us know how they feel—whether they really love a particular style or if it's not working. We’re quick to change.
➸ Spend wisely. Know which investments are worthwhile. Super nice business cards are great, but they’re not going to make you money.
➸ Check the egos at the door. It’s easy to get emotionally attached to a particular idea. For us, if something’s not working we say, oh well, and move on. We don’t have any egos.