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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A New Direction
Southiphong (standing) and model in Andy South evening wear at Kailua Beach, one of the designer’s favorite retreats.
Photo: Harold Julian
Evolution seems to be an ongoing theme for designer Ari Southiphong. Within the space of just a few years, the Wai‘anae native has gone from being a standout student in Honolulu Community College’s fashion technology program to a reality TV star, courtesy of two separate stints on the popular Project Runway series. On a personal journey, Southiphong, formerly known as Andy South, has been transitioning to life as a transgender female.
The designer has also been experiencing an evolution on the business side. Steadily, and ever so quietly, she’s taken on the role of local manufacturer.
The idea came about unexpectedly in 2012. Fresh off competing on season eight of Project Runway, Southiphong had taken a trip to China to source production services for the first collection of her Andy South line. When the China option fell through, Southiphong took matters into her own hands, literally. “I ended up doing the whole first collection in my studio with one other seamstress right up to the deadline,” she says. The accomplishment offered the designer some fresh perspective on manufacturing in the Islands. “That first season taught me that we can do this ourselves, we can produce in Hawai‘i.”
Then reality set in. “I had thought, if I can do it here, surely I can find other people here that can do it for me. The answer was and still is a no,” Southiphong says. So her team started into production themselves. “Things lined up to push us further in that direction. I had machines to start with and was picking up more along the way, and meeting the people who are now my seamstresses. Now it’s my bread and butter.”
Manufacturing in Hawai‘i grew from a garment industry that employed a few hundred people in the Territory in the 1940s, to about 1,600 in the 1950s, into a heyday in the 1960s–’70s (statistics are hard to come by). But sharp competition from cheaper international competitors shrank the local garment industry in recent years to fewer than 5,000.
Three of the original Island fashion labels, Surf Line Hawai‘i, Tori Richard and ‘Iolani Sportswear, are second-generation owned and remain committed to manufacturing here.
“We celebrated our 60th anniversary last year,” says Lloyd Kawakami, the son of ‘Iolani Sportswear founders Keiji and Edith Kawakami. “I believe as a business owner I have a responsibility to keep my employees employed. That has always been our philosophy for over 60 years now. I put myself in their shoes, I wouldn’t want to hear one day that I lost my job because the work is somewhere else now.”
Recently, Southiphong made a strategic decision to close her spacious Chinatown atelier and move her factory to Kalihi to cut overhead costs. The new location means fewer distractions and a renewed focus on profitability for herself and her staff of 10, which includes eight seamstresses and two pattern makers.
Despite being the new kid, Southiphong is making her mark. The same strong work ethic and levelheadedness that made her a Project Runway favorite is helping her win over industry veterans. “Once the older manufacturers had a chance to speak to me face to face, they realized that I’d thought about the risk and know what I’m capable of, and that I’m able to do everything—make patterns, cut, sew and project-manage.”
Today, her client list is growing and includes such familiar names as Sig Zane Designs and Punahou School, which has hired Southiphong to redesign and produce its band uniforms.
She praises Punahou for investing in local companies. “The whole idea is to support sustainable local businesses so that we all can thrive,” she explains. “It circulates—the money that I make from the order goes into the business I’m doing with Puka Prints, who’s printing the fabric order.” The uniforms have become a passion project for Southiphong. Still in the works, the results so far are looking good: a cool graphic print, new breathable fabrics and clever details, including detachable pieces.
Using new cash flow from the production side of her business, Southiphong is eager to turn her attention back to other passion projects. She plans to release a new Andy South collection before the end of the year, one that will return the line to its strongly tailored roots. She’ll also be tending to her company’s blossoming custom design department. Ever the entrepreneur, she’s even toying with the idea of launching a mobile pop-up shop.
Looking forward, Southiphong sees a lot of potential. “I hope that there will be growth on the manufacturing side. Now young designers see that it’s not just a crap job. They realize the level of success you can achieve. As an efficient, quality production house, you can really call the shots.”
On her wish list: “A much larger resource for notions and fabrics—the supplier here is limited because the market here is limited. A local textiles supplier who could warehouse a lot of it—that would make it a lot easier than having to travel.” Currently, she’s sourcing all of her fabric from LA and New York. But that could change. Southiphong’s entrepreneurial wheels are still at work: “Maybe I’ll be that person. Maybe I’ll start importing fabric and be a supplier as well!”
Special Thanks to: Rick Barboza, co-founder of Papahana Kuaola, for providing the lo‘i location for our feature photo shoot and Jenny Antonio for guidance throughout our shoot at Dole Pineapple Fields. Thanks to authors Dale Hope and Linda Arthur Bradley for lending images from their books, as well as the CTAHR Historic Costume Collection at UH Mānoa. Thanks to the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism for tracking down impact and employment statistics for us. Thanks to David Young, Eugene Tian and Dennis Ling. At Honolulu Community College’s Fashion Technology Department, Professor Joy Ann Nagaue provided comprehensive historical research assistance.