2016 Islander of the Year in Fashion: Manaola Yap

Culture-conscious designer.
Manaola Yap
Taste Maker: Hawaiian designer Manaola Yap at Ka Papa Lo‘i o Kanewai at UH Mānoa.
Photo: David Croxford


For fashion designer Manaola Yap, this past year brought increased recognition, popularity and more autonomy. But that success comes grounded in a lifelong immersion in hula, paddling and Native Hawaiian culture.


“My mission is to perpetuate the culture and the well-being of keeping life force—which is the namesake Manaola—while bringing back spirituality to the garment industry,” Yap says.


He creates signature looks by carving designs into thin pieces of wood used in a traditional Hawaiian stamping technique called ‘ohe kāpala, something he calls a kind of “sacred geometry.”


He also presented a jaw-dropping show this past November at the third annual HONOLULU Fashion Week. Internationally renowned fashion show executive producer Lynne Hanzawa O’Neill says Yap’s work turns heads with its aesthetic and execution.


“While rooted in indigenous Hawaiian nature and tradition, Manaola creates bold signature prints that are modern and original,” O’Neill says. “Coupled with his sophisticated silhouettes, Manaola’s designs have a broad appeal that makes him a rising star in fashion.” 


“It’s an art process. It takes time. In the end, it’s gorgeous when you wear it. That is luxury to me.”—Manaola Yap


Yap credits his success to his upbringing as well as his team. “I’m really grateful that we have a very small team but a very mighty team. And they stand very firmly behind me and I couldn’t do it without them.”


His Hula Lehua store at Ala Moana Center is going strong. And in 2016, he separated from a former business partner to gain sole ownership of his eponymous label Manaola Hawai‘i. 


Yap grew up in the Kohala region of Hawai‘i Island and still lives part of the year near the foot of Mauna Kea. His mother is kumu hula Nani Lim Yap, who instilled in him the importance of culture and arts. 


A glimpse of his early focus comes from a science project he did as an 8-year-old. Amid the cardboard volcanoes and homemade lightbulbs of his classmates, his project asked: “Can native dyes be transferred to modern textiles?”


When he moved into the world of fashion, Yap vowed to go beyond dyes and fabric to consciously consider “what kind of energy it creates when you wear something.” 


Care, consciousness and quality come with a higher cost. Some eyebrows flew up at Yap’s decision to brand his collection as luxury. “There was no such thing as a Hawaiian luxury fashion label,” Yap says. “I wanted to be different. I wanted to be able to say that it existed.”


For his collections, that means quality clothing full of details that include hidden slash pockets, finished seams and hook-and-eye catches. For those of us buying his creations, it means owning something that 100 other people won’t be wearing in the same color, style, design and size.


 “To me, that’s what sets us aside from a basic A-line dress,” Yap says. “It’s an art process. It takes time. In the end, it’s gorgeous when you wear it. That is luxury to me.”


The higher prices on his clothes also reflect fair wages and working conditions for the people who manufacture them, here, in L.A. or in a family-run factory in Indonesia. “I’m a firm believer in fair trade and fair compensation for manufacturing,” Yap says.  And he spends time with the manufacturers to see how that work comes together.


Now 30, Yap is striving to help cultivate younger artists in Hawai‘i and beyond. He is both inspiring to and inspired by other indigenous cultures and travels to New Zealand, Polynesia and Rapa Nui (Easter Island). 


Inspired by HONOLULU Fashion Week’s goal of building the Hawai‘i fashion industry, Yap and his team rushed production of a completely new line of 60 looks for the event, though they ended up showing only 40.  “We picked the fabrics, printed the fabrics, cut the patterns, hemmed, stitched, all the fitting, the buttons, the zippers, in 10 days.”


He says the push was worth it. “Time measures value for me, because time is something you never get back.”