A Life in Fashion

They do more than create apparel. They can see a bird and turn its colors into a fabric print. They can whip up costumes for an entire opera company. Meet the multitasking magicians we call fashion designers.

Anne Namba relishes the colorful, fantasy aspect of constume design.

Photo: Rae Huo

The Explorer

If there was a job for a fashion designer in the polyglot city of Babel, Anne Namba would be a shoo-in. Her work speaks languages, from the rich brocades of Iran, where she lived briefly while growing up, to the obi details a stylish Honolulu bride wants incorporated into a wedding gown. 

Namba got into sewing as a child on Oahu, after her grandmother passed away and left her a sewing machine. “It was the kind you pump with your feet. It was that old!” Namba decided to whip up an ensemble—shorts and a top. “It was blue kettle cloth with a yellow zigzag trim. I was so proud. And it didn’t fit at all. My mother thought, ‘Hmm, maybe [Anne] should take some sewing lessons.’”

While she loved art and sewing, Namba lacked the confidence to pursue fashion as a career. “I thought that was kind of like saying, ‘I’m going to be a movie star!’” But once she had taken a few design classes at UH, she realized she had what it took. She later transferred to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and worked in the costume department at Radio City Music Hall.

Her signature style is Asian, exotic silks, and she uses many vintage fabrics, though they can be tricky to work with. “There are condition issues, dry rot, limited yardage. You think you’ve got it and then it falls apart!” She also designs her own fabric prints, working with her nephew, artist Kamea Hadar.

The line has a reputation for being pricey, but actually, Namba says, “We work very hard to keep our prices down. Silk prices have gone up, rent and taxes keep going up. It’s also much harder to find the vintage kimonos then it used to be. We try to keep the prices reasonable.” Her line ranges from $70 for a camisole to $600 for a pants/top ensemble to $3,000 for a made-to-order wedding gown.

Compared with when she first opened her store, in 1989, Namba says Hawaii now has greater fashion sophistication. “If something was ‘in,’ we’d never know it for years. But that was before the Internet, and people travel more. We’re less of an island than we used to be.”

Her clients have changed in other ways. “I used to get an older demographic, but I’m now getting more young women,” notes Namba, a shift she attributes to her bridal business. “And older women are fitter than they used to be. My mothers of the bride don’t need to cover this, or wear something down to here,” she gestures. “Some of them are really fit and can show off.”

Namba continues to do costume design, such as for Hawaii Opera Theatre’s Pirates of Penzance, and, more recently, for Madame Butterfly, presented at the Savonlinna Opera Festival in Finland.

Unlike her regular clothing line, “Costumes aren’t beautiful on the inside,” she says. “They’re lined to absorb sweat, they have big seams so that you can easily alter them [for different actors]. They have to be sturdy. With a regular gown, I’m not worried that my client is going to be murdered and fall on the ground, or roll around singing.”

Namba is having a fashion show on April 18 to benefit Ballet Hawaii. It’s part of her “Fashion in Motion” collection, which will also involve a May 6 benefit in New York City for Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Arts Center. “For Latin dancing, [the clothing is] reds, golds, black—I’m even doing some leather. Short and sexy. Then softer prints, pastels, for more lyrical dance styles and evening gowns for waltzes.”

In this era of reality shows like Project Runway, people might have a skewed view on what it takes to be an internationally known designer like Namba. But she knows better. “A lot of what you do is grunt work. If a trash can needs emptying, I empty trash cans!” 

Where to Shop:

Anne Namba, 324 Kamani St., 589-1135, annenamba.com



Her Chinatown shop is both a flagship boutique and a workspace for Roberta Oaks.

Photo: Rae Huo

The Free Spirit

With her lithe figure, chunky boots and tiered dress, Roberta Oaks looks like the cool sister you wish you had. 

In the five-and-a-half years she’s been designing women’s clothing, her eponymous line has grown quickly, and is now carried in 150 stores nationwide. She also just opened up a flagship boutique in Chinatown. “I needed a change from working at home,” she says. “I felt disconnected from my customers. I love Chinatown and when I saw this space vacant, I thought, ‘This is it.’” Oaks says the location is an opportunity to reconnect with her local customers—and a way to do research, too. “Seeing people try the things on, how things work on them. I need feedback, not just numbers.”

The boutique also houses her workshop and her shipping operation. (The clothing is sewn elsewhere on Oahu.) That’s why she only opens to the public on Thursdays and Fridays, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. 

The Roberta Oaks label runs in the $100 to $150 range, and is largely made up of dresses. “I’m all about dresses. Mini dresses, long dresses, party dresses, casual … I think dresses are forgiving.” Oaks uses super-soft, eco-chic materials, such as bamboo jersey and organic cotton, as well as some flattering, stretchy Lycra. 

For summer 2010, she created tiered dresses with tiny polka dots, and continued to indulge her passion for stripes. While she’s a well-known designer around Hawaii, many of her customers are not Islanders. “I do well in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Arizona and Florida,” she says. She thinks her use of bright colors appeals to customers there.

Oaks grew up in Missouri with artistic, self-employed parents. Fashion design, she says, sort of found her, rather than the other way around.

“I moved to Hawaii after traveling. I had like $50 and stayed with my sister. I was so lost. I never imagined doing this. I have a degree in photography and graphic design but I took it too literally. I am really lucky—I was just doing my thing and I got good feedback.” 

With her new space open, Oaks seems even more inspired. “Chinatown has a lot of style. People tend to be more creatively dressed down here.”

Then there’s the proximity to other designers’ outposts, like Fighting Eel (on Hotel Street) and Etown (on Smith Street). Hawaii’s fashion scene tends to be close knit. “We’re all really supportive of each other,” says Oaks. “Hawaii is exceptional in that way.”

Where to Shop:

Roberta Oaks, 19 N. Pauahi St., 428-1214, robertaoaks.com



Seen at Shasa Emporium in Kahala Mall, Katrina Cordova enjoys working with store managers, who give her feedback on her work.

Photo: Rae Huo

The Entrepreneur

Known for fresh, wearable designs, Katrina Cordova’s jewelry has a passionate fan following.

“My style is consistent—simple, classic. It’s not going to go out of style. At my trunk shows, customers will say, ‘I bought this 10 years ago and still wear it,’” says Cordova, who was born and raised on Oahu. “A lot of my customers are moms and professionals. They don’t have a lot of time. The pieces are versatile.” 

Her necklaces, earrings and bracelets come in gold fill, silver and oxidized silver, with mostly semiprecious stones, such as citrine or blue topaz, though some of her work features rubies or diamonds. Her prices range from $50 to $200.

“I always try to incorporate affordability, but also to make it a good value for what you’re getting—the gemstones, quality and craftsmanship. It’s still going to last.”

The line is carried at 18 shops in Hawaii, California, Oregon, Utah and Japan, and Cordova courts a close relationship with her customers and store managers, doing two trunk shows per year, per island.

“I like working one-on-one with store owners,” she says. “If there is a glitch, they’ll tell me, ‘It keeps breaking here’ or ‘This clasp isn’t working,’ It’s constant feedback.” And for her fans, she says, “every six weeks the devoted followers will find something new.”

Photo: Rae Huo

Cordova is a self-taught artist, but has a retail background, including management training with Banana Republic, where she worked for eight years. She credits her retail experience with teaching her the merchandising and marketing skills she uses today.

Her jewelry making, she says, “was just a passion, not to create an empire. When I had my son [he’s now 3], I saw an opportunity to work from home. It’s been a blessing.” She makes all of her jewelry by hand, up to 300 pieces in a busy month.

“It’s been so personal. I’d love to hire someone, but …” she trails off, clearly torn on the idea. “And I don’t make huge quantities.” The stores carry some of her most popular styles, such as the “Sexy Hoop” earrings, while you can find her limited editions at trunk shows, such as her Mother’s Day event at Shasa Emporium in Kāhala Mall, on May 1.

Cordova has been dabbling with edgier, statement necklaces, and says she’d love to get into metalsmithing down the road. In the meantime, she says, “I’m always flattered when I hear people say how much they enjoying wearing my jewelry. There’s a little bit of me in each piece and that transcends to the wearer.” 

Where to Shop:

Katrina Cordova, You can find her designs at Shasa Emporium in Kahala Mall, and all the Tori Richard stores. For more stores, visit katrinacordovadesigns.com



Sig Zane uses a silk screen process to create fabric designs for his clothing line.

Photo: Olivier Koning

The Visionary

Sig Zane is in a celebratory mood. Despite the retail world’s woes, he’s happy to be commemorating the 25th birthday of his Hilo-based company.

Zane’s gift is turning the spoken words and conceptual imagery of Native Hawaiian culture into tangible visuals. Hula chants have a lot of repetition, Zane explains. “This redundancy allows us to interpret [the ideas] more maturely.”

His clothing often features silk screen patterns of endemic plants, such as koa, for example, or hapuu, a tree fern. Plants are important in hula, yet, he explains, “If you see a hula dancer, you don’t go right up close and inspect the lei.” His images allow the viewer to become intimate with the plant, even the specific part of the plant he wants you to examine.

An Oahu native, Zane didn’t set out to become a fashion designer. “I never had a plan. I wanted to surf and fish and dance.” He started silk screening as a way of creating unique gifts for his girlfriend, a dancer.

The wooing worked; he married her. Today, his wife, Nalani Kanakaole, is a kumu hula and Merrie Monarch judge, while the silk screening turned out to be Zane’s art form. 

Zane hand-cuts each image for the silkscreen, and his son, Kuhao, creates the pattern. The clothing is hand printed in Honolulu and hand sewn, as well. Zane likes the hands-on process. “It carries the energy farther,” he says, and he enjoys the tiny imperfections that come when something is crafted by a human. “Mass produced things, they have a gloss to them.” The average price for one of his dresses or shirts is around $80.

He’s increasingly turning to linear prints, such as 2009’s “Puumanawalea: Benevolent Hill” pattern. Every year he chooses a different theme. This year’s is “Hilo One” (literally, “the sands of Hilo,” but Zane explains it poetically means “being born from Hilo, coming from Hilo”). “It’s a map of Hilo,” Zane says. The streets are the webbing. I love to walk the streets of Hilo, they have become me. I have become that.”

 “If I want inspiration, I drive up Maunakea or to Volcano,” he says. “You don’t question the colors of nature—it’s real. What better teacher?”

Speaking of teachers, what advice would he give to young designers?

“Create. In capital letters, create.”

Where to Shop:

Sig Zane, 122 Kamehameha Ave., Hilo, (808) 935-7077, sigzane.com