Local Alohawear Brand Flourishes With a Nod From New York Times

Self-taught fashion designer David Shepard’s line of aloha shirts and womenswear are inspired by native Hawaiian flora and fauna.


Ohai Blue 85x11in Page

‘Ōhai, an endangered endemic coastal species in Hawai‘i, was the inspiration for Shepard’s latest pattern. Illustration: Courtesy of David Shepard


He wrote one line in The New York Times, and it changed my career, my life,” says David Shepard. He’s referring to writer Guy Trebay’s 2020 article on face masks, which talked about how multinational luxury goods labels and tailors began making personal protective equipment, “and so, too, did a young surfer botanist in Hawai‘i, David Shepard, whose lacy line drawings of native flora transform a public health necessity into a paean to a biosphere that now feels more menacing than friendly.”


That pocket-sized exposure was huge for a fresh-to-the-scene designer. Orders for his masks started pouring in; Shepard’s finances, and confidence, received a boost. From there, he steadily built David Shepard Hawai‘i—a fashion line of aloha shirts and womenswear with prints inspired by native Hawaiian flora and fauna.


“My childhood home [in Florida] was surrounded by pastureland; I would play in the stream, bike around, and I started a garden at 13 years old,” says the seasoned horticulturist. “I would disappear for hours and hours.”


SEE ALSO: Local Brand Laulima’s Designs Feature Lovely Native Flora and Fauna


That joyful, freeing feeling of exploring nature never left him. He graduated with a degree in tropical plant and soil sciences from the University of Hawai‘i; worked at various botanical gardens on Maui, Kaua‘i, Moloka‘i and O‘ahu; and even tended a nursery in Kalaupapa. “I got to know the few leprosy survivors, the aunties and uncles. They shared stories with me, and I learned more about native plants in the area.”


Having a background in charcoal drawing and line art, Shepard filled his weekends there by sketching the island’s surroundings. Clothing became a vehicle for him to tell stories about Hawai‘i. His first print depicted pua kala, “a native plant that thrives in the harshest environments. Like the leprosy survivors, they face adversity beautifully and are truly resilient in uncontrollable circumstances,” he says.


David Shepard Coconut Palms 1

Photo: Cody Ketchum, Courtesy of David Shepard


In November 2021, Shepard had to deal with his own hard time. Once again, a single sentence altered his journey. “You have a brain tumor,” his doctor said.


Prior to his diagnosis, Shepard experienced headaches, nausea and sleepless nights. “It hurt to laugh, watch a movie and be with friends,” he says. His coping mechanism? Work. “The brand was gaining momentum. At the time, it was housed in eight shops, a portion of every sale was donated to conservation-focused nonprofits, and I was sustaining myself. I didn’t have time to feel bad.”


SEE ALSO: Fashion Designer and Lei-Maker Meleana Estes Launches A New Book


He had the tumor removed. Thankfully, it wasn’t cancerous. After six months of recovery—much of his time spent in his sister’s living room in Arizona drawing new patterns—Shepard is doing amazingly well, both physically and with his business. His line is now in 15 shops, he’ll be a vendor at this year’s Merrie Monarch Craft Fair and he’s supported by a full in-house team.


As he knows, life can change instantly (sometimes with just a few words). But he believes there’s power in perseverance. “I don’t dwell, I keep things moving. But when tough times hit, the love from people around me becomes very visible.”


Located in Ward Centre, 1200 Ala Moana Blvd., Suite 270, Open Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11. a.m. to 7 p.m., davidshepardhawaii.com, @davidshepardhawaii


SEE ALSO: First Look: Honolulu Has It’s First Ron Herman Boutique