HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - If you were dropped in the middle of most cities in the United States, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell where you were based solely on how people dress.
Not so in Honolulu.
Loud prints, aloha shirts and slippers dominate the fashion sensibilities of island residents. And that’s not accidental. Fashion in the islands is wrapped up in the history of the islands, tied to everything from plantation culture at the turn of the century to the flashy aloha shirts first created for tourists in the 1920s to Hawaii’s warm climate, perfect for lighter fabrics, short sleeves and flowing, airy dresses.
Hawaii’s unique sense of fashion hasn’t always been appreciated on the world stage. At best, it was considered resort wear. At worst, it was mocked as the appropriate garb for themed college parties.
But over the last several years, that’s been changing and increasingly, Hawaii is being seen internationally as the fashion hub it always was.
This week, a Molokai designer will show a Hawaii collection at London Pacific Fashion Week. That comes on the heels of Manaola Yap’s 2017 debut as the first Native Hawaiian designer to show at New York Fashion Week. And a number of other Hawaii designers are also being thrust into the national spotlight ― on everything from “Project Runway” to the red carpet ― to show off clothing that features the unique history and culture of the islands.
“There are so many designers today that are so skilled. They’re progressive in so many different types of fabrics and designs that Hawaii has become this fashion mecca to the world,” said kumu hula Kenneth “Aloha” Victor, a Hawaii Island-based fashion designer and hula instructor.
“People all over the world are buying our clothes, wanting to wear. It’s not just the ABC Store, $9 aloha shirt anymore. You can get aloha shirts up to $300 to $400 depending on where they’re coming from.”
It’s easy to forget just how much Hawaii’s fashion industry has evolved over the past decade. More and more, local designers are gaining notoriety beyond Hawaii’s shores by taking more risks with their styles and showcasing the unique patterns and culture of Hawaii in their designs.
Two years ago, designer Manaola Yap made history as the first Native Hawaiian designer to launch an entire runway collection at New York Fashion Week. Reality TV show “Project Runway” has included two Hawaii designers in recent years, Ari South and Kini Zamora. And countless local designers and their brands have become household names, like Sig Zane and Manuhealii, to name a few.
Most recently, Molokai native Kanoelani Davis generated headlines after being selected to show a Hawaii collection at London Pacific Fashion Week this week, with her leisurewear, swimwear and sportswear.
“It has been exciting and I’m very nervous,” Davis said, in an emailed statement. “Being the first Native Hawaiian to be live at the London Pacific Fashion Week, as well as closing the show, especially during a huge motion and shift in Hawaii with Mauna Kea, I feel a lot of mana moving.”
But fashion in Hawaii has always had its own style.
The roots of Hawaii fashion, of course, can be traced back to intricate indigenous designs Native Hawaiians showcased with malo and pa’u. Explorers and missionaries brought Western fashion. And then in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Hawaii became a powerful plantation economy, luring workers from a host of other countries ― who also brought their own traditional dress.
Over time, necessity in fashion turned into trends.
For example, the palaka shirt can be traced back to the plantation era, said University of Hawaii-Manoa fashion design and merchandising Professor Andy Reilly. So can the humble slipper.
“I think part of it is because there’s so many ethnic identities here and so many different immigrant groups, you see that reflected,” Reilly said, in a recent interview. “Each immigrant wave that came over brought with them their own style that was incorporated into clothing.”
The aloha shirt came into play later. While it’s not certain who came up with the concept, historians agree that shirts bearing loud Hawaiian floral designs first emerged in Hawaii in the 1920s and became commercialized in the 1930s with local shirt makers like Musa-Shiya Shoten — who used the term “aloha shirt” in an ad — and Ellery Chun — who trademarked the term “aloha shirt.”
“When the Hawaiian shirt, which was later branded as the aloha shirt, was created here, it was for tourists, for visitors, as a way to take something back to the mainland with them,” Reilly said. “And it was only worn in Waikiki. There were even ordinances which forbade it from being worn elsewhere.”
Then in the 1960s, the local manufacturing industry wanted to establish a market for residents.
That’s when they courted state politicians, giving them each two aloha shirts to beat the heat in the summer months and support the state’s garment industry.
By 1966, the Chamber of Commerce had officially recognized “Aloha Friday," and white collar employees who were usually buttoned up in suits and ties or skirts were allowed to wear aloha attire.
“On Fridays you would wear local apparel, you’d wear the local manufactured clothing,” Reilly said.
Some companies in Hawaii actually take aloha wear to a different level — by incorporating the prints into their uniforms. One of the most well-known examples of this: Hawaiian Airlines.
Throughout its 90-year history, Hawaiian Air has almost always incorporated some sort of print in its uniforms. But it wasn’t until the 1970s and 80s when the airline started using floral and Hawaiian prints.
In 2016, the airline launched its current uniform designed by renowned Hilo-based designer Sig Zane.
Worn by more than 5,000 front-line employees — from flight attendants and pilots to those who work in cargo — the design showcases bold prints of lehua blossom and 'ohe kapala (or bamboo stamps).
Alisa Onishi, director of brand management at Hawaiian Air, said having aloha wear as part of employees' uniforms not only conveys stories through their prints, but it shares the Hawaii culture by evoking the warmth and spirit of the islands that all passengers can take away from their experience.
It's something that sets Hawaiian Air apart from other airlines, she said.
“You can be approachable, you can be kind, we’re sharing the spirit and place,” Onishi said. “We’re serious and we’re about safety first, but we’re also going to make sure that we get you there safely and get you there in a way that no other airline can with the aloha spirit and being authentically Hawaiian.”
Onishi added the uniforms represent Hawaii’s fashion as a whole, and go along with the current trends.
“For people that are from Hawaii, it hopefully represents pride and they’re proud we’re representing them,” Onishi said. “We try as hard as we can to ... represent the people of Hawaii.”
Karen Kamahele, a professor for Honolulu Community College’s fashion technology program, agreed, saying that Hawaiian Air and other companies that incorporate business attire as part of their dress code are sending a message to the rest of the world that Hawaii is unique.
"They want to say 'we are proud,'" Kamahele said. "Having that matching Hawaiian wear there, everywhere, it shows you the sense of unity and oneness in the community, wherever you go, when you have something so unique that you're all alone, it's great to say that you're creative."
Aloha wear, of course, can be aesthetically pleasing.
But perhaps more importantly, designers say, it can tell a story and share a particular message.
“Knowing home, where you belong, where you come from, identifying with the kalo, identifying with the local flowers, etc., and knowing the difference ... is so identifiable to Hawaii,” she said.
“This is what we grow, this is us, this is our home.”
One rising local designer who can attest to that is kumu hula Kenneth “Aloha” Victor.
A longtime hula teacher on Hawaii Island, Victor never dreamed of being a fashion designer. But a few years ago, he was inspired to start his own line after sewing costumes for his halau.
In 2017, he debuted his fashion line ― Kauluae Hawaii ― at the Merrie Monarch Festival.
“All of our designs come off people who do great things, whether it was to be inspirational or do great things in our community,” he said. “There’s a recognition of that person’s inspiration to my life."
Some of his prints are deeply personal ― like his “Pakalana” design named after a close friend who’s a second-grade teacher.
Other prints seek to spread awareness of issues — like his lehua design to signify rapid ohia death on Hawaii Island and Kauai — and another of an old Hawaiian newspaper that aims to remind people that in order to move forward, we must learn from the past.
"Sometimes in the westernized thinking, progression, we forget that we came from somewhere," Victor said. "We were taught by someone. We were inspired by someone."
Industry experts say one of the most interesting facets of Hawaii fashion as a whole is that it can be both dressy yet casual.
“We have demanded with our lifestyles to have quick, easy, comfortable, which means casual,” said Kamahele, of HCC. “If you need to take care of it so much more than it takes care of you, you might make a different choice.”
Another must-have in any Hawaii closet: The rubber slipper.
“It’s the next best thing to being barefoot,” Kamahele said. “We can also be stylish.”
Believe it or not, many experts agree that what we know of as slippers — known elsewhere as flip flops, sandals or thongs — got their start right here in the islands.
Andy Reilly, of UH, said it all started with the Japanese who immigrated to Hawaii.
Many of the immigrants were used to wearing zori, a traditional woven sandal initially made out of straw. But unable to import them to Hawaii during World War II, they had to get creative.
“What ended up happening is they used old tires, old rubber, and old string and ropes in order to create a makeshift type of slipper,” Reilly said. “That eventually became what we know as today’s rubber slipper.”
Slippers have evolved so much that consumers can find everything from cheap pairs at drug stores for as little as $2 to stylish, designer slippers with arch support at a price point of more than $100.
Island Slipper is among the Hawaii businesses designing and manufacturing high-quality slippers.
At the company’s Pearl City factory on a recent day, with employees at work at the sewing machines, Vice President Matt Carpenter said the business dates back to 1946.
That’s when Takizo and Misao Motonaga, who came from Japan, opened the first Island Slipper factory in Kakaako.
“This was after the war, and so they made the first slippers, they were using tires that they found on the side of the road as the bottom of the outsoles," Carpenter said.
After two generations, the Motonagas sold the business to John Carpenter, Matt Carpenter’s father.
Today, Matt Carpenter runs the business with his wife, always looking for new ways to help a company he practically grew up in thrive in a competitive market.
He said over the years, slippers have “come a long way.”
“Back in the day, they were just shapes with the traditional strap,” he said. “Now, they’ve grown into slip-ons, slides, sandals, sport sandals, things that will rival a hiking shoe.”
“And then there’s the whole fashion side of things," he said. “That’s where we have kind of taken our niche is we try to create a local product here and put our own DNA and fashion sense into the design.”
These days the company makes everything from classic unisex styles to trendy pairs adorned with studs and embellishments. Their slippers are sold locally, on the mainland and internationally.
Carpenter said while slippers have grown in popularity on the mainland, they’re a part of the culture in Hawaii. “People in Hawaii will wear slippers anywhere and everywhere," he said. “Out to fine dinner, they’re still wearing slippers. Out to the movies ... out to the beach, they’re wearing slippers.”
“It’s definitely, I feel, the cultural identity of Hawaii.”
Lucky to live Hawaii is a mantra in Hawaii.
And fashion experts say that is due in no small part to fashion sensibilities in the islands, which encourage people to dress comfortably and show off Hawaii’s cultural identity with loud prints.
Kamahele, of HCC, said Hawaii’s fashion has always influenced the rest of the world.
What’s different now is Hawaii designers are actually getting credit for it ― and showing off their styles around the globe.
“We are so fortunate to live here in Hawaii,” Kamahele said. “And I believe we, as far as the mainland and globally, are the place to watch. We’re watching everyone else as well. But we’re picking and choosing. We’re not being dictated to as to what fashion is. We are determining that.”