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Hawaii Strong: After 70 years, Iolani brand and its founding family embark on a new adventure

Published: Jun. 4, 2021 at 2:50 PM HST|Updated: Jun. 4, 2021 at 5:01 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Founded by Edith and Keiji Kawakami in 1953, Iolani’s legacy of aloha apparel stretches back decades.

“Started with four seamstresses and a cutter out on Beretania Street, like a lot of small businesses,” said Lloyd Kawakami, owner of Iolani. “Statehood came and the economy just exploded and all the business grew, Iolani included.”

Kawakami saw firsthand how his parent’s company took off and Iolani would become the brand of the islands, Hawaii’s visitors, and the stars.

“We’ve had Burt Reynolds,” Kawakami said. “We’ve had Richard Burton. They’ve all worn our gear. I know the younger generation probably will not know who those guys are, but you know.”

That younger generation now oversees Iolani.

Kawakami’s son, Alx, stepped into the operations five years ago and was right in the mix of the pandemic frenzy.

“Literally everyday, something would change,” Alx Kawakami said. “We were able to open. We were able to not open. Our online store was full of everything and then sometimes the inventories were off. We had to do store pickup.”

But in the chaos, the Kawakamis still found ways to serve ― providing masks to healthcare workers at Queen’s and assisting in fundraising for Iolani Palace.

“We created a special Iolani Palace face mask for them with the goal of selling enough to raise $10,000 for Iolani Palace,” Alx Kawakami said.

“In just over 24 hours ... we ended up just raising over $50,000 for Iolani palace, which was completely overwhelming at the time, but was an amazing feat for both Iolani Palace and us.”

To remain viable, the Kawakamis knew they had to evolve and COVID provided a launch point for a completely new business.

This year, Iolani will be moving away from the clothing industry and shifting focus into transforming its Kona Street location, the Iolani Center, into a community and local business hub.

“Before the pandemic, we started hosting events and hosting different things in here,” Alx Kawakami said. “Having music, having parking lot parties and it was this really cool atmosphere and then the pandemic hit, so put that on pause, but that’s now something we’re gonna focus on moving forward.”

The Kawakamis are also professional musicians, so that’s a vision they know how to bring to life and the center already houses a number of homegrown companies.

Clothing has been Iolani’s backbone for seven decades, but Alx Kawakami’s grandparents built the brand to provide for the community and always explore creativity.

“I had never a doubt in my mind that whatever we’re doing, if they were here today they would say do it,” he said. “Go for it, this is exciting, chase it, what took you so long?”

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