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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Kūhaʻo Zane

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Kūhaʻo Zane

 

Hilo designer Kūha‘o Zane is navigating his own path in both the design and Hawaiian cultural worlds. On his mother’s side, he is descended from an unbroken line of Kanaka‘ole cultural practitioners, while his father, Sig Zane, is a renowned clothing designer. Hear how he draws on his Hawaiian roots while approaching his design work with a modern vision.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Aug. 18, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Program

 

More from Kūhaʻo Zane:

 

Q and A

 

Keeping Culture Alive

 

Negative into Positive

 

Kūhaʻo Zane Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

From what I understand currently, in a heiau, there’s always a caretaker of the heiau.  And that person that is the caretaker usually is housed on the heiau. But also, that person is the one that usually receives the signals or, for lack of better words, receives the messaging. And then, that messaging is then translated to the people.  And that person, since he is the one that talks to the gods, is not technically human. So, it’s kanaka ole.

 

Kūhaʻo Zane, a member of the Kanakaole family from Hawaiʻi Island, next, on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawaiʻi’s most intriguing people: Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou.  I’m Leslie Wilcox.  His full name is Kuha‘oimaikalani Keli‘iaweweu Tien Chu [PHONETIC] Zane, better known as Kūhaʻo Zane.  He’s a Hilo designer whose work is emblazoned on airplanes, and used on aloha shirts and company logos.  His grandmother was hula master, Edith Kanakaole.  The Hilo arena where the annual Merrie Monarch Hula Festival is held is named after her.  Kūhaʻo’s mother is Nalani Kanakaole, a respected kumu hula and chanter.  And his father, Sig Zane, was inspired by Hawaiian cultural knowledge to create striking and popular aloha attire sold through his longtime Sig Zane Designs Store in Downtown Hilo.  It was clear that Kūhaʻo would be expected to follow in his family footsteps, but he says his parents didn’t push him while he was growing up.  They gave him the freedom to explore his own interests.

 

It wasn’t too crazy of a childhood.  But being born definitely to my mom Nalani, and then to my dad Sig, there was definitely some large shoes that came along with this. But they were pretty good at kind of sheltering me from that, from the pressure of it, and not necessarily putting in too much attention to it, but just trying to like, usher me right into, I guess, the career that I have today, but ushering me into something that I liked.  And it took me a little while.  School was kinda rough for me; I wasn’t really the best student at all whatsoever.

 

You grew up traveling because of hula.  So, something as Hawaiian as hula didn’t keep you here; it let you go all over the place too.

 

Yeah; yeah.  I got left behind a few times.  There was a couple Tahiti trips that I really wanted to go on, but my mom just left me home.  But no, that is true.  And it’s weird that even going to Paris at such a young age, it kinda like sparked a lot of like, artistic energies.  Like seeing the Mona Lisa, like, understanding that there’s that much regard for art at such a young age, maybe that fueled a lot of my career, I guess you could say.  Like, oh, maybe I’m interested in art, for some reason.  Or maybe I’m interested in design.  Like, why is this building designed this way.  And so, travel definitely had a part to play with it, but of course, the roof of all of that was sharing hula, or sharing our culture.

 

And who would have thought that hula would be literally a ticket out.

 

Being able to travel at a young age is so important, and such a pillar of my character now.  And I can definitely see how, even with my mom in her traveling at such a young age too, she had that same type of exposure.  So, yeah, I could see how it added to her personality.

 

Your mom does hula.  And your dad did, too.

 

Dad started dancing, too.

 

When he married your mom, he started dancing.

 

Yeah.  I think he originally moved to Hilo for college.  He always tells me the story about he went to Puhi Bay with a couple of his friends, and there was a paina or a party happening there.  And there was a halau dancing, and he was watching from, you know, in the dark, and he was like, looking under the tent, and he was watching these like, people dancing.  And he said it was like, so energetic, like raw type of energy.  And he was like: I’ve never seen this in Waikiki, like what is this?  Is this even hula?  And so, he remembers the energy of that, and he wanted to be a part of that.  And the crazy thing is, he went to stand in line for food at the party, and there was this joyous like, auntie at the poi bowl, and like, scooping the poi, and he remembers that joyous like, infectious like, personality that that auntie had.  And that ended up being Edith Kanakaole.  So, it was my mom’s mom.  And I think from there, he started to go to college, and he went to class under Edith. ‘Cause my grandma was teaching at the college at that time.  And I think it was grandmother told my dad to start dancing.  My dad’s pretty high-strung.  You know, like he’s a typical dragon, Chinese dragon.  But he’s very speeded, and he’s always trying to get things done.

 

Really productive.

 

Yeah; really productive.  He cannot sit still watching TV.  That’s like torture for him, to watch TV.  And like when I was growing up, he would be ironing, or doing something, folding clothes during TV.  I was like: Dad, can’t you just, like, chill out?  And then, my mom is like, very laid back in her demeanor, as far as her day-to-day personality.  I mean, of course, in halau, very different.

 

We know that kumu hula are dictators—

 

Yep.

 

–of the world.

 

Exactly; it’s a dictatorship.  I tell that to people all the time.  This is not a democratic scene at all.  [CHUCKLE]  And you have to do what they say, period.

 

No voting.

 

Yeah; no voting.

 

I’ve heard that your mom is a very strong woman.

 

She has a really strong will for life, I guess.

 

You know, your father shared with me a really nice thing he says about her. That she gave him this great gift, which was to say: Your words have consequences, whether they’re bad or good; so be careful what you say.

 

Yeah.

 

Because they will live on.

 

Yeah.  I believe that came from my grandpa on my mom’s side.  ‘Cause he was a man of like, very minimal words; he did not talk much at all.  But yeah, words are consequence, and that’s something that was kinda ingrained in me, too.  And honestly, like today, especially with youth today, and even with social media, that amplifies it, that you have to share so much, you have to talk so much, you have to be around.  You know, it’s almost weird to have that upbringing that, like, my mom drilled that into me, that like, word is consequence, you know. And even on a business level, like when you’re trying to market something, that you have to kinda be conscious of that.  And I think that definitely adds a different tone to how we market ourselves, or how we share with share with the world ourselves.  But yeah; that was something that my kuku used to say.

 

Hula and other Hawaiian cultural practices are at the root of Kūhaʻo Zane’s career as a designer.  The hula tradition started in his mother’s family many generations ago, and continues to be as vital now as it was then.

 

Who was in the family before Edith?  I mean, what’s the family line like?

 

So, above Edith was Kekuewa, Mary Kekuewa Kanahele. And she was the one that held the hula lineage, basically, and it got passed down to her.  But that’s my great-grandma.  She was the one that was taught in hula kapu, and so, she was taken at birth and had to live away from her family.  But from birth all the way to about nine years old, she was raised in the practices of hula.  And so, she got taught down in Puna.  And understanding too, this was the time when hula was, you know, banned and it couldn’t be practiced.

 

This was all about saving hula.

 

Yeah; saving hula at that time.  So, like, since it was banned by the missionaries at that time, they had to kinda go out into the caves, literally, to practice.

 

And without her parents.

 

Without her parents.  So, she was given away at birth.  But it’s also too, like that concept that if you’re given away at birth and you go to learn hula, that you want to elevate the status of your family for the next generation, and the next generation.  I mean, that’s basically a sacrifice to be able to give away your child, you know.  And so, if it wasn’t for that one little break, I don’t even know where we would be today.  But yeah; so Mary, she was kinda like the beginning of the hula lineage.

 

Your family tends to be matriarchal.

 

Yes; definitely.

 

Lots of strong women.

 

Yeah.

 

So, what’s it like to be a man in the family?

 

I think growing up, it was a little weird.  I was always, like, looking for, I guess a masculine type of entity to look up to.

 

M-hm.

 

And my dad was that, obviously.  But also too, I was like, looking in hula, and I’m like: Why is hula like, so feminine?  And especially like when you come to Oahu, and the movements are very feminine too. But I know that when I’m dancing our style of aihaa, I’m really tired, it’s very athletic as a hula style.  So, I was always like, looking for that masculine entity to like, look up to.  But over the years, I realized that it was up to myself and my cousins that are all male dancers, that it was up to us to embody that.  And I think that we definitely hold it down for our generation, for sure.  And I even look up to even my cousin Ulu, who’s a couple years younger than me, but to me, he’s like just one of the best dancers as far as an image of aihaa as a style. He’s stylistically one of my best dancers, in my mind.  Yeah.

 

And that’s the protected, save the hula, hula.

 

Yeah; yeah.  Our style of our bent knees, and low to the earth type of bombastic—I think that’s a term that they use all the time.

 

And did Mary bring that out?  She brought out the dance, but you interpreted it.

 

I think Mary brought that style, that bombastic style. But I think it was really with my mom guys’ generation that they elevated the choreography to what we have today.  And my mom used hula choreography, as it could stand up against any of the great, you know, disciplines, no matter if it’s ballet or modern dance.  She feels that hula choreography can stand alongside those and garner that same type of respect.  And so, I think a lot of what fuels her for her choreography is to be able to show that to the world, that it can stand up in that manner.

 

And it’s rich and deep; it’s not a simple dance.

 

And it’s also a capsule for our culture and our storylines, you know, that we have.

 

Do you know that your family used to be the guardian of the heiau?

 

Yeah; it’s weird, because you can go to multiple different heiaus all over Hawaiʻi, and you’ll find a Kanakaole there.

 

Very spiritual.

 

When you think about gods as far as like, the understanding of Hawaiian gods, you can also look at it as gods are just energy. And so, certain gods are responsible for that type of energy.  And when you look at it as environmental energies, then it’s not necessarily such a religious thing.  Then it’s more just how well are you in tune to your environment and those energies that are responsible for your environment.  And so, I think that us as Kanakaoles not necessarily just trying to just receive messaging from the gods, but really analyzing what these energies are, and the intersection of these energies over a heiau, and then how to translate that into certain messaging that we’ll be able to translate for the people.

 

There’s a burden that comes from having a huge name like Kanakaole.  You know, so your work has to be top-notch. I mean, I would imagine there’s a lot of judging, good and bad; right?

 

Oh, god; yeah.  I mean … [CHUCKLE] I get kind of told that I’m judgmental at certain points. But not in a bad way; I don’t mean in a bad way.  But like, my mom’s a Merrie Monarch judge; what am I supposed to do about it?

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

She’s been a judge all my life; I understand.  But I think it’s more the proper intent to use that judging t … I mean, judging has such a bad connotation to it.

 

Well, it’s analysis.

 

Yeah, analysis; exactly.  And making sure that your judgment is of pure intent to improve. And so, if that’s there, then I think that that’s like the winning factor judging, you know.  I mean, that’s why you go to Merrie Monarch, is to um, get judged by these legends of hula, and hopefully improve your craft just a few steps at a time.

 

There’s so much intellect in hula and in dance.

 

Yeah.

 

And in music.  Do you think people appreciate that?

 

I think about that.  And same thing like, with an aloha shirt.  Sometimes we’ll be designing it, and we’re like: Oh, do you think the customer is gonna like this?  Do you think the customer is gonna understand that story?  And to me, my answer is always like: If they understand it two lifetimes from now, then you did your job.

 

Kūhaʻo Zane started experimenting with designs at a young age.  While this would eventually lead to working with his father, he had to leave Hawaiʻi to better understand the role that his cultural upbringing would play in his design work.

 

Many sons run away from being in business with their dad.

 

I tried.  [CHUCKLE]

 

Oh, yeah.  Or you try to get away, but it’s your destiny.

 

Yeah.

 

Well, how did it work for you?

 

He tricked me into it, probably.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

Something like that.

 

He mentioned you for a long time, before you came along.

 

Yeah.  I wanted to run away multiple times.  [CHUCKLE] Especially when I was a kid.

 

Because your dad made it clear, this is what you’re gonna do; right?  Did he say that?

 

No.

 

Oh, he didn’t.

 

He never said, like: Here you go, this is your job, you gotta do it.

 

But you were expected to come along?

 

I think it was an unsaid, unspoken thing, you know, that I was expected to take this company over.  So, when I was in high school, I started designing tee-shirts, and that’s basically how this whole graphic design thing started.  His partner Punawai Rice, he kinda taught me how to do like the simple things on CorelDRAW, I think it was at the time. But I really had some thoughts in my head.  Like, I would see surf brands out there at that time, and I feel like they weren’t speaking to me specifically.  And so, I wanted to design my own tee-shirt and put my own ideas out there.  And that was like the start of this whole graphic design thing.  And then, so I wanted to open a surf shop; that was my initial thing.  And so, I did a business plan, and like, did a five-year projection, and I gave it to them.  I’m a junior at this time, or a senior at this time in high school.

 

How’d you know how to do a business plan?

 

Oh, my dad kinda like told me what it was, and I drew it together and researched it a little bit.  But it was a terrible business plan, probably.  [CHUCKLE]  But I gave it to my grandpa, my gung-gung on my dad’s side, and asked him for a loan. I think it was like ten thousand dollars, or something.  But he told me, no.  [CHUCKLE]

 

And that ended there?

 

And that ended right there.  And then, I ended up doing more graphic design, and so doing my tee-shirts, and I used to sell them in school.  So, like some people would be selling musubis in school, and I’d be over here slanging tee-shirts in school.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

So, that’s kinda how the whole graphic design thing started.  And then, I ended up going to design school in L.A., Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising.  And that’s where I really fell in love with design.

 

Did you feel like you found your people there, another kind of creative energy there?

 

I feel like I ran into people that spoke the same language as me.  But in that same vein, didn’t.  Because that’s when I really started to figure out special the culture that we have here, how special it is.  Because I would simply like, go up to people and tell ‘em my name, like Kūhaʻo, or something. And they would tell me that their name’s Joe.  Like, not anything against Joes or anything.  But I would tell ‘em, Kūhaʻo.  And they’d go like: Oh, what kind of name is that?  Oh, what does it mean?  I’d be like: That means rain from clear sky.  And then, they would like, start reflecting upon their own name, and like, I don’t mean to do that or anything, but then I started to really like, realize that you know, what we have in Hawaiʻi is really a treasure, and how do I translate that into design.  And so, although they spoke the same language as me design wise, I realized that I had a unique voice in the culture that I could be able to now use design to communicate.  Yeah. But that was my runaway time.  Two years in L.A. was amazing.  [CHUCKLE]

 

But did you come home right after?

 

I tried to stay up there.  I did a couple internships while I was up there, but my dad reeled me back in really quick.

 

He was ready for you.

 

He was like: You know, you gotta start working.

 

And how did you folks figure out what work you would do?

 

Well, actually, I came back, and obviously, coming back from college and coming back from design school, I thought I was the baddest designer, ever.  And I quickly got humbled to that point.  But he made me work on the floor.  So, I had to work in the shop for, I think the first two years.  And so, I didn’t even touch a mouse for like the first, like, six months that I was working for my dad.

 

He was trying to let you feel what people want?

 

I guess that’s what it was.  Like, I really got to hear the customers and see what they like and understand our customer psyche to a certain degree.  But also too, like, you gotta have an appreciation from sweeping the floors, all the way to making even like HR decisions, you know.  And that definitely built some sort of perspective for me.  But yeah; that first two years, I didn’t even design anything for Sig Zane Designs.  I was doing my own things, ‘cause he wasn’t letting me.  And I think that that definitely built some perspective, for sure.

 

How well do you get along?  Are you colleagues, or is it still, you know, very much father-son, generational?

 

Mm … okay.  So, that’s a complicated answer.  Complicated order.  We get along. We definitely have a type of chemistry when we work with each other.  But it’s just like any other family business; like, we have our times that we completely disagree.  But I think that hula plays a role into that.  So, in hula, since it’s a dictatorship, it’s almost like these split personalities that like, you have this dictatorship where you have to believe and trust in everything that your kumu says.  So, if your kumu says jump in the fire, you gotta jump in the fire, no questions asked.  And I think that that bleeds over into the business world, as well.  Amongst my team, I encourage everybody to vocalize what their perspectives is, because everybody brings a unique perspective to the table.  But at the same time, when push comes to shove, and you gotta make a call, you gotta have that complete trust, just that exact same thing that you have in your kumu, exact same thing in that trust that, if you’re a leader, you gotta make the decision, and you gotta go with it.  And so, if my dad makes a call, I may disagree with it at some point, and sometimes I’ll vocalize it, but he’s the leader; I gotta follow him.  So, I think that that’s where it kinda plays with each other, you know.

 

And that’s not just because he’s your father.  It’s because he’s … what is the reason for your saying: You’re the guy.

 

Two levels.  He’s more experienced than me; period.  You gotta respect experience; period.  But on the other level, it’s like, especially on the Hawaiian side of things, if you’re given a position, that’s your title, and you’re the one to make those decisions.  And it’s up to you to make the best decision.  If you’re a konohiki of an area, and you make the decision that a kapu is gonna be set at a certain point, then you’re the one that makes the call. If you don’t make a good call, then maybe you’ll be removed from your position.  But it’s up to you as a worker to follow through on that decision, and give it your best.  And if in hindsight that decision’s not that good, then maybe your time will come up that you’ll be able to be a leader.

 

You also do things that really, he’s not around to oversee or to be the dictator at.  I mean, you’re running a shop in Honolulu, living in Hilo.

 

I think that in his time, his energy and his characteristic had to build Sig Zane to what we have today.  And that’s why that personality type was needed or essential to have a certain type of strength, and a certain type of weakness to build what we have today.  But for me, I think that I’m most excited when a team can do it.  I don’t like to do it all by myself.  I can do it all by myself, it’s fine, but I actually am a lot more ecstatic when something is achieved when I’m not there, if the team can pull things off.  We have an event happening next Saturday that they’re doing the installation and everything. And I’m watching it on Instagram, like looking at it happening without me there, and I’m completely ecstatic about it. Like, that means that we had the right chemistry to build a team that can achieve things without you.

 

That’s right.

 

Yeah.  So, that’s the transition point between me and my dad.  Like, my dad had to build Sig Zane to this point of what we have, and then now, I’m trying build a team that can carry on Sig Zane without us.

 

When you describe yourself to people, say in the Western world, I mean, it’s so strange to reduce yourself to a profession; right?  So, how do you describe yourself?

 

[CHUCKLE]  I don’t know; it’s kinda hard to describe myself.  We did a Hawaii National Bank commercial that airs every so often, and they had me say: I am an entrepreneur.  And I’m sorry, but I fought that lady.  I was like: I don’t want to say that; no, I don’t want to.  That’s weird; why are you gonna call yourself something; it’s up to the person watching, it’s up to the spectator to give you that title, not yourself. So, in that vein, I can’t really call myself anything.  It would be awesome if I could call myself a designer or hula dancer, or practitioner. But it is really difficult to describe myself in the Western context.  And a lot of times, like, going to New York Fashion Week or something, it’s hard to put myself into one little capsule.  So, a lot of times, I just tell people I make aloha shirts.

 

It’s an interesting leap into the Western world from a Hawaiian perspective, and yet, I don’t know why it surprises me that this would be something that would be successful and robust.  But I think we really haven’t seen a lot of it.  I mean, you are who you are, and you know, there are so many skills that come from being who you are, and knowing what you do.

 

It’s one of my personal things that, like, growing up, my favorite designer wasn’t Hawaiian.  You know? No matter if it’s even Steve Jobs or something, you know, like somebody that you look up to.  So, I think that when I was growing up, Na Makua, Nelson Makua was the only graphic designer that was Hawaiian, that was getting Pele Awards, that was winning advertising.  You know, so I think that having him as somebody that I looked up to, I had to make sure that I do enough in my career, or achieve enough my career that can stand as a feather in a cap for not only myself, but Hawaiians as a race.  You know.  And I think that that’s definitely what motivates me on a day-to-day basis, is how can Hawaiʻi or Hawaiians design Hawaiʻi.  Yeah.  But no, we haven’t seen full breadth of it yet.  l think it’s still to come.

 

Kūhaʻo Zane is the creative director of his father’s Hilo-based design businesses. Kūhaʻo also is the president of the Edith Kanakaʻole Foundation, a Hawaiian cultural educational organization, and he continues to dance hula with his family’s halau.  Mahalo to Kūhaʻo Zane of Keaukaha, Hilo on Hawaiʻi Island, for sharing your life stories with us.  And mahalo to you, for joining us.  For PBS Hawaiʻi and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Aloha nui.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.  To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

What’s expected of you in hula?

 

Definitely when I was younger, it was large shoes to fill. And the pressure would get to me every so often, but not in a bad way.  But I mean, it’s kind of a bummer, like, dampen your mood to know that you’re expected to do so much, you know.  But at the same time, it’s like that’s what kuleana is.  It’s like, it’s a responsibility, as well as a privilege. And I think that it’s up to us, each of us as family members, to be able to convert that from that responsibility into a privilege, And respectful for those, too.  So, on a hula level, what I’m expected to do is definitely to carry on the halau.  And I’m sure that being a kumu—oh, I still cringe when I hear that.  [CHUCKLE]  But I’m sure that being a kumu is somewhere in my journey down the road.

 

[END]

 

 

 

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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Manaola Yap

 

Kohala native Manaola Yap grew up processing dyes from native roots and plants, while helping his mother, kumu hula Nani Lim Yap, create elaborate hula costumes for performances. These early experiences now inform his brand of Hawaiian luxury clothing, Manaola Hawai‘i, which made its New York Fashion Week debut in September 2017.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Jan. 20, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Manaola Yap Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

At a MAMo show, I wanted to make underwear, and I actually started with men’s underwear. And that’s a touchy subject. I mean, even at that time when we had first started moving into that space, I did get a lot of backlash. [CHUCKLE]

 

Why is that a touchy subject? I don’t get it.

 

Because it’s kind of promiscuous, and it’s sexy, and a lot of—

 

It’s too personal.

 

It’s too personal. And not only that; they’re like: Oh, you know, it’s exposed, and this and that. And I was like: Okay, well, let’s look at our kupuna. I mean, they were topless. You know, the body was celebrated, all these things. A lot of the mindset that comes from ignorance, and the ignorance of being schooled in the traditional concepts of the missionary mindset.

 

He’s a fast-rising star in the international fashion scene, while he remains firmly rooted in Native Hawaiian culture. The phenomenon known as Manaola Yap, next, on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawaii’s most intriguing people: Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Top New York fashion houses learned a new name in 2017: Manaola Yap. The name belongs to a young Hawaiian from Kohala, who dazzled with his first runway collection at the prestigious New York Fashion Week. He wowed the audience with bold and modern designs inspired by his knowledge of Native Hawaiian culture. Manaola Yap was born on Hawaii Island to Edward Yap and Nani Lim Yap, who are both Hawaiian music teachers and entertainers deeply immersed in their cultural heritage. In addition, mother Nani, from the renowned Lim musical ohana in Kohala, is a much respected kumu hula. These parents gave their son a powerful and eclectic name, Manaola, which mean life force. It’s just part of his name.

 

First of all, there’s your name.

 

Yes.

 

And I’m not talking about Manaola. [CHUCKLE]

 

Okay. So—

 

How did you get your name? And what is your name?

 

My full name. Okay; so my full name is Carrington—

 

Carrington?

 

Yes; Carrington first.

 

Where did that come from?

 

So, Carrington actually came from Dynasty.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

The soap opera. So, my mother and her friend loved Dynasty, and they loved Blake Carrington. And at that time, I think all women did at that time. [CHUCKLE] So, when they were in the hospital, they were watching … or during just that whole time through their pregnancy, they were watching Dynasty, the show. And they and they had a bet that whoever would give birth first would be Blake, and the second would be Carrington. So, her son is Blake, and I’m Carrington.

 

And has anyone ever called you Carrington, really?

 

Yeah. It’s kind of funny, because I feel like my name changed throughout my lifetime thus far. So, I have people that still call me Carrington from, you know, certain events and circles of my mom’s social circles that she has. And then, some call me Manaola, some call me Mana, some call me Bubba. A lot of people call me Bubba.

 

Why Bubba?

 

My sister used to call me Bubba when she was small. And a lot of people in our hula halau, and that’s close to the family. In my family too, they call me Bubba. So, it’s definitely changed. So, Carrington is my first, Edward is my middle name. Well, one of my middle names; that’s from my dad, got that from my dad. So, Carrington Edward, and then Manaolahoowaiwaiikaleikaumakalani. [CHUCKLE] It’s a long one.

 

Now, if Manaola means life force, what does the rest mean?

 

The whole idea, because the name can be read in many different ways. Manaolahoowaiwaiikaleikaumakalani is heaven’s power of life enriching the beloved child. And my aunt, who named me, she’s a late kumu hula, her name was Joan Lindsey, she’s ohana on my mom’s dad’s side. And when she named me, she named me with the intention that everyone that will look upon Manaola in his lifetime will be looked upon with love, with eyes of kindness and love only.

 

Do you think names shape you?

 

Definitely; I’m totally a firm believer in the belief of a name and the energy that a name has once it’s borne into the air. Totally.

 

I know your mom is part of the Lim family, which is legendary. Would you tell us about her family, and then your dad’s family?

 

Yeah.

 

The Yap family.

 

My mom’s family is the Lim ohana. They used to live up on Puu Hoi Ranch. My grandfather was the foreman for Parker Ranch; he’s one of the original cowboys. They grew up in a very, very country style traditional home. My grandpa on my mom’s side was also very Chinese, as well.

 

And there are members of the family all over the Kohala side, generally performing, generally music.

 

Yeah; lots of music and dance, too. My cousin Namakana, she’s actually a Miss Aloha Hula. She’s a really, really beautiful dancer, as well. And aside from our main family, my mom’s also graduated a bunch of kumu that have passed on her legacy of dance. And not even just dancing alone; my mom has also shaped them into beautiful women.

 

And is your father on the creative side, as well?

 

My dad’s super-creative. So, Edward Yap; he’s from Honolulu. My dad and his whole family; very, very loving as well.

 

Your father is Chinese, or Chinese Hawaiian?

 

Chinese Hawaiian; yeah. So, my dad’s Chinese Hawaiian side, he grew up doing a lot of kung fu, martial arts, and all of that, and then, passed that on to me, as well.

 

From a young age, Manaola Yap gravitated toward performing arts and design. By age thirteen, he already started one of several businesses that would help him express his passion for the arts, and put money in his pocket.

 

I always also had a fascination in Asian art and artifacts. Actually, all kinds of ancient artifacts from all over the world. I was also known in my community in Waikoloa. Still yet, they still kinda know me, the old-timers; they know me as the boy that did the garage sale. So, I used to have this big garage sale in our garage, and in our whole lot, actually, full of muumuu, old costumes, fabric, kitchenware, old furniture. All kinds of stuff.

 

And did people negotiate with you?

 

Oh, all the time.

 

And did you like that part?

 

I loved it.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

But in the midst of all of this, ‘cause I know how collectors work, I would put one artifact. Like, I’d put a bunch of, you know, junky things, tchotchkes and all that, and then in the middle of that, I’d put like a Ming Dynasty sculpture in the middle, and just see. Because you can tell if a collector has an eye. And they’ll kinda like pick it right out of the bunch, and they’ll just walk by and be like: Oh, my god, like, they probably don’t even know what it is. [CHUCKLE] And the first piece I sold was a wooden Kwan Yin statue. And I think I sold it for like, six hundred bucks. Should have been sixteen hundred, at least. Sold it for six hundred bucks. And my dad’s like: What are you doing? He’s like, You’re not gonna sell that here. You know, he was like: I don’t think people are gonna buy that kinda stuff. And this guy came out; he was like: How much is that? I’m like: Six hundred bucks. And he pulled out cash, and my dad was like, whoa.

 

And how old were you at this point?

 

At that point, I was like thirteen; twelve or thirteen. Yeah. And a lot of people would come in. And at that time, you know, purchases with designers that were coming in were already spending around seven to eight thousand dollars at a time, in my house.

 

On the Kohala Coast of Hawaii Island, Manaola Yap’s mother, Nani Lim Yap, creates hula shows based on Hawaiian mythology. As a keiki, Manaola would assist in the creative costuming, which would set him on the path to fashion desing.

 

Being in the entertainment business in the Kohala Coast, it was important for us to figure out a way to engage the audience, because they didn’t understand much of what we were doing, or dancing about. So, what Mom started to do, a lot of different people started to do is, create little hula dramas, even in her productions. So, hula dramas where we would explain, you know, the storyline. We’d read a story, tell you what the story is about, and then dance the dance, so that you could make the reference of: Oh, she’s pulling something or, Oh, a volcanic explosion happened. Those kinds of things, so that they could see us becoming the dance, and really make that connection and help them be engaged in the story. So, when that happened, that lent for creative costume. It gave us the creative freedom to be able to step outside of the box, and really start to be expressive in our costume. ‘Cause we were able to look at mythology and say: Oh, she wore a skirt of flames, or Oh, she wore a skirt made of lightning bolts.

 

As the person who’s gonna come up with this costume, how do you do that? What comes to mind?

 

That was the most exciting part of my childhood, the fact that every day, like, my mom was putting together a show, she’d be like: Okay, we have to make a headpiece for Namakaokahai. Okay, she’s the sister of Pele, she’s the sea goddess. Okay, so we’d go to the ocean and we’d find things and be creative.

 

How fun.

 

Yeah.

 

And deep.

 

And deep; definitely. Or we’d go to the forest and be like, okay, Hiiaka, she had pau palai, which is a skirt made of palai ferns.

 

M-hm.

 

So, we’d go and, you know, gather those kinds of things, or look at, Okay, how can we imitate this fern through this fabric, how can we texture this, how can we, you know, add a train that looks like a lava flow. That whole thing really was a start of me getting into costuming and fashion. And what would happen is, after the show was done, even with our myth show, we had girls that were like: Oh, my god, could I borrow this top to go out after? Like, I’m just gonna put jeans with it. And you know, they would go out, and they’d use it. Or they’d be like: Oh, you know, I have a red carpet event, or I’m going to this fancy dinner, can I wear this outfit? And that whole thing started a conversation with other artists or other friends, dancers that would be like: Oh, you know, I’m going to the Hokus, can you make me this outfit; this should be at the Hokus, you know, not just in a show. So, I was like, okay. So, I would create different looks for them, but everything was always done by hand; you know, the concept. I’d draw the concept, we’d cut the patterns, me and Mom would cut the patterns. And Iwa; Iwalani too, she was a really, really important part of my journey, Iwalani. She has her own line, Iwa Wai. But she also was a very close friend that helped me with my construction in summer.

 

You had crossed that divide. You had decided, I’m now gonna charge for costuming, for clothes.

 

Not even yet.

 

You’re doing this for free?

 

I was still doing that for free, even for the Hokus. I didn’t know how. You know. I think the first person I charged … even that was really hard for me.

 

Well, they were your friends, too.

 

They were my friend, too; right? And the way that we create is, I want to know them first. I want to know what is something that they’re missing, or are they a very aggressive person, what can I do in this design to soften that, or help to balance them. That’s what our job is.

 

Well, that sounds a little spiritual, right there.

 

Yeah; totally. So, that’s actually what the brand is based off of, that concept of balance for lifestyle.

 

And somehow, you worked through your feeling like: I can’t charge for this, this is spiritual, this is mana.

 

Definitely. Because what I was able to do is, I was able to see that this piece created … one thing for sure, it’s definitely a different time. Yeah? So, one thing is the times have changed, and there’s that adaptation to time. And also, that the piece itself has been able to change someone, and create more money to create more products, to change more people, and to move our mission forward to help to sustain indigenous culture.

 

Manaola Yap began creating fashion pieces for the Maoli Arts Movement, or MAMo, a festival that celebrates Native Hawaiian art. In 2014, he decided to make a bold statement at MAMo with his very first clothing line.

 

When we did the underwear, that was the scary one for me. Because I was like: Mom, I’m gonna make an underwear. My theme was Kumulipo, we did all the first wa, which is all the animals and the sea creatures. And there was this boy, and he really was an aspiring underwear model, so I was like: Okay, you’re perfect, we’ll do him. He had a great body and all this. And my mom sewed the underwear. So, we cut the underwear, we printed it, we sewed it. And I just remember, you know, we’re in the back, and … it was a big move for us, you know, to even put him out there. We were just like: Oh, my gosh. First of all, even the whole collection itself was artistically very beautiful. Some things were a little sexy. And you know, we had gone to the rehearsal, we had seen the regular muumuu, the traditional beautiful arts, tattoo, and all these different things. And … I literally went in the back, and I was like, freaking out. I was like: Mom, they’re gonna think we’re crazy. I was like: I can’t do this, we gotta pull out of this, we can’t even present. And she’s like: Oh, absolutely not. [CHUCKLE] She’s like: We just came all the way over here.

 

She’s a rock, isn’t she?

 

Yeah, yeah. She’s like: No, no. She’s like: What is your intention? You know, I had listed my intention, this is what I want to do. And then, even with the underwear, I was like: Should we take it out, should we not do it? She’s like: What’s your intention? I was like: Okay; well, I’m trying to think like a smart Hawaiian here. Okay; a smart Hawaiian businessman, we’re looking at underwear. Okay; first of all, Hawaiian underwear is sexy. Right? And that’s what drives this marketplace, whether you like it or not. And any marketing advertising is gonna tell you that is the main attraction, human attraction to sales. It’s a sexy thing. Two, I’ve always wanted to see a Hawaiian man underwear model ad, big. We’re still working on it.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

I also looked at the underwear being something we need every day. You know, that’s something we use every day, and it makes you feel good. I love a good pair of underwear; they’re always under my basketball shorts and my tank top. But, that is something that we always want to use. So, she’s like: Well, if that’s your intention … there’s your intention. And we’re like, freaking out in the back. Of course, now things have changed, ever since we’ve opened that gap. But if you look at it before, we’re just like: Oh, my god, like … you know, should we like, do a reveal, or should we like, have him just be like, boom, he’s in his underwear. You know, like, what do we do?

 

What happens is, you feel naked.

 

Yeah, yeah; exactly.

 

And you’re exposed.

 

Exactly; we’re exposed. So, we’re like: No, you know what, do all your traditional protocol, do your oli like you normally do, and then on the end, we’ll put him out. So, he had a tie on, he had like a wrap on. And you know, he’s just walking out, and everybody’s just like, watching. And all of a sudden, he just drops his wrap. And all the forks and everything, you could just hear go, clank.

 

Clatter. [CHUCKLE]

 

And just dead silence, and everybody was just like … looking at him. And then, I was like: Oh, my god, they’re gonna kill us. And it was so funny, because I had a lot of traditionalists that were in the audience, too. We had, you know, a lot of kupuna, too. But the funny part was, when I was outside, you know, like taking pictures with my gang, so many people too, that were … I won’t mention their names, but very, very influential people in the Hawaiian community, they came up to me and they were like … Oh, my god, brother, don’t tell anybody, but that was awesome. I can’t believe you did that; that was the most amazing thing that ever happened.

 

So, private approval.

 

Yeah; private approval, you know. And then, later on, you know, I even had some artists too that later on did buy my underwear. And they’re like: [GASP] I have your underwear on right now, they’re so cool. But don’t tell anybody. You know, that kinda thing.

 

But I mean, you want to create something that will be useful.

 

Exactly; useful, for sure, and comfortable and fun. And that’s why with that underwear, I feel like you could feel as that whole wrap dropped, that the whole history of Hawaii changed that day.

 

Manaola Yap learned traditional Hawaiian clothing techniques through his kupuna, and he picked up modern design through experimentation with his mother’s creative hula costuming. He knew early on that college and fashion school were not for him.

 

My background in design, and everything that I do, comes from hula, from dance. You know, I do not name myself to be a designer that went to school and did all of that. I never really pursued going to fashion school. And it wasn’t really necessarily because I know it all, and I knew it all, and all that. It was more so because I also didn’t want to tamper with the organic nature of my mind and my creative mind, and how it was nurtured in that space, especially being on the Big Island. I didn’t want anything to interfere with it, so that I could keep it as authentic as possible. Because that is something in the industry that … corporations at large have the hardest time to develop, especially when selling to a consumer or to even make that exchange, you know, in business. So, that was my choice; from a long time, I was already thinking ahead.

 

Pewa, for me, was created … it’s a very traditional design, and this sample can actually be found, the original sample can actually be found in the Bishop Museum, where a lot of the native artifacts are kept. I chose pewa because for me, it spoke to me on a different level. Pewa are the fishtail repairs that are used in woodwork, in traditional woodwork. And I bent the patterns back and forth because in today’s time, we’re open to a lot more new ideas.

 

Just three years after launching his Native Hawaiian inspired clothing label, Manaola Yap was able to establish a retail store called Hula Lehua at Ala Moana Shopping Center. Then came the national spotlight; he received a coveted invitation to showcase his collection at the prestigious New York Fashion Week 2017.

 

They actually came upon us by reviewing Honolulu Fashion Week, which is a production that’s done by Lynne O’Neill and Honolulu Magazine. But they went online, and they watched that whole, you know, Honolulu Fashion Week, and watched all the designs. And then, they had sent us the invitation. So, out of the eight thousand, there’s about twenty-four designers that show throughout four countries, which is London, Paris, Milan, and New York. And out of those twenty-four designers, only ten designers get exclusive shows. We were very honored to have been able to show a full collection, which is super-crazy, especially for our first time in New York.

 

How much time did you have to get ready for this?

 

We had about three weeks.

 

Three weeks?

 

M-hm.

 

What did you have to do, to get ready?

 

Everything from … we textiled everything from scratch, we had to print all the fabrics from scratch, cut and sew. We had to fit, we had to silhouette all the pieces. And I’m a crazy, so we actually had more than the amount of pieces that we put in. We finished at about forty pieces; we did forty looks in that collection. It was actually the largest collection Oxford had ever shown in all four countries. Period. Which was kind of crazy. [CHUCKLE] But that’s always how I’ve been. I just love creating things, so yeah; it was definitely a crazy journey. We also broke some of the rules, because we really, really wanted to share some of the local talent, especially with the models. ‘Cause we had been working with these models that have supported us all these few years.

 

Normally, you would use the models up there.

 

It’s usually only industry models.

 

Oh; so how did you get the local girls in?

 

So, when they looked at us, they loved the fact that we’re based in indigenous culture, and that we’re a cultural label, which is something that they had only really seen a lot in African designers at the time, Indian designers, Chinese, Japanese, those kind of things. But nothing in the context of looking on the Polynesian side, for couture especially. So, when they seen that, they thought that that was super-interesting. But I was like: Okay, if that’s the thing, then you have to have some Hawaiians then, because that’s the uniqueness of the brand, and that’s what makes us who we are; it’s the people. We also had some that were native-speaking, which was very, you know, important to us, as well.

 

And I understand you had a Go Fund Me campaign.

 

We had a Go Fund Me campaign.

 

You didn’t have a bunch of money lying around to go to New York with all these people.

 

Oh, no; not at all. Yeah; we did not have the the means to go. ‘Cause even when we first did it, I was like: There’s no way we’re gonna go to New York. You know. ‘Cause our company is based on organic growth, completely.

 

Were you behind stage, or next to the runway? Where were you?

 

Oh; I stood on the side of the runway so that I could watch. It was an intense moment. Even the people in the audience, I think, a lot of them were pretty blown away, because especially how we started the show. We started with protocol. That’s usually how we always start. I always start with a hula. And for me, that’s creating the ceremony for us as a label for this time as a brand is, I always set hula first. Because like I said, hula is where I come from. That is my world, that is what I know. You know. And that’s where my source of inspiration, and everything is borne from that place. So, I use that ceremony and that dance to start um, our runway shows.

 

Does an individual garment tell a story?

 

So, it depends. Some pieces have different inspiration. So, some things are basic silhouettes that are, you know, flattering, comfortable, especially to what the market is bearing at the time. I have one top that is very special to me; it’s called the Hihimanu top. The Hihimanu top is inspired by the Hihimanu, its namesake, which is the big stingray, manta rays. You know how they have those big wings, and their tail. Then, some of them, I get really, really intense with. And then, that was the last piece that was on the runway, one of our finale dresses. That piece was dedicated to Liliu, Liliuokalani, our last reigning monarch. So, creating the mourning garment to mourn the loss of the lahui, of the Kingdom, in remembrance of Liliu, and in remembrance of the Kingdom, but also to show the forward movement in that garment. So, the garment is actually all black, and it’s the only piece that was all black in the whole collection.

 

Did you get a good crowd for your appearance?

 

Yes. Our show was actually over sold out. But yeah, I think it was great. And it was really good for us to go up there, especially for Hawaii.

 

[DRAMATIC MUSIC]

 

Anything that we do outside, our heart’s always here first. And you know, whether it be New York or London, Paris, wherever we may go next, it’s always making sure that we have that sense of pride at home, because that’s our home base.

 

Because of his selection for New York Fashion Week, Manaola Yap gained the opportunity to showcase his work at the other fashion weeks in London, Paris, and Milan. In 2016, Hawaii Business Magazine celebrated Yap as one of its 20 for the Next 20, and Honolulu Magazine named him Islander of the Year in Fashion. It’s quick and high ascent for Manaola. At the time of our conversation in Fall of 2017, he was just thirty years old. Mahalo to Kohala native Manaola Yap, now living in Honolulu, for sharing your story with us. And thank you, for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha nui.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

I used hula as a … example. I looked at hula, and I looked at … ‘cause I always go back to the dance. Any time I’m stuck, any time I need an answer, I always go back to the dance. And sometimes, I even just dance, myself, because it gives me that clearance and that space for me to think.

 

[END]

 

 

Tales from the Royal Wardrobe

 

Examine the significance of the royal wardrobes of English monarchs over the last 400 years. Learn why most kings and queens have carefully choreographed every aspect of their apparel and why, for those who haven’t, the consequences have sometimes been calamitous.

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Nakeʻu Awai

 

Original air date: Tues., Sept. 7, 2011

 

Designing Timeless and Unique Island Wear

 

Leslie Wilcox talks story with Nakeʻu Awai, a Kalihi-based clothing designer renowned for his timeless and unique island wear. Nakeʻu initially pursued an entertainment career that led him to Broadway and Hollywood. Eventually he returned home, where he found his calling in fashion design. For three decades, Nakeʻu’s creative Hawaiian prints and equally stunning fashion shows have wowed clientele throughout the islands.

 

Nakeʻu Awai Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

I used to often tell my mom, How come we can’t go shopping in slippers and wear shorts? And was, No, any time you’re Downtown, it’s pants and shoes. Well, all the Haole tourists wear slipper and shorts. But, yeah.

 

It’s a long way from Kalihi to New York, to Hollywood and back, but it’s the journey of a man whose life has been dedicated to entertainment and design, from a big city to a little shop at the foot of Kamehameha Heights. It’s Nakeʻu Awai, on Long Story Short.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. In this edition of Long Story Short, you’ll meet a Honolulu man who’s had a fascinated—well, careers, really. After graduating from Kamehameha Schools with an interest in drama, Nakeʻu Awai went on to take his shot in the bright lights of the New York theater scene. Later, he appeared in network television shows in the heyday of live TV production.

 

But these are careers that few in Hawaii really know much about, because since he returned home, he’s made a name for himself as a fashion designer. To have a Nakeʻu Awai design in your collection is to have a dress or shirt that will never go out of style.

 

Where did you grow up?

 

I grew up in Punchbowl.

 

What was that like?

 

Sidewalk skating. Golden Wall Theater—swim and tap at the YWCA down on Richards Street.

 

Tap, as in tap dance?

 

Tap dance; Mrs. Barnes. My first try at dancing, and swim, it was mainly swimming, and I got interested. Oh, I want to take tap, I want to take tapping. And then, I snuck into Alice Keawekane’s, some of her classes, and that’s Alicia Smith, Loyal’s mother is Alice Keawekane. And Loyal and Alicia, I mean, they’re all connected, Loyal and Alicia. And she taught hula. And because, when you’re waiting for your parents to pick you up … Come on, keiki, come join. So I snuck into some of her hula classes. So that was my early exposure to dance, which I would use later on. Golden Wall Theater, lot of my background comes from the movies, from the time we were little, during war years when blackout was part of our living. I don’t remember that part of it, ‘cause I was a baby. But Mom would take the kids and she, so it was brother and two sisters, and we’d go to the Golden Wall. And she’d come out and it would be all dark, and she’d hold me as the baby, and everybody would grab around her skirt, and we’d make it home.

 

And Golden Wall showed the latest Hollywood movies?

 

All and one day, I thought maybe if I had enough money, I’d bring back Saturday matinees. It was where all the kids came. And ee screamed our hearts out, because it was all the Westerns, and they would have serial chapters where at the end, the guy would be falling off the cliff. Next week—

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

—follow through what happens. And when he fell off the cliff, he grabbed a branch, so he was saved, yeah.

 

Do you remember how much it cost to go to those matinees?

 

No.

 

What did you have for snacks?

 

I wasn’t too much of a snacker, but popcorn, I guess. And they had seed mui in bags, the paper bags. I mean, they dug it out like this, and that’s how you got it.

 

Influenced by all those afternoons at the movies in the Golden Wall Theater in Nuuanu, Nakeu Awai began to see a future in art and design, eventually merging theater and fashion.

 

But you’re a visual person, so movies—

 

But this helped—

 

—were preferable for you.

 

Yeah. This helped me, yes. Yes. And then television came after that, from black and white into color. Yeah. So a lot of things that I create today because aside from fashions, it’s putting fashions into visuals that is I enjoy that more.

 

More?

 

More.

 

So putting fashions into, say, musical revues?

 

Yeah.

 

And … shows.

 

I enjoy—

 

Fashion shows.

 

I enjoy that. I enjoy that the most. And using other people’s—you know, so I will use my clothes as well as the other people and do shows. Because drama was what I majored in at University of Washington.

 

So the shows are more important than the clothes that you have designed?

 

I feel that. The segments that I do are universal emotions that we all experience.

 

Have you thought of doing other than your fashion-related shows as musical revues?

 

I’m open to, I’m always open to being creative. I’ve already started my Christmas show this year. I’m thinking about next year up at the Waikoloa. You know, Pili Pang’s haula in Waimea.

 

So you’re that generation that sort of—you were before the Hawaiian renaissance. You didn’t speak Hawaiian.

 

No. In fact, we grew up speaking only English.

 

And Kamehameha insisted on it when you were a student there.

 

And Kamehameha had a Hawaiian language teacher. His name was Reverend Judd. But I felt so bad, and I guess I wasn’t strong enough to stand up against my peers. But it was after lunch, and the movie The Blue Angel, where the guy becomes taken advantage of, where he plays the dummy in the club, and all these horrible things happen to him. In the movie The Blue Angel, with Marlene Dietrich, yeah. So the same thing I thought about this man. See, so I relate back to when I saw this man. After lunch, kids brought straws back from the dining hall and was doing spitballs at him. And this old man was going, Oh, ooh.

 

And he was the Hawaiian teacher.

 

Yeah, language. And so, did we learn the language?

 

What did your parents do for a living?

 

My dad was a land abstracter.

 

What’s a land abstracter?

 

Well, he worked at the Land Office, and it was reading land deeds and stuffs, and translating them. So on his own, he helped a lot of Hawaiians find land that was due them, that they weren’t aware of. He’d ask them, Where were you born, who’s your parents? And he’d go do research kind of stuff. And my mom was an educator. And every weekend, my dad because see, we grew up without cars, because Mother and Dad never drove. We’d get on the taxi down at Aala Park. The kind that had all the extra seats, and go to Haleiwa because—

 

Is that a jitney?

 

Huh?

 

Was that a jitney, with extra seats?

 

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, but it was called the Waialua Taxicab, and it drove you to your homes in Haleiwa, Waialua. And then it’d come back and pick you up. But we’d spend weekends there because he’d work up in the taro patch. Every weekend, he was in the loi, because—and by himself. And loi and kalo, as kalo people today will know, it’s hard work

 

It’s very hard work.

 

And you have to keep working at it. You can’t let it go by, because—

 

So he worked five days a week, and then he goes to the taro patches—

 

Yeah.

 

—on the weekends?

 

Yeah.

 

That’s not a weekend. That’s not a break.

 

But he enjoyed that. And he would bring back a bag of taro, and he would cook, we would have to peel.

 

That’s what he did it for, a bag of taro?

 

And he also sold. He started selling some of his kalo to Chun Hoon’s Market, the old market on Nuuanu. So we had fresh poi. It was lumpy. I preferred the factory poi, because it was smoother, but we’d peel. Oh, and I still have his boards somewhere in my shop, the poi boards that he used and pounded poi.

 

Did you tell him his poi was too lumpy for you?

 

No.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

‘Cause he’d just strain it, yeah. And so, I mean, it was fine. It was fresh. But, after you get spoiled by having some factory made poi.

 

What was your mom like?

 

Mom was a hard worker. She believed in education, so she pushed all of us. After I graduated from Kamehameha School, I really wanted to get out and get into the working field. But, No, you gotta to go to college. So she pushed for that. Hard worker, a woman that wore the same pair of shoes until it kaputsed, then she got a new pair of shoes. So she gave up a lot. But then she wanted to see the world, so my first year after University of Washington, she wanted to see America. And Father hated traveling. So she ployed me into going, and so we saw America on Greyhound. From Seattle, we went straight across the northern route to visit friends and upstate New York, and then went down south, and came back across. Yeah.

 

Was she still very frugal?

 

Yeah. As she got older, because see, I was the last one. Everybody was—the two sisters were on their own, Brother was on his own, so maybe she felt a little more freer to do these trips. Because then she and Dad went to China, with Char’s Tours. I still remember that, because it was such a negative thing.

 

After graduating from the University of Washington, and seeing North America by bus, it was time for graduate school. Catholic University in Washington, D.C. was a fine school; but for a young man from Hawaii in the 1950s, D.C. was not quite the place to study theater. Where would Nake‘u Awai head next?

 

So I told my parents. What are you going to do? I said, Live. Pause, pause. And they hung up on me, click. Next episode. So I moved to New York. But, I went all over New York. And when you’re young, you’re really kinda daring, so I looked up every conceivable rental. The nice thing about New York is they have rentals by price. So you can look for what you want to spend, and they’re right there. Well, I went Bowery, I went Harlem, I went all over New York. And after when I settled in New York, I said to myself, I would never, ever go back to all the areas that I went into. But one wintry morning, I was in Brooklyn Heights, and this woman in—you know, they have brownstones. She opened this tall black door. And she had a place, and it was within my price range, and it was a … so everytime I watch TV, they have those steps going up into the brownstones, and to the side they have these two steps that go underneath. I was there. It went from sidewalk, all the way to the back of the house. It was long rental.

 

And did you think you were gonna be a lifelong New Yorker at that point?

 

I wanted to. Because New York will always be my happiest years.

 

Why did you leave New York?

 

Winter.

 

[CHUCKLE] How many winters did you get through?

 

Four. And the last winter, I had electric blankets. But when you’re sleeping, you go, [GRUNT]. Just slight turning. It was freezing. And I had moved, how you move around, you find a better place. So my last rental was on the fifth floor of this walkup. Wonderful. I wish I still did that. Overlooked the—you could see the Statue of Liberty, and the lower rivers before they split off the Hudson, and the Hudson and the other river, and subway and stuff, and stuff, and stuffs. Yeah, but New York, the energy, there’s no city that has the energy that keeps you, keeps you going.

 

Did you feel your Hawaiianess in New York?

 

Yes. I have some pictures somewhere that we’ll see Rowena Akana and I, and this Filipino guy doing a Hawaiian revue down in Atlantic City for Tutasi Wilson. She was a woman that lived in Florida, and would come up and do these big Hawaiian conventions in Atlantic City. And that was the only time I did Hawaiian. I never really studied Hawaiian. There was a Hawaiian restaurant that all the Hawaiians gathered, but I quickly stayed away from it, because even back then in the 60s, the Alamihi Syndrome … Hawaiians—

 

Explain that.

 

The alamihi is the black crab that goes crawling up, yeah? And as it gets up to the top, another one will come and grab and pull them both down. So, I didn’t want to be part of the Alamihi Syndrome.

 

Definitely not. The ambitious Nake‘u Awai had a lot more that he wanted to do, and he kept on his path, a path which eventually led him back to Kalihi. But first, there would be a stop in Hollywood.

 

I keep expecting that you’re gonna say, And then I became a costumer and a design person. But you’re not saying that.

 

No.

 

When did that come along?

 

Not until my years in Hollywood. Because then, after the last winter, I came home, and got right into My Fair Lady with Linda Ryan. And the choreographer who came from Vegas saw that I had potential, so he pushed me to get the role of Carpathy the Hungarian. So besides being a dancer, I played a secondary part. And so I did that. While I was doing that, the people that I worked with in Atlantic City, Flower Drum Song, were being hired for this show in Reno. Direct from Japan, Hello Tokyo. We need another guy. Well, there’s Joel Awai, he lives in Honolulu. So they called me. I got hired to go up to Reno. And the three male singer dancers were myself, Jimmy Borges, and Bob Ito. Now, Bob Ito … Quincy. Remember that show? It was where he was the mortician.

 

Right.

 

His assistant was this very well spoken Japanese guy, Bob Ito.

 

I remember him. Okay, that’s Bob Ito.

 

And he spoke so well. See, Bob Ito is a Canadian, so of course, he will speak very well.

 

And that’s where you met Jimmy Borges?

 

And that’s where I met Jimmy Borges.

 

What was he like then?

 

Well, like all the dancers, they make fun of the singer’s walk, Jimmy.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

In other words, the same leg and the same arm swing. Instead of opposition, yeah? That’s the natural walk. They walk da, da, da, da. Yeah.

 

So he was definitely a singer, the way he walked.

 

Yeah, but the three of us had to do singing and dancing. I stayed in West Hollywood until I found my own place. Then I started going to auditions, and I started dancing on television. So that is the next nine years of my life.

 

Nine years dancing on television and other venues. What kind of dancing did you do?

 

Jazz; modern dance. Back then, musical specials were big, so I performed like the Jack Benny Special, or the Petula Clark Special, or Elvis had a special I was a part of.

 

Now, you said you weren’t an extraordinary dancer, but it sounds like you’re getting some good roles. You’re getting hired.

 

Well, so maybe I was better than some of the others. But I mean, I don’t consider myself a solo dancer, because I worked with a number of people who were great solo dancers, like in the Elvis Presley Special.

 

So what was it like? Did you actually encounter Elvis? You saw him on the set?

 

Well, Elvis was a very quiet, timid fellow who was like a school kid. And when he tried to relax and socialize, the moment Colonel Parker came in Elvis.

 

How old was Elvis then? Was he out of the Army?

 

He was out of the Army, yeah. I don’t know. Because this was in preparation for him to go to—because Elvis performed, then he went to movies, then he went into the Army. Now he’s out of the Army, and he’s gearing to go back to— because then he made a big—after television special, he went to Vegas, yeah? I think Elvis and I would be about the same age. I don’t remember. Do you know how old he is, or would be?

 

No, I don’t know how old he would be.

 

Okay.

 

So did you have any interaction with him?

 

No. No. Because he didn’t socialize with us, because he was under wraps, or when he did come in and the Colonel would come in, he would jump up and he would disappear. Yeah; so dancers, they’re like cattle. They’re just kept in some room until they need them. And the thing with television, which is really junk, is you don’t have time to really warm up. So we call it the warm up special. We’d come to work, go get our face done. So you go to make up, get your face done, then we greased up our bodies with um, Bengay. Because then—

 

You didn’t want to hurt. [CHUCKLE]

 

Yeah. No, because then when you got up to dance, you would be all warmed up. Because Bengay would get your muscles and bones ready for performing. Because you never knew; sometimes you would wait hours before they’d call you. Dancers! So like when these musicals started to dwindle, the first people they got rid of were the dancers. The second people they got rid of were the singers. The last people they got rid of were the actors. That pecking order; yeah. So I worked with a lot of big names. Bill Cosby was one, his special. I came back to do Don Ho’s special, because the dancers were hired in LA, and so we came back when he did his special. And I still remember getting flown, a few of us getting flown to Lahaina to work with the children at the elementary school there, where they did this One Paddle, Two Paddle, walking down Front Street. And we were like guides, yeah, or aides or guides, I mean, as dancers. So that was Do Ho’s special.

 

It was in Lahaina, during the shooting of a Don Ho television special, that the germ of the idea of a career in fashion design finally took hold in Nake‘u Awai. Remember those photos of jumpsuit Elvis, macramé’d beaded belt flying? That was his handiwork.

 

While I was there, I was fortunate to have a close friend from Japan teach us how to do macramé. And because all Japanese children grow up learning knots, what the sailors do, the art of knotting. And so he taught us how to do macramé. And so this other fellow from Hawaii and I decided to go into business doing macramé belts. This was before the hippies then got hemp and were doing macramé baskets, macramé wall hanging and stuffs. We did belts and accessories. So I sold these belts to stores in Beverly Hills, to fur shops in Beverly Hills, to designers like Bob Mackey, where I still have some drawings. ‘Cause Bob Mackey was a good artist, and that’s how he started before he got into fashions. He was an artist who drew for designers. And so, he gave me some sketches of macramé that we did for Carol Burnett and stuffs and stuffs, where we did the macramé, and he did these sketches. Because he could make the drawing look like Carol Burnett. And so I got to meet designers besides he, Jean Louis, which is the old film that Lana Turner did, her gowns by Jean Louis. Jean Louis, who was a French designer who also, for a long time, did the uniforms for United Airlines, long ago. Well, he had a factory in Beverly Hills. And what’s interesting, half of his factory were Japanese, and the other half of his factory were Haole. And you could tell the difference, because the Japanese factory was zz, zz, zz. The Haole factory, [GIBBERISH]. So, I became aware of clothing design there. My Black choreographer mentor, Claude Thompson, felt that I could do it. So he gave me this job where I was doing costumes for Sammy Davis’ girls, because Claude was choreographing them. And he wanted me to do the costumes, so I was given this wonderful budget to do costumes for six girls. And that was my first try at clothing.

 

What did you do for them? What kind of costumes did you come up with?

 

I had fun. I was very creative. I went downtown LA and found all these places like where you could buy leather. And I bought chamois. The stuff you clean cars with? I bought skeins of chamois and cut them into—left parts of it rough, because the edges of chamois uncut, and did a wrap blouse for them, and sewed and hung beads on them. And then I got scarves that they did what the Blacks do, a do-wrap, the tight um, head wrap with a knot here, and bought a whole bunch of scarves, and did a scarf skirt. So I asked friends of mine, Well, if I want a scarf skirt, how do you do it? Well, you hang the scarf point-to-point, you sew from point to this point, from point to that point. And so, as long as I knew the construction, then I could pass it on to a seamstress. So they had these scarf skirts. So when they stood … would be all scarves hanging, but when they spun, it didn’t split apart, it connected. And with that, I had these big clunky boots.

 

And it worked.

 

Yeah. He loved it, and Sammy loved it too. So on a couple of times, I met Sammy and his wife Altovise, who was one of his dancers that he ended up marrying, and Sammy’s little black poodle, who I hated, because he’d run down from the house, and he’d straddle your foot, and shee all over you.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

And I’d go … [GAGGING]. [CHUCKLE]

 

When you look at your career, and you’re still going, how do you describe it?

 

Well, it’s something that I look forward to every morning. It’s not like I don’t want to go to work. I get ready, I get up at five-fifteen, I do my things.

 

What’s in your shop? Tell us about your shop.

 

My shop is a collection of my fashions, and a collection of things that I like, and have cluttered my shop with. Like I have these blown-out Portuguese man-o- war [CHUCKLE] that Colleen Kimura did. So it’s like this blue spacey thing, and it has all the tendrils hanging down. And I have an old wreath that Noelani Pomroy did when she came from Kauai. I have an old, old, old, old wreath that Amelia Bailey brought to the shop many years ago, that’s still hanging up there. So it’s like going in a Chinese shop full of all kinds of—I mean, people come in, and they’re like [CHUCKLE]—the look is … Or they’ll come in, and they’ll take a long time, because there are too many textures and colors, and blends, and things to look at. I mean, yeah. And I like it. Everybody says, You need a bigger shop. No, I’ve gotten used to it.

 

At the time of this conversation in the summer of 2011, Nake‘u Awai continues to create and design, an icon of Hawaiian fashion. From his overflowing shop in Kalihi, he continues the dance of life, inspiring a new generation with his timeless textiles. For Long Story Short, and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.

 

When you see Elvis and he has these gyrating hips with these belts with beads on them, those were the belts that we did for Bill Ballou was the designer. A lot of things, as I look back, I’ve done stuffs that people didn’t understand what I did, and why I was doing it until later, and then you see them doing it and understanding it.