Fit to print
Makaīwa bay, along Hawai‘i Island’s northwestern Kohala coast, is a familiar place for Carrington Manaola Ho‘owaiwaikaleikaumakalani Yap—better known as Manaola. Pathways of baked, cracking asphalt twist through a landscape of lava rock and shrubs, leading past caves once used to escape from the harsh, West Hawai‘i heat. These paths served as training routes for Manaola and his sister, Asia, while preparing for hula competitions.
A Hawaiian artist and fashion designer, cultural practitioner and entrepreneur, Manaola’s roots in this place stretch back beyond the veil of contact with the western world. The paths eventually snake near the ocean, and the dry, kindling-like plants give way to emerald lagoons, jagged coves and wide swaths of palms. Makaīwa was the site of many a childhood memory for Manaola, and the inspiration for his first collection of canvas bags, one of which is named for the bay.
Growing up within a family that has been immersed in hula, music and the arts his entire life, his creativity and interest in Hawaiian history were fostered from a young age. He is also a millennial with a broad vision for what Hawaiian art and culture can bring to the global stage. This balance of interests and influences—traditional and contemporary; the sacred and the popular; ancient and modern—is the foundation on which his eponymous fashion brand has been built. From ready-to-wear to haute couture, Manaola forges ahead toward the future while never letting go of the rich past from whence it came.
Summit (S): How did you get started as an artist? What were your early inspirations?
Manaola (M): My whole ‘ohana is very integrated within the arts world—they’re singers, they’re musicians, they’re artists and dancers. My mom’s family, the Lims, all sing and dance hula. And my family has been dancing for centuries. So my artistic side was cultivated from a young age at home just by being around all this artistic energy. I grew up doing a lot of costuming and work with textiles, kapa, making natural dyes—I grew up around that culture. Smashing seeds and cutting bark to extract dye was the type of pursuit that was incorporated into my life and surrounded me all the time.
In school, I used what I was learning at home for art projects; I brought it with me to the classroom. My science project in fourth or fifth grade was based on Hawaiian dye-making processes. I took those processes and applied them to modern textiles. Hawai‘i Island has been known throughout history to be one of the biggest and best producers of high quality, vibrant dyes. Since the reign of Līloa in the 15th century, the Kona area has been famous for having colorful dyes. That was through the efforts of Kona’s chief, ‘Ehunuikaimalino. So I took all of these traditions, and included them in my science fair project and it had a really great review. A lot of the teachers who I thought weren’t going to be interested in it actually were the most interested in it.
I mean, it’s a science fair and I was making dyes—all the other kids were making volcanoes or potato batteries. It was not the kind of science that you were used to seeing in elementary school at the time, but the way I looked at it was that it was the science that I know. That’s the science that I was taught: how to balance acidic contents in dye baths, how to balance alkaline properties using coral lime; learning how to bring out the color in natural materials through reactions. So I created all different kinds of colors—the whole spectrum of the rainbow—from all kinds of different plants that I had gathered.
I also took a fascination to history from a young age, and anthropology and archeology and all that great stuff. I studied pre- and post-contact Hawaiian fashion, I did a lot of background research on historic places—some family-related and some that I just stumbled upon that caught my interest. I researched mele, I looked at genealogies, I studied the repetition of patterns and symmetry in nature; all of which helped to inspire my work further.
Of course, my mom is such an inspiration to me. She’s my backbone, and a lot of what you see today in the store is inspired by her and my tūtū MaryAnn. My grandma used to draft suits for the army, and my mom worked as a seamstress too and learned to draft from my grandma. A lot of the early fabrication for costuming was done at home—mom sewed everything. Even for the Merrie Monarch Festival, mom sewed all the holokū. She also sewed my auntie’s wedding dress and all my clothes when I danced, and all the costumes we designed. She also has a background in beauty. Not a lot of people know that about her. She’s won a lifetime achievement award for music, but there are a lot of other things about her that people have no idea. She went to beauty school and she actually worked as an assistant for Paul Brown when he first started. And now he’s a big name in the hair and salon world. She just has so much talent.
S: What was it like growing up in that world during a time of artistic and cultural revival?
M: When I was younger, in the ‘90s, my mom was at a point in her hula career where she had been embedded within the culture that came out of the first Hawaiian renaissance of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Kumu hula like Palani Kahala, Frank Hewitt, Darrell Lupenui, John Ka‘imikaua—my mother was a part of that whole scene and became close friends with a lot of those guys. And out of that flourishing of culture and history and art, they had started to unearth and draw on even older traditions, reaching back to the hula ku‘i, or court-style hula from the 1800s. It was a rediscovery of this hidden information, and they started delving back into the spiritual aspect of hula, and traditions that go more into mythology. At the same time, coming from backgrounds like Moloka‘i, and even from Hawai‘i Island for our family, a lot of times the only way to survive on the outer islands is through the entertainment industry; trying to use our artwork to make a living.
So, besides the hālau, we had also adapted and moved toward establishing an entertainment company. That started off with our family playing Hawaiian music—a lot of lū‘au shows. My mom started taking the lū‘au shows and moving them more into a theatrical mode. We started to do what mom was calling at the time “hula dramas.” My mom had gathered some of her close friends and was doing these hula dramas on Hawai‘i Island. They actually took some of them on the road as well, to Maui, back in the ‘90s at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center, when they first opened. We would take legends and tell them in a way that malihini could understand—artistically. That meant that the characters had to be clearly articulated through their costumes, which meant pushing the envelope in that regard.
In some of her legends, Pele is supposed to have had a magic skirt with lightning in its folds. What costume could you create using your imagination to represent that? Nāmakaokaha‘i, Pele’s older sister, is from the ocean. What would her hair look like? What colors would she wear? What are the elements that we want to draw from the ocean and incorporate in her costume? What are the inspirations and the energy that we want to pull to conjure that type of character for the audience? That was really the joy of my childhood: being surrounded by that level of creativity and the challenge of creation.
Getting to watch that, being surrounded by that and helping mom to create those dramas—Under the Hala Tree, and then she had another series called Hidden Legends. That one was my favorite. Uncle John—Ka‘imikaua—was a part of that one. I think Frank Hewitt came to one of those too. Being a part of that second renaissance in the ‘90s, and seeing all of the artistic creativity that was drawn out of the foundation that the first renaissance had built—it was so fascinating and so inspiring for me as a young creative.
S: How did you move from costuming to fashion?
M: Well, my process for costuming would always begin from a base of natural and traditional elements and then move into more modern elements—whether it was materials, style, technique or whatever—if my ideas couldn’t be organically processed or brought to life using only the natural elements. Using those modern elements, though, got me inspired to start trying to incorporate them more into my creative expression, and to see what parts of modernization could be useful to me. I started moving beyond the traditional pā‘ū and malo with the theatrical costumes and bringing in elements of fashion and popular culture.
What started to happen was, a lot of my friends wanted to wear the costumes, even after the performances were done. They’d ask to borrow one of the cool tops we had made for the show so they could pair it with their jeans. That kind of got me thinking. Next thing you know, I’m doing dresses and pants and small items for friends who were going to the Hōkū Awards, or to a graduation or some other special occasion.
The thing that helped motivate me to keep doing more pieces was that I knew the people I was making the items for. I would choose which prints and what to make based on the person it was intended for, so they were really personal and unique. And it was to celebrate a special moment in that person’s life, which is what kapa culture is all about. I started looking at the gods of kapa and what they represent; thinking about what type of energy to ask for inspiration from; and really internalizing the balance of Hawaiian design.
So do I have a background in fashion? Not in the college degree way. But if I look at it as a cultural thing: a heritage passed down generation to generation as a learned, Hawaiian art form that has been transferred to me from my kūpuna, then yes, I do have a background in fashion. Not a Parsons background, but my ancestors were making clothes for the ali‘i for centuries. Is that fashion? Yeah, that’s fashion.
S: Tell me more about Hawaiian design.
M: In Hawaiian design, balance is really important. I learned the art of balancing the kū and hina aspects—kū being the masculine and hina being the feminine. Kū means to stand and hina means to lay down. Black and white, hard and soft, night and day—being aware of those types of things and finding the right balance is a skill that was developed through mistake after mistake, trial and error, and learning and correction. I am always looking for new ways to balance patterns. If the pattern is harsh, then the garment should be soft. Or maybe the lines of the outfit are harsh, so the pattern should be soft.
The pewa design is one of my most popular prints. It features a center line with triangular wedges spaced apart along the top of the line. The wedges represent pewa, which means fishtail, and is a common type of repair that’s found in native woodwork. In traditional Hawaiian woodworking, wherever there’s a break line between the material, these small wedges were inserted for stability. I’ve seen that kind of repair in the woodwork of other cultures too. The Japanese call them butterfly repairs. The center line in my print represents one of these breaks between the pieces of wood, and the pewa shapes represent a fix or a connection. So my pewa pattern represents and evokes the idea of connections and repairs.
If you look at the pattern, it’s laid out in my signature way, which is a feminine, swirly, hina style. I used to print this all the time. The bending of the pattern across the fabric represents placement in time. Time and space are very important to Hawaiians as a people. Time constantly changes, while space is always there—balance.
The pewa signifies reconnecting with family, loved ones, relatives—it means mending and fixing relationships; it means healing from a broken heart. I would give a piece with this pattern to someone who I care about in the hopes that it will help mend that person’s heart or help them through hardship by feeling connected to me and to the rest of their ‘ohana. Those are the types of things that, when you put the right intention into it, it comes to life.
In Hawaiian design, intention is everything. You talk about your clothes and each piece has spiritual significance. How does that translate into the business world where clothes are just a product to generate revenue? That’s actually a question I get asked all the time. I try to always start from a very simple place, where I am in tune with the spiritual and I can put intention behind what I am about to create. Sometimes we forget those simple things, like making sure that there is a good “why” behind our “what.”
What makes Hawaiian clothes? Is it the design? Not only that, but also the intention we put into making them. What do I want the person who wears this to feel? What do I want the print on this dress to help guide this person to? A new job? A new relationship? What connection between people do I want to create? Those are some of the things I consider during my process. Designing and creating fashion pieces—to me what makes that process and that result Hawaiian is the intent and the spiritual nature of that intent.
S: How did your hālau get started?
M: Our hula traditions stem from my mom, Nani Lim Yap, and my aunties Leialoha Lim Amina and Lorna Kapualiko Lim, who founded the hālau Nā Lei O Kaholokū together. Their training comes from Kohala first, through my tūtū MaryAnn Neula Lim, who was from Niuli‘i, Kohala. She was kumu hula in her own right and had her ‘ūniki in Kawaihae, a long time ago. Tūtū studied hula in Kohala and taught my aunties how to dance. But they also studied under Uncle George Na‘ope, Uncle George Holokai, Aunty Lokalia Montgomery, Aunty Edith Kanaka‘ole, Aunty ‘Iolani Luahine and, later on, with Uncle Darrell Lupenui and Uncle John Ka‘imikaua. They learned a lot and put together their hālau, which carried a great tradition with it. But they have now closed that hālau, and so my mom and I opened up Hālau Manaola. This was our first year at Merrie Monarch as Hālau Manaola.
S: Are there differences between the hula culture of Hawai‘i Island and, say, O‘ahu?
M: Yes, in fact one of the things I liked about coming to O‘ahu was getting to see the differences. Without getting too much into it, I’d say that it’s a little faster-paced on O‘ahu, which is what you’d expect. I think it’s probably a little more tradition-focused on Hawai‘i.
But we have different hula families on Hawai‘i Island that carry different veins of tradition passed down through their stories and based on genealogy. For instance, we have the Kanaka‘ole vein of tradition on Hawai‘i Island, which our family is tied to through Aunty Edith. The Kanaka‘ole tradition is Hula ‘Aiha‘a. It is descended through the lineage of Pele, and the first dance of this type was done in Hā‘ena by the legendary dancer Hōpoe.
Our own storyline is from Kohala, and the main saga that is perpetuated through the traditions of our family is about Kamehameha the Great when he was still known as Pai‘ea. Our family carries and holds all these chants, all these stories and all these traditions that make up the tale of Kamehameha, his birth at Koko‘iki, the oracles that surrounded his birth and heralded his arrival, his adventures with Nae‘ole of Hālawa while in hiding, all the way up to when he was brought to court. A lot of the oral traditions those stories come from were actually contributed by our great uncle Pinehaka to newspapers that recorded them in print. Kind of like how you have Holo Mai Pele, which is the saga of how Pele came to Hawai‘i, our family’s own primary epic that we portray through hula is about Kamehameha.
The style of dancing in Kohala is different than on the Hilo, Ka‘ū, Puna side of the island, where the dancing is ‘Aiha‘a. We do have ‘Aiha‘a, like I said, from Aunty Edith, but the base of our tradition comes from Mānea, which is the treading of the foot. It’s not your common style of dancing. In most books you read, dancing flat-footed for Hula Pahu is considered traditional. But for our ‘ohana, for our lineage of hula, it’s Mānea where we dance a lot on our toes.
The whole idea, especially for the Poli‘ahu cycle—which is about the snow goddess of Mauna Kea, Poli‘ahu—when you’re elevated on your toes, the idea is to dance to the celestial deities. Even in our ‘auana, that’s the root for the foot movements: elevation toward the celestial gods, as opposed to the subterranean deities, which is evoked through the stomping movements of the ‘Aiha‘a. Again, balance is important between the two sides of the moku. I talk about feet because, when we look at hula, we see the feet and footwork as the foundation for everything else. You look at the feet of the dancers to identify where the hula comes from.
Hālau Manaola was founded in September 2015. Our presentation was put together using a lot of my research. We get to show a lot of the material that we usually show on the Hula Kahiko side, which stems from the traditions of Hawai‘i Island. It’s been quite a journey. We shared a dance that hadn’t been performed in public since the 19th century. That was really neat. Logistics, choreography, fabrication of implements and costumes—of course I had a lot to do with that [laughs]—I was honored to be able to take the lead on that and for my family to be as proud as they are.
A lot of the preparation for festivals like the Merrie Monarch has been handled by myself, which makes sense since it’s kind of like the new generation for our family’s hālau. That was really the idea behind restarting the hālau under the new name: to make sure that, through the next generation’s continuation of the family’s traditions, those traditions can continue to be passed on to subsequent generations and can be cultivated and sustained. That’s also a lot of what I built the Manaola Hawai‘i brand on as well. Our company’s culture is very close to hula culture deliberately; taking those concepts in hula culture and bringing them into our business is a conscious decision. And that’s something that our family hadn’t really done before with our collective hula knowledge. It seems to work miraculously.
S: What are some of the trends in fashion that are exciting you right now?
M: I'm looking at functional fashion for people in Hawai‘i in working industries. Women don’t want to wear a mu‘umu‘u to work downtown. They want to wear something cute or sexy. And why not? It’s 2016. Just because it might not conform to expectations of modesty that are foreign to Hawai‘i anyway? People want to feel sexy because when they feel sexy or handsome, they feel good. So why not make something that will make somebody feel good wearing it?
Trend-wise, it’s hard for me to pick. There’s a lot of luxury resort wear coming out right now—taking the concept of expensive but laid back and running with it. That’s what I love about the new collection we’re working on. It’s more luxurious, but still resort wear-style. That idea can be applied in Hawai‘i very nicely. Resort wear is basically what people in Hawai‘i live in, whether or not they realize it, because of the climate.
Couture-wise, we always have big shows every year and we want to incorporate couture, because that’s really my passion. When you look at my costuming, that’s really what it is. It’s character-based as well and, for us, not just any characters but demigods. And that fuels the imagination when deciding on backgrounds, patterns and textures. Taking that back a step and creating ready-to-wear instead was actually much harder for me at first, just because I’m so into the art side of designing. Silhouette-wise, it’s much easier to do ready-to-wear, but that was the main struggle for me—was pulling it back.
S: What’s your vision for Manaola as it becomes a global brand?
M: My family has been creating kapa and dyes and has been involved in that art for centuries—all the way back to the time of Pilika‘aiea and Kalāhikiola. My whole vision was based around the question of how can I take that tradition and that process and apply it to modern-day pop culture.
I think Hawai‘i fashion has been largely at a standstill for a long time now. There has been some progress through different individual artists but, overall, fashion in the islands has clung to a modest kind of perspective, largely because of foreign influences that have been absorbed throughout Hawai‘i’s rich history: missionary culture, colonization—those kinds of things. I’m not a big activist or anything, but I do have an understanding of the crucial role those influences had on our culture and our people. Whereas, in pre-contact Hawai‘i, we were very open to being topless and to showing parts of the body that Western culture has arbitrarily deemed as inappropriate.
When we first started, we knew we wanted to bring a cultural awareness and inspiration into the fashion market here. Not the aloha wear market, but the fashion market. It was important for us to try our hardest to hit all the different sections of fashion, from ready-to-wear to luxury, because that’s hard to find here. You don’t see too many luxury design collections that are culturally-based, and that was our mission: to find our niche market and to perpetuate traditional culture through avenues available in popular culture today.
It made sense for us to separate the higher-end, more international products from the resort wear and aloha wear that is the normal day-to-day clothing we wear in Hawai‘i. The luxury clothing is more appropriate for the continental United States and Europe—we have a really big following in Australia too.
S: I’ve noticed Australians really like luxury products from Hawai‘i.
M: Yeah, they love our clothes and our prints because they can relate to certain aspects of their own lifestyles, their climate and elements from the aboriginal culture of Australia. A lot of the malihini that we meet from Australia come into the store and tell us how neat it is to see these prints because they’re similar to their own indigenous patterns, and the whole idea of us bringing indigenous artwork and geometry into a wearable type of product—it fascinates them. It’s really great seeing people from all different cultures come in and appreciate the artwork.
My vision looking at Manaola as a global business rooted in Hawai‘i is really trying to be not just an inspiration, but also to start opening our indigenous intellect to the world and showing people from other cultures how much we have to offer. So we’re starting to move that into a global scale.
Teaching the youth, by example, that taking something so indigenous and cultural and organic that comes from nature like repetitious patterns and geometry and symmetry and bringing those timeless things and applying them to modern society—I see that as a huge benefit to educating them. Getting kids to ask how we do that; how do we take something so ancient and create something that’s modern style-wise and forward fashion-wise—how is that accomplished? And then taking that to the market.
Even the part about being pono; people get worried that if you sell Hawai‘i—the real Hawai‘i—that it’s being exploitative. But I disagree. If it comes from a place that is truly cultural and with good intention, it’s going to do well and it’s going to change the way people see Hawai‘i for the better. And it works because we are guided by our ancestors. Our kūpuna wouldn’t let us get this far if they didn’t approve. I follow my intuition, I listen and I ask questions. And if my kūpuna don’t approve of something, they let me know. When I’m going too far, they let me know that I’m stepping a little too far over the line [laughs].
I think a lot about how we can get Hawai‘i out there. Not everyone agrees, and I get it, you know, I understand their concerns. But rather than try to fight against modernization and globalization, why not adapt to it? Look at our kūpuna and what they accomplished in the face of a changing world. We had electricity in ‘Iolani Palace before the White House had it. Why shouldn’t our fashion be just as progressive and innovative? Because somehow we only think we can do mu‘umu‘u—which isn’t even ours. That was never our gown to start with, so why is it that’s all people here think they can make? When I look at expansion, and how Hawai‘i can move into the global market, I remember that our kūpuna were already on it.
What is popular, what is pop culture? Fashion is popular. It’s popular because people need fashion. We’ll always be wearing something, and we’ll always want to look good while we do it. Fashion is ever-changing, and it totally speaks to us on a cultural level. So why not adapt to pop culture and make use of that through our art? And that’s really what Manaola Hawai‘i is about—really trying to adapt our beautiful traditions and art so that they can thrive in the modern era, and then sharing that with the rest of the world.
‘Ohana: family, relative, kin
Kapa: cloth made from wauke or māmaki bark used for clothing and bedding
Mele: song or chant of any kind; poem, poetry
Holokū, mu‘umu‘u: loose dresses with and without a seam, yoke and a train, respectively. Patterned after the Mother Hubbards of the missionaries; made of gaily patterned material.
Kumu: teacher, guide, mentor, role model; base, foundation; source, origin
Hula: a Hawaiian form of storytelling utilizing dance, along with mele and instrumentation
Hālau: a long house, as for canoes or hula instruction; meeting house
Lū‘au: a Hawaiian feast, named for the taro tops always served at one; this is not an ancient name, but goes back at least to 1856, when so used by the Pacific Commercial Advertiser; formerly a feast was a pā‘ina or ‘aha‘aina
Pā‘ū: woman’s skirt
Malo: man’s loincloth
Ali‘i: chief or chiefess; ruler, monarch
‘Ūniki: graduation ceremony, as in hula instruction; rite of passage
‘Auana: (Lit.) to wander, drift; in hula, a more modern style, as compared to kahiko, which is traditional
Malihini: foreigner, newcomer, tourist, guest
Kūpuna: ancestors, elders
Moku: island, district