How Kuhao Zane moves fashion and culture forward
It’s midday on a Wednesday and the sun is bearing down when I meet Kuha‘o Zane in Honolulu’s Chinatown district.
“I hear you enjoy whiskey at Manifest,” I had put forth the day before as we arranged a time to meet up and chat. The Hilo-based designer is in Honolulu almost every week for client meetings and visits to O‘ahu-based manufacturers; he graciously carves out a chunk of time for us to meet.
At Manifest, we grab coffee (sans whiskey, this time). Zane embodies the modern Hawaiian. Off the bat, he is warm, charismatic and refreshingly frank. For someone who is in his early 30s, he is already widely respected in the fashion industry, locally and abroad, as well as in the world of hula. He stands with one foot grounded firmly in centuries of cultural richness and ancestral memory and the other (literally) in a first edition oreo Nike Flyknit Racer.
Zane’s trajectory will be familiar to many in our generation who grew up in Hawai‘i. Born and raised in Keaukaha Homesteads, just outside of Hilo and right on the ocean, he left home to study graphic design at the Fashion Institute in Los Angeles. He would return to join the family business, bringing with him new knowledge and experiences.
Today, Kuha‘o, son of kumu hula Nālani Kanaka‘ole and famed local designer Sig Zane, wears many hats. He serves as the president of the board of directors of the Edith Kanaka‘ole Foundation, the non-profit organization that bears the name of his maternal grandmother, a revered kumu hula and composer of Hawaiian music and chant. He is also the creative director of both Sig Zane Designs and the fresh and seemingly meteoric design consulting offshoot firm, S Z K (SigZaneKaiao).
In 2003, shortly after moving back to Hilo, Kuha‘o helped to formalize and expand a new piece of business for the company. Up until then, Sig Zane had been producing bright, graphic, minimal, layered designs for aloha shirts, and had been doing so for nearly 20 years. The brand has always been built upon a celebration of Hawaiian culture and place, with each new design often giving voice to the plight of native and endangered plant and animal species. But, as the brand expanded, the need for and a fresh, contemporary perspective and an eye for popular trends arose.
“When I moved back from college, my dad was doing limited freelance graphic design. And so I was thinking, if aloha shirts is his main medium, how can we expand that, and make the medium anything?” After Kuha‘o joined the team, the design department picked up a couple of jobs with hotels. The team began to expand, and S Z K was born.
The small, Hilo-based design agency has seen exceptional growth in recent years. Some of S Z K’s notable projects over the past few years have included designing art for a new fleet of ‘Ohana by Hawaiian Airlines planes, completely overhauling Hawaiian Electric Company’s corporate branding, a collaboration with Louis Vuitton, and work on an array of hotel and resort projects.
The “S Z” is a nod to Kuha‘o’s father, and the “Kaiao” respectfully pays tribute to his late grandmother, Edith. “Kaiao is that time of morning, just before the sun peaks out of the horizon,” he says. “My grandma, she was known for writing lyrics… and kaiao was when she got the best inspiration.” (The word kaiao can also refer to enlightenment.) Kaiao is a reality, but it’s also aspirational: representing a privilege and a kuleana spanning three generations of creatives who have each resolutely followed their calling.
Sig Zane’s flagship store in Hilo has been a mecca for fashionable locals from around the islands. And for many years, it’s been an important factor in the revitalization of the Hawai‘i Island town’s downtown district.
“My morning starts in Hilo,” says Kuha‘o. “Hilo is still very intertwined with the environment.” Many of Hawai‘i’s biggest creative agencies are concentrated amid the sprawl of urban Honolulu. Creatives on O‘ahu often spend their mornings trapped incommutor traffic, with afternoons spent inside the red brick, blue glass and gray concrete boxes of Chinatown, downtown Honolulu and burgeoning Kaka‘ako. “Not that I have anything against that,” he clarifies. “But I think working in Hilo provides a different perspective.”
Kuha’o is no stranger to Honolulu city life, though. As we talk in Manifest, we’re interrupted by a steady stream of friends, colleagues and fellow creatives who greet him warmly and genuinely want to know how he’s doing. “As you can see, I’ve spent a lot of time on O‘ahu. In my later 20s I might have ended up hammered here a bunch of times,” he says with a wink.
It’s the aloha shirts that keep him coming to the city almost weekly. All of Sig Zane’s aloha shirts are still designed, hand-printed and manufactured locally. These days, hand printed fabric is almost unheard of in the world of apparel. Still, Sig’s manufacturers work by hand, printing just 24 inches at a time. And, to this day, each design still begins with a stencil he hand cuts from amberlith film.
Over in Kaka‘ako, down near Lana Lane Studios, is a large mural depicting a salt shaker. The vessel floats upside down, the word “HAWAIIAN” inscribed along its side. Red flakes—‘alaea perhaps—fall across the wall toward the mural’s base. Instructions at the top read, “Sprinkle Some!”
Amid the overwhelming visual dissonance that lines the streets and covers the walls of the developing industrial neighborhood, Kuha‘o’s mural gives pause for reflection. To the average viewer, salt could reference a few things: the salt pans that once covered the area; the adjacent retail development that carries the same name; or it could represent the way in which Hawaiian culture is sometimes “sprinkled on” as a finishing touch, sometimes as an act of appeasement for liberals who like to call out developers for being culturally hollow.
Hawai‘i’s biggest corporations recognize the value in designs that are authentically “Hawaiian.” Toward the end of 2014, rumors spread of a Kaka‘ako developer courting the Sig Zane brand to set up shop as an anchor tenant in a forthecoming retail complex. There’s a certain kind of cultural capital and legitimacy that is acrued when working with designers who are so culturally connected and so deeply rooted in place.
“The mural is a reflection of how long I’ve been doing graphic design and of how often we’re called in at the very end of the process to sprinkle culture on,” says Kuha‘o.
With the rapid development of urban Honolulu, from Kaka‘ako to Kapolei, gratuitous examples of appropriation can be seen all over the place. Honolulu is littered with trite expressions of culture: large-scale photographs of wahi pana—celebrated places throughout the archipelago—plastered along Ala Moana Boulevard; parking structures with levels that bear the names of native plants; the list goes on. It’s been done wrong so many times.
“But what if it was done right?” Kuha‘o asks, hopefully.
Perhaps what is most striking about Kuha‘o is his confidence. There’s no identity struggle here; he doesn’t have to prove he is Hawaiian, in the same way he doesn’t have to prove he’s a designer. Nowadays, there’s a temptation to separate that which is traditional, and that which is modern. But indigenous knowledge and contemporary practice are seamlessly integrated within him. His confidence in who he his, and the kuleana and the privilege he carries from the generations before him, is what helps him balance living in a Western, capitalist world and a Hawaiian world that demands respect for the land and reciprocity among its people.
In a city that sometimes feels like its losing its way, we need people like Kuha‘o: people who remind us of our past and our own ancestral memory, and remind us to give back.
“Fortunately, it’s becoming cool to be aware of culture,” he says.
Something tells me that Kuha‘o, whether he realizes is or not, has had a hand in that.