Prints of passion
Made-in-Hawai‘i clothing sews a backdrop for island life. Its styles are unique, admired and emulated throughout the world. Aloha shirts, dresses and other creations take part in a performance that weaves together both tradition and contemporary life; a concept echoed by long-time Hawai‘i artist, performer and designer Nake‘u Awai.
At his boutique near the base of Kapālama in Kalihi, one can find some of Hawai‘i’s most distinctive wares, made from custom fabrics and prized patterns. His work stands apart from many other brands of island wear.
“Fashion has changed,” explains Awai. “But it’s nice to find that a lot of young guys who are downtown workers will come and buy my shirts. It’s really neat when a young guy goes to work and someone says, ‘Hey, you’re wearing a Nake‘u.’ And, wow, somebody recognized my work. Not necessarily that they could tell it was a Nake‘u—just that guys wearing the clothes I design look sharp.”
Looking at the signature patterns—all identifiable in a single glance—it’s easy to see why Awai’s creations are so popular. His distinctive patterns are carefully created: “All hand printed, all my print. So if you see them, they come from me.”
Lauhala, lehua, male hula dancers, and many other patterns, adorn the shop—all fruits of careful thought that goes deeper than mere aesthetic. When creating his hala design, Awai explains how he used multiple images and observations to create a pattern that speaks to the hala itself. At the same time—as an experienced and accomplished businessman-artisan—he recounts that, “When you start printing your own things, it’s better to keep the line simple.”
His designs reflect a perpetuation of Hawaiian culture. The traditional dresses and aloha shirts index Hawai‘i’s history and culture, bringing them into the lives of Hawai‘i’s present. “A lot of younger people go down to shop at Nā Mea Hawai‘i store, and many of them are trying to keep the culture around. I see what I do as keeping Hawaiian culture alive.”
Nake‘u Awai’s artistic journey began long before his current status as a prominent Hawaiian designer was achieved. He begins and concludes his story by saying that, “Drama will always be my first love.”
Growing up on Milo Lane at Puowaina (Punchbowl), he remembers seeing Hawaiians from Papakōlea and Pauoa Valley come through on their way to Golden Wall Theatre, where he became involved in theatre and television.
After graduating from Kamehameha School for Boys, he attended the University of Washington, eventually moving to Washington D.C. for graduate school. Washington D.C., he explains, was very much a southern city at the time. He witnessed segregated black and white drinking fountains and bathrooms, and remembers that, “I was not happy because I think people didn’t know what I was, and they didn’t know how to accept me.”
He then decided to take on a bigger challenge, and one rife with opportunity: making it in New York. “I fell in love with New York City,” he says, while describing his experiences as a dancer, singer and actor. During his five years there, he became a man of the town, immersed in the arts scene and making connections and friendships that last to this day. “My connection with people, reconnecting and bringing in other connections—this has always been really interesting to me,” he says.
But Awai also remembers the challenges, particularly when it came to race: “I went to all the auditions, but I discovered that it was a bad time for me to be trying to get parts because all the shows featured white actors.” But that didn’t stop him from taking on as many opportunities as he could—often requiring that he wear many hats—and laying foundations for his career.
During his tours through Europe, he remembers a show he performed in German called the “Hawaiian Musicale.” The show was set for great success, anticipated in television and newspapers. He and six other Hawaiians in the troop were featured in the media. However, when the show opened and the crowd saw a handful of Hawaiians among a cast of whites in blackface, success took a turn for the worse.
Nonetheless, his time in New York and around the world was a treasured experience. His career took another step up as he moved into the circles of Hollywood and Las Vegas. He was featured as a singer, dancer and actor in musicals and television, working with some of the biggest names and on some of the biggest productions of the day.
Between shows, he reveals that all performers must deal with the lull in employment. A move for survival turned into a leap of success. He made a splash in the fashion scene when a distinctive style of Japanese fashion belts he designed were featured by many of Hollywood’s designers. At the top of the collage spread across the wall of his Kalihi boutique are pictures of high-fashion adverts and shoots featuring his creations.
While he flourished in multiple circles, he notes that, “My folks were getting older and somebody had to take care of them. So I came to visit and thought it was time for me to come home.”
After a spectrum of successes and challenges around the world, he returned to Hawai‘i with great skills and experiences. “I fell into the lap of doing costumes for song and dance groups, not having the training, but having the eye and strong will to pursue it,” he laughs.
In Hawai‘i, his flexibility, ability and passion have yielded success: a brand of prized island wear, anticipated fashion shows, and a clear influence among Hawai‘i’s cultural, artistic and performing arts spheres.
Many see him as a designer, but his first love is performance. He admits, “I look forward to doing those [fashion shows] more than doing fashion. Fashion is a way for me to be creative as a drama person.”
As a seasoned performer, he returned to Hawai‘i only to be less than thrilled—even bored—with the fashion shows. “I don’t know why they make island girls wearing island clothes look like Parisian models. You know, that stop, pivot, turn?”
His success connecting to the people of Hawai‘i as a designer and businessman ties into his philosophy: “I want them to look natural because that’s how island clothes are. The people I use in fashion shows are just people.”
His anticipated annual showcases flaunt many of the creations that are sure to sell throughout the year. And yet, his show is more than a showcase—it’s a performance. He shares that, “I enjoy creating those kinds of things. Each segment I do is a vignette; there’s music and a story line.”
He describes his unique approach, “When I do fashion shows, people take on a role. They’re not playing fashion model. In one segment, a woman might be a prostitute, in another she may be a schoolteacher, in another she might be somebody jilted by love.” His fashion is not a simple adornment, but a part of the performance of daily life.
Nake‘u Awai // 1613 Houghtailing St # 5, Honolulu // Mon.–Sat., 9:30am–1:30pm // (808) 841-1221