Street-smart boutiques make a go of it in Mo'ili'ili
The shops at the base of the Chrones Building has struggled to find their niche for some time. At McCully and King Streets, they shared an intersection with Central Pacific Bank, luxury restaurant Chef Mavro and a Jack in the Box. The Chrones building corner had previously been home to McCully Chop Sui, a Chinese restaurant that had been open more than 50 years before closing at the end of 2006. The old neon sign for the restaurant remained, thanks to the efforts of the art gallery that moved into the space. But many of the other businesses on the block weren't as permanent.
For a time, small shops cycled in and out. Some tried to make use of the cozy space, like the Closet Chick, an affordable clothing boutique with racks of dresses and tops parked on the sidewalk outside. Other businesses ignored the frills and simply occupied the space, like the cable and phone technical service provider that opened a short while later. A big DirecTV poster hung in the large storefront window as their display for more than a year. These stores -- like the poster -- were gone before long, too.
Then, in February 2013, a new shop debuted. It was a small boutique store that specialized in sneakers. It was attractive, but seemed somehow out of place. Nothing else had thrived in this space; what would be different now?
The shoes attract you first. Hundreds of colorful sneakers line white walls, standing 6 feet high from the front door to the back counter, each a different brand and style. Between the shoes are T-shirts in a variety of designs, magazines and vinyl toys created by internationally renowned artists. This isn't a sneaker shop; it's a lifestyle shop.
Local owners Elise and John Om launched TRUEST in 2013 on the day before Valentine's Day. It was the realization of a dream to create a unique store that they themselves would want to shop at, complete with a variety of fun, creative products. Part of that dream includes their fluffy dog Boozer, who sniffs and wags his tail at customers.
"We're a lifestyle store," Elise says. "But we've got quite a few sneakers."
When the couple began in February, they started with 300 or 400 different sneaker pairs from their own collection. Now they maintain an inventory of more than 700, many of them out and lining the walls of their shop/showroom in Mo'ili'ili. Their shoes start at $50, with most around the $150-$200 range, and one pair of limited edition LeBron James Championship sneakers that stand at a tall $10,000.
But a big part of their business comes from consignment, often times utilizing local designers to create custom pairs of sneakers. Elise mentions that interfacing with Hawai'i talent is important to them, and cites restoration jobs -- wear work on shoes to create a sense of being faux worn-out -- as a tool, to network with artisans from across the state to create a completely original piece of wearable art.
Their customers are a mix of locals and tourists. Just off the intersection of King and McCully Street, they're situated at one of the gateways to Waikiki and also in one of the oldest local communities in Honolulu. They've been featured in Complex Magazine, among other media, bringing in tourists who scout them out specifically, alongside Honolulu shoppers just looking for a cool pair of sneakers.
Originally, shoes were the extent of their business. Elise studied industrial design, while husband and co-owner John was a "sneaker head." But their dream was always to become a lifestyle store -- a place that didn't just sell products, but that had a brand and personality of its own.
They're looking to build a store dedicated to a subculture that recognizes the value in handcrafted artifacts rather than mass-produced things. Many of Elise and John's sneakers are parts of a set, sometimes as original prototypes. Kind of like TRUEST itself.
When Elise and John opened their shop, they spoke with friends Dean and Casey Song about moving in next door. The Songs were looking to debut their own store for a few months, although they hadn't found a storefront location that fit their needs.
"We looked at places in Chinatown, Wai'alae, Kapahulu," Dean remembers. "Then John told me that the business next door to him was opening up and asked if we wanted to see the space. We loved it."
Just a few months after TRUEST debuted, Drew and Casey Song opened MONO, offering specialty goods, including stationery, backpacks, gifts, cameras, artwork and items for home décor, most for between $5 and $50. The Songs had always been fans of these types of unique-yet-usable products, but reticent there weren't many shops on the island carrying items with this specific design aesthetic. It inspired Dean and Casey to spin one of their own. "Mono" in Japanese, means "stuff."
"People come in and say that they don't feel like they're in Hawai'i," says Dean with a laugh. "They mean that in a good way though, that we offer different types of products not really seen anywhere else. Customers come in and they not only find good stuff, but they learn about different design elements and also more about what's out there."
In keeping with their creative-yet-practical merchandise, the Songs customized their store the same way. Steel columns and wood paneling accent MONO's clean white walls. Their display tables in the center of the room have been assembled by hand using simple burnished pinewood and black plumber's pipes.
"From Home Depot," Dean says proudly.
The Songs' goal is to continue to expand -- they get a great response from local foot traffic, but are also looking to build their online presence in 2014. Dean and Casey want to bring their intimate aesthetic to a global, digital market, helping to promote Hawai'i's local artists and business. It's a concept that the owners of local brand In4mation know a great deal about. Not long after MONO settled in, In4mation joined the block.
Friends Ryan Arakaki, Keith Kanagusuku, Jun Jo and Todd Shimabuku launched In4mation more than a decade ago and the brand has since gained an immense local following as well as international recognition. With an emphasis on skateboarding culture and art, In4mation's stores are an homage to Hawai'i's action sports lifestyle and retail market. While TRUEST specializes in shoes, and MONO offers home décor, In4mation offers clothing.
On the racks in their store, In4mation features a diversity of both local and worldwide brands including Lightsleepers, Chocolate and Girl, Waters & Army, SLVDR, Nike and Aloha Army, with a collection of T-shirts, hats, pants, button-down shirts, accessories and more. They opened their first store in 2002, and when they heard about retail space available in Mo'ili'ili, they knew they wanted to get involved.
"We're all really excited about this new storefront on King Street," says Jun Jo, In4mation's Marketing Director. "I think you're seeing a movement happening with brands opting to open stores in neighborhoods as opposed to just shopping malls. There's a great vibe on King Street and we're surrounded by a bunch of great restaurants and other stores, so there's a great sense of community here, which is very important to me."
For Jo, the decision to create an In4mation McCully wasn't just for the sake of launching a new store, but an opportunity to get involved in the particular neighborhood. Many of their skateboard team riders live in the area, and they has seen what TRUEST and MONO had helped create at the corner. In4mation takes pride in offering clothing and skateboard product lines that can't easily be found elsewhere, and they recognized McCully as a neighborhood for that. When they opened in November 2013, they hosted an event at the new shop featuring Los Angeles hip-hop group Odd Future, and dozens of people waiting outside the shop in a line that extended down the block. In4mation had arrived.
Says Jo: "When we first opened our Chinatown store, we realized just how rad it is to have a community surrounding you, and when it came time to find another location, we found a similar vibe on King."
For TRUEST, the future is still uncertain. Their presence -- along with MONO and In4mation -- may just be a blip on the radar for the neighborhood. It could also signal that the times are changing.
TRUEST, MONO and In4mation are new to the neighborhood, but their separate journeys have led them here, to a centrally located spot in the middle of Honolulu. And for whatever the next year brings, all three shops are looking ahead.
"John and I were talking and if the art gallery at the corner were to move out, we could see a really great New York-style deli taking its place," says Dean with a grin. "Big pastrami sandwiches, potato salad, beers. I'm just putting that out there."