On her: Kauwela Days (woman’s) ($98); On him: Aloha Paisley ($115) | Photographed at iconic Sand Island establishment La Mariana Sailing Club, featuring island-inspired American eats and tropical drinks in a funky, tiki-styled space.

The spirit of the islands captured in fashionable, modern aloha wear

Date
Text Naomi Taga
Art Will Caron

It’s a Thursday afternoon and designer Roberta Oaks is setting up her booth at the 2015 Made in Hawaii Festival. She’s been at the exhibition hall 10 times before, year after year.

In stark contrast to the pipe-and-drape decor of other participants, she’s built a wood fort to last three long days, over the course of which the festival will welcome some 40,000 Hawai‘i shoppers through its doors. From a vendor’s perspective, that’s a lot of potential first impressions, wholesale opportunities, handshakes and cash. The Roberta Oaks’ booth will house a collection of both men’s and women’s clothing, designed and manufactured under Oaks’ namesake brand. Step inside Oaks’ simple structure and, suddenly, an experience is created. Without distraction from hundreds of other vendors, the customer is allowed a moment to peruse in peace.

“I have to do it this way,” says Oaks as she notes the height of the constructed walls that surround her 10’ x 10’ space. “It creates an oasis away from all the chaos of the event.”

These days, consumers are drowning in options; it’s not things that are the problem but, rather, our relationship to them. When we think about our relationship with a product, two important traits separate a good relationship with a bad one. First, is the product of high quality; is it made to last? And second, does its design, material and other tangible properties elicit an emotional response from the consumer? Exuding nostalgia for a simpler time, Roberta Oaks’ aloha wear is a great example of a product that brings both traits to the consumer.

It’s been more than a decade since Oaks launched her brand; for nearly a decade, she’s maintained a prosperous retail storefront in Chinatown. She says the decision to create a new brand of aloha wear came out of her own frustration at seeing handsome men in downtown Honolulu going to lunch in “ugly, boxy shirts,” she says with a laugh. “To capture the spirit of the islands in a fashionable, more modern fit is what Roberta Oaks is all about.”

Oaks’ clothing displays a subtly, drawn from her ability to channel a charming and approachable simplicity in both pattern and design. Screen-printed cotton and polyester blend fabrics create a feeling of nostalgia. “Bold! Colorful! It’s an interesting experiment in emotion, honestly. Color and print are powerful,” Oaks explains.

This simplicity and familiarity is derived from a blend of sources, among them her farmhouse childhood and her love for all things retro and vintage. Perhaps because of this elegant simplicity, her garments can be seen worn by 20-somethings frequenting Chinatown bars, as well as by beards standing alongside lauhala-wearing aunties shopping at the Made In Hawai‘i Festival. Oaks’ brand is also garnering a growing number of international customers, a testament to the quality of her product; in a piece of clothing as iconic as the aloha shirt, standing out is no easy feat.

Oaks receives much of her local support at her homebase on Pauahi Street. Oaks is quick to recognize the momentum of creative energy that years of collaborative efforts between restaurants, galleries, night clubs and retailers in the Chinatown district have built. The businesses in this vibrant Honolulu neighborhood remain invested in bettering their community, and that has, in turn, built a strong following of cultured, discerning local patrons. Small businesses like Roberta Oaks provide an alternate experience; one that forgoes the cookie-cutter style and mass-produced look of strip-mall merchandise and opts for warmth and character instead.

“We want people to come here and have a great experience, talk story, take that energy and spread it on to someone else,” she says.

Whether the signs had pointed to aloha wear, or to an entirely different creative product, understanding the importance of “Made in Hawai‘i” is key to Oaks’ success. “I grew up in a family where ‘buying local’ was always number one,” she says. “My parents taught me the cycle of things, and that keeping commerce cycling within the community in which you live can have a huge impact. They both ran their own businesses; supporting the small shop is all I’ve ever known.”

The pressures to stand out amongst the white noise of today’s consumerist culture falls away in the face of a brand that does one thing and does it well. For Roberta Oaks, it is aloha wear tailored to the modern man and woman.

Roberta Oaks // 19 N. Pauahi St., Honolulu // Mon.–Fri., 10am–6pm; Sat.–Sun., 10am–4pm // (808) 428-1214 // www.robertaoaks.com

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Ikaika Hussey
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Mae Ariola
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Will Caron
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Michelle Garcia
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