Iconic fashion designer Nake‘u Awai (nakeuawaidesigns.com) is heralded as the grandfather of the Hawaiian print, the pioneer of marrying hand-silk-screened patterns of Native Hawaiian flora with modern silhouettes. Aft er working as a singer and dancer in New York, Los Angeles and Europe, and later as a costume designer for greats such as Bob Mackie, the Honolulu-born designer returned home in the 1970s to start his eponymous label. Here, we catch up with the man behind the brand as they gear up for its 50th anniversary.
Allen Akina and Nake‘u Awai (at right) working in their studio with a model, circa 1974. PHOTO COURTESY OF NAKE‘U AWAI DESIGNS
What inspired your designs when you began?
In the early 1970s, commercial fashion, design or clothing that authentically reflected the Hawaiian people, our land or our legacy did not exist. I began experimenting with using elements that represented native and indigenous flora prints on silhouettes familiar to me from living on the mainland and my travels. My fashion standards may have seemed radical at the time because they fused both progressive and traditional elements. However, my goal from the very beginning has always been to create for Hawai‘i’s lifestyle.
What have been your most popular collections?
Over the years, our most popular designs have included the ‘iwa‘iwa (maidenhair fern), male hula dancer and ‘ohe kapala (bamboo stamp) prints. Our most popular color selections are those that are inspired by nature (e.g., egg plant, kumquat and avocado). I am honored to find our prints and silhouettes highly sought aft er by collectors of vintage mu‘umu‘u and Aloha wear.
The Gardenia print on Nake‘u Awai’s Nu dress features hunter green-colored gardenia blossoms floating across a sand-hued linen backdrop. The outfit is accessorized with a lauhala half-moon clutch and delicate gardenia flower. PHOTO BY VISIONIZE MEDIA, MODEL: AUREANA TSEU
You’ve served as a mentor for younger Hawaiian designers. What do you hope for the future of Hawaiian fashion?
I’ve been fortunate to have been able to be a part of the journeys of many Hawaiian designers that people know and love. I was just excited to work with each Hawaiian designer who decided to embrace, perpetuate and revolutionize our culture. I can only hope that the future brings continued success, exposure and awareness about Hawaiian designers, and the rich culture, stories and spirit they represent.
What can you tell us about your new collection?
Th is year, our focus is on reviving archival vault favorites that people have been asking for in fresh color combinations, fabrics and styles. Our 2022 summer collection is printed on a delightful machine-washable linen-cotton blend. Th e collection includes my personal favorite print combination: the pahu and puniu drums with our ‘ohe kapala print. For our 2022 fall collection, expect to see Dream Ladies on beautiful poplin from Japan. We will also continue to expand our accessories line, including woven lauhala purses lined in the season’s prints as well as cork-bottom clutches and crossbody bags.
The ‘Ohe Kapala print on Nake‘u Awai’s Kikepa dress features geometric designs made by bamboo stamps in taupe on a sea of indigo linen. It’s further stylized with a natural linen bow, yellow ginger lei and lauhala hat. PHOTO BY VISIONIZE MEDIA, MODEL: AUREANA TSEU