Photos courtesy of West Hawaii Today
Originally published on West Hawaii Today | Monday, October 1, 2018, 12:05 a.m.
By Laura Ruminski West Hawaii Today
KAILUA-KONA — Award-winning Kumu Hula Kenneth “Aloha” Victor never set out to be a clothing designer, but his new Kaulua‘e designs, created, styled and marketed in Hawaii, have catapulted him into the world of island fashion.
In about seven months, Victor has gone from “zero to ho my gosh” with his exclusive line for kane, wahine and keiki after the creations hit the web and the world’s most prestigious hula competition held this April in Hilo.
“About a month before Merrie Monarch, I announced it on Facebook and Instagram that we’re going to start selling shirts and you can pick it up at Merrie Monarch,” Victor said. “I honestly didn’t think it would be a quick sell.”
But it was. In six days, all of the 230 shirts he’d created were sold via Instagram, Victor said.
“What am I going to sell at Merrie Monarch?” Victor remembers fretting as the annual festival neared.
He quickly set out to reprint the shirts, receiving them just two days before the festival’s start.
“We packed up the U-Haul truck and went to Merrie Monarch with 680 pieces,” Victor said, “and we came back with 23.”
Merrie Monarch was his “soft opening,” though Victor said, “it was not soft at all.”
“At that moment, I thought ‘I think we can do this,’” he said.
Where it began
Born and raised in Kailua-Kona, Victor said he didn’t really learn how to sew until he opted to take a home-economics class while a student at Konawaena High School.
“My mother sewed, my grandmother sewed and it was supposed to be a cruise class. But it was no cruise class — it was hard,” remembered Victor.
But he learned the basics. When he went to college at the University of Hawaii at Hilo with a full scholarship for agriculture, he took a side class that taught drafting and pattern-making, honing his sewing and design skills.
Then, “life happened.” He put that arsenal of knowledge on hold until his daughter was ready to go trick-or-treating one fall.
“My daughter needed some Halloween costumes so that’s when I picked up the machine again and started sewing,” Victor said.
Next, his daughter was in pageants — more sewing.
Then, he started Halau Kala‘akeakauikawekiu in 2006.
“In hula, we always need costuming,” said Victor. “When seamstresses are almost zero to none in Kona, you really got to sew a lot of your own stuff.”
With time and yards of practice, he figured out easier and better ways to create the costumes needed for competition.
But, eventually he was unable to meet the high demand, and had to look to resources off-island to meet his halau’s needs. He met with sewing contractors in Honolulu, eventually finding a fit with the same high quality fabricator used by other known Hawaii designers.
With creations galore to his name, Victor was inspired to start his own locally made line of island fashion wear. That fire was fueled by the success he saw with people from Hawaii on the popular TV show, “Project Runway.”
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, Hawaii people can actually do this,’” Victor reminisced.
He also realized early-on that he wanted his creations to be unique, not mass-produced.
“A lot of designers, they make so many pieces so they can sell it. For me, that’s not what this business is about. This isn’t about profit at all,” Victor said. “Truly, what this has spawned into is to prove a point — that we don’t have to go overseas to make our clothes.”
According to Victor, the only other designers who are printing and manufacturing clothing in Hawaii are Sig Zane, Make Kuwari, Kini Zamora and Ari South.
His first design featured mastheads from Hawaiian language newspapers dating from 1843 to 1945.
“We took 48 mastheads and put them in the design. That was our first hot-seller and put us on the map. The second one, I printed three colors and sold out,” Victor said.
He also uses art from things and people that inspire him, as well as the people, places and things we call home.
For example, his banana print includes the cross section of the banana stump, and the banana leaf.
“In our family, we have to do imu for every family function. The kids have to clean the banana. When you cut the leaf, you get the print. When you cut the stump you get a print,” he explained. “Every time I see this print I think of Grandpa uncle cousin, brother, traditions. Everything has symbolism.”
Another inspiration was ohia lehua and its current plight.
“With the lehua and all of the ROD thing, let’s not wear it as a flower, let’s wear it as a shirt,” said Victor. “The lehua is sacred to our watersheds and it’s important to us hula people to have it forever more.”
His halau members also get in on the fun.
“For halau costumes, I always ask the girls for sketch ideas. I don’t always use them but I allow them that creative idea,” he said. “We talk about the song, what’s the inspiration, what’s the interpretation, then we say, ‘OK, what do you guys want to wear?’”
Taking it to the next level
That creativity and wanting to capture his inspirations spurred him to start printing his own fabric.
“This is something I always wanted to do, but it wasn’t the right time or place. I didn’t have the right resources. Then one day, everything came together,” he said.
And come together it has, though that wasn’t the plan. Victor is keeping the operation small, just as he set out to do. “I’m not trying to mass produce,” he said.
He only prints 115 yards per design whether it is on chiffon, poly cotton, poly rayon, or 100 percent cotton. All of the shirts are exclusive, with only 36 shirts of each design: Three small, three medium, five large, eight extra large, five 2XL, five 3XL large and five 4XL.
“We’re learning. It’s a huge process. I wasn’t intending to be a fashion designer, I just wanted to make a couple of Aloha shirts and it turned into this. We went from zero to ho my gosh in a short period of time,” he said.
With the momentum going, Victor is looking to the future.
“I want to turn this into where our girls who want to go into fashion or retail, they can see how the system works right here at the halau. If it really takes off I want to create jobs for my halau members,” he said.
But no matter the popularity, Victor emphasized to his consumers: “Don’t buy it if you like it, buy it if you love it. I want you to be inspired.”
Kaulua‘e. Made in Hawaii for Hawaii.
Victor’s goal with Kaulua‘e is to hold two “pop-ups” a year, Merrie Monarch and a Christmas craft fair along with internet sales.