Shaking Up the Fashion World
Who’s making noise on runways these days? None other than Micah Kamohoalii, whose Hawaiian-style designs are earning rave reviews from New York to Milan.
A true Waimea boy, Micah Kamohoalii used to ride his horse to elementary school.
With his backpack on, the paniolo in the making would tie his noble steed to a post near campus before heading off to class.
This mode of transportation is entirely fitting for Hawai‘i Island’s northern countryside that’s lavish with rolling hills, green pastures and cattle as far as the eye can see. The air there is brisk, too, as the town sits at 2,600 feet above sea level, set against the grand backdrop of Mauna Kea.
“I was raised in Waimea all my life,” says Kamohoalii, proudly. “My family has come from this town for, I usually tell people, the last 100 generations. My family’s been here forever.”
Growing up in a town with a population of 400 at the time taught him the meaning of community from an early age. Everyone looked out for one another and no one got left behind.
“The word community is ‘common’ and ‘unity,’” he shares. “We learned that we have to be that way because we have no other resources. There was no governmental money that made it to us; it all ran out by the time it hit Hilo and Kona. We had to learn how to share, work together and be one family unit if we ever wanted to get anywhere.”
So, when New York Fashion Week came knocking and Kamohoalii had no clothes to show, he called upon his community and they came through — just like they always do.
It all began when the Honoka‘a High and Intermediate School graduate, who’s been creating and selling apparel through Dezigns by Kamohoalii since the early 2000s, held a pop-up shop during Merrie Monarch, a weeklong cultural festival that he dubs “Hawai‘i’s fashion week,” to sell his items that range from men’s and women’s clothes to pillows and coffee mugs. It was a successful, whirlwind of a weekend, and Kamohoalii had nothing left by the end of it, which is when he received an email he thought was too good to be true.
“I thought it was a hoax, so I put it in the spam folder,” he says, laughing. “Then, the next day, I was like, ‘Imagine if that was real,’ so I wrote back, not really believing it, saying, ‘Sure, whatever.’ We set up a Zoom call, and here I was thinking it was going to be (people) asking for Target and Walmart gift cards. But when they came on, it was actual executives from New York Fashion Week — and you could tell they were the real deal — and I was like, ‘Oh, hi, give me a second,’ and I fixed my hair and came back on.”
Kamohoalii says the very-realand-not-fake fashion officials saw his Telly Award-winning commercial — which featured his ‘ohana at their local heiau, at the beach and on horseback, staying true to their Waimea roots — as well as his part in the Emmy-nominated Hawai‘i Fashion Showcase that premiered last year. They asked if he was interested in strutting his stuff on the New York catwalk in four weeks’ time, to which Kamohoalii, of course, responded with an enthusiastic yes. Though, when reality set in after the call, he exclaimed, “Wait, I don’t have any clothes!”
“I told my cousin who’s the chief operating officer, and he said, ‘Don’t worry. I got it.’ I was like, ‘What are you going to do? You don’t sew,’” recalls Kamohoalii with a joking tone. “He called everybody in our town and my halau — I’m also a kumu hula — and said, ‘Hey, kumu got invited to New York Fashion Week. I need you to bring back all the clothes you just bought from us. We need to use it and we’ll bring it back to you.’ Everybody came through — and that’s community for you.
“At New York Fashion Week, when people asked me, ‘So, how did you choose this collection?’ I couldn’t tell them that I used whatever I could get my hands on,” he says with his ever-present smile.
After a month of planning, fundraising and rehearsing, it was finally showtime. Kamohoalii and his entourage of models, musical performers and cultural practitioners brought local fashion to a global stage — Hawaiian style. Part of the show’s allure was Kamohoalii’s commitment to ensuring the audience, which was filled with some of the industry’s best, knew the history behind the clothes they were seeing in front of them.
“I tell people I’m part of the fabric creators of the world. That’s a rare breed because most people go to the store and buy the fabric,” says Kamohoalii, adding that kapa-making runs deep in his family lineage. “I come from the people who fabricated the fabric — the ones who made the materials that were then turned into fashion. I told them that I had to be able to present this on stage because this is the origin of what Fashion Week is.
“I need to explain what they’ll see so they can understand what they’ll see. I don’t want them to see kapa and think it’s really horrible linen. I want them to know that this bark grew in my backyard.”
The heartfelt commentary, along with a surprise performance by the final models who broke out into a hula before leaving the stage, made the crowd, which, according to Kamohoalii, typically snaps their fingers to applaud so as to not disrupt the show, go wild.
“It sounded like a football game,” says Kamohoalii, noting that a lot of people were moved to tears. “They were screaming and yelling and you could tell that people threw the towel in with the snapping because it wasn’t doing it justice.”
The showcase landed Kamohoalii in publications such as Vanity Fair, Vogue, The New York Times and Forbes, to name a few, and, soon after, officials from European fashion weeks were on the other line.
Currently, Kamohoalii is at Milan Fashion Week, after just wrapping London Fashion Week and before he takes the train to conclude at Paris Fashion Week.
“This has always been about my community,” he shares. “It’s about coming together, pulling our resources and making it happen. We’re taking aspiring talent, cultural practitioners and a whole array of community members as our models — and none of them fit the mold. When I had to submit my lookbook to Paris Fashion Week, their response was, ‘None of them fit the standard of Paris Fashion Week.’ I was like, ‘Hmm, was that a question, a statement, or a negative or positive remark?’ All I wrote back was: ‘Yes. And that’s the way we like it.’
“I’m showing what Hawai‘i can bring to the table — and that’s beauty in every shape and size. You can see all of our beauty from top to bottom and all of our races are mixed together. If I was trying to do Paris, I would get Paris models. I’m not trying to do Paris, I’m trying to do Hawai‘i in Paris.”
The shows will be different in each city, though they will all meld what’s traditional with what’s modern. In London, Kamohoalii pays homage to the feathers worn by Hawaiian royalty; in Milan, he will demonstrate kapa creation; and in Paris, it’s all about lau hala and other items that are finely woven.
“I know there’s a language barrier when we hit France and Italy, but you don’t have to speak our language to understand a Hawaiian heart,” shares Kamohoalii. “Our culture is so moving; it’s the drum beat, it’s emotional. You don’t have to speak the same language to know something is powerful and for it to touch you.
“I hope that we at least leave the impression on these countries that there’s a connection between people, place, honoring your history and to have respect and love for everything that’s around you. We’re teaching Hawaiian values to the world and sharing our aloha.”
Along with the three fashion shows, Kamohoalii will also be putting on three concerts in each of the major cities with his reason simply being “because I’m crazy like that.” Featuring Amy Hānaiali‘i, Kainani Kahaunaele and Jeff Peterson, the musical performances will honor the Hawaiian monarchy and its time spent in Europe.
Kamohoalii has come a long way — literally and metaphorically — from the small town that he loves so dearly. He may have temporarily exchanged Hawai‘i Island’s country roads for the world’s premier runways, but, no matter where life takes him, he’ll always be a proud Waimea boy — and his community will be right there beside him.
Dezigns That Tell ‘Our Story’
Micah Kamohoalii’s vision for his brand was born out of a slightly awkward situation. During his college years, he saved all of his money to buy a designer aloha shirt. Feeling like the coolest person on the planet, he showed up at a party donning his new attire — only to find 10 other guys were wearing the same thing.
“We looked like the house band,” Kamohoalii says with a laugh.
Learning from that experience, Kamohoalii only releases about 60 pieces of the same style and color at a time, with about 250 looks in total. Each print channels Hawaiian culture in some way, with the company’s foundation lying in “preserving our past and perpetuating it for the future,” to hear Kamohoalii tell it.
“All of the (prints) connect us to the origin of who we are, but it also becomes a spiritual totem for us. When we wear our lightning pattern design, we understand that this comes from the mountains — how do you not feel empowered?
“We are empowering ourselves spiritually, physically and mentally by wearing clothing that is meaningful and purposeful and empowers us throughout the day. We wear clothing that recounts our history and tells our story.”
Dezigns by Kamohoalii has locations in Pearlridge Center (98-1005 Moanalua Road) and Windward Mall (46-056 Kamehameha Hwy.). For more information, visit dbkamohoalii.com.