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Iolani stakes a claim

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    Emma Wo wears a strapless Sweetheart dress ($126) from Iolani's Kamalei line created by the company's longtime designer Grace Tsutahara and inspired by dancer Sarah Kamalei Noyle.
    Joseph Degracia cuts fabric inside the Iolani factory. The company has added a retail space to its Kakaako headquarters, calling it Iolani on Kona Street.
    Sarah Noyle wears a White Ginger smock-top dress, with straps optional ($57). Her stretch crochet belt is $20 and cap is $20.
    Sarah Kamalei Noyle wears a Kanani dress ($82) with Wishing Bridge black horn heart necklace ($42).

    Lloyd Kawakami, owner of Iolani Sportswear, stands next to a mural that incorporates images of his father, Iolani founder Keiji Kawakami, at Iolani on Kona Street, the company's new retail space in Kakaako.

In an industry that prizes change — whether in seasonal styles or the continuing quest for the next top designer or hot brand — the fashion scene is filled with startups. In comparison, older fashion companies can start to look slow to compete. But don’t rule them out.

In recent years, longtime kamaaina companies Tori Richard and Surf Line Hawaii have expanded their retail reach by creating stores around the storied Kahala and Jams World brands, respectively.

Now, Iolani Sportswear is going one step further by introducing Iolani on Kona Street as a retail offshoot of its Kona Street headquarters, which has housed its manufacturing operations since 1963. Tentative opening day is next Thursday.

Although most of us would call it a store or boutique, Iolani’s second-generation owner Lloyd Kawakami prefers to call it "The Iolani Experience," a name that takes into account its immersive environment incorporating videos relating facets of Hawaii’s fashion history, a photographic time line display featuring the Iolani ohana, and the hum of the working factory, in addition to shopping.

That meant surrendering 1,800 square feet of factory space, which Carla Kawakami, Lloyd’s wife and the company’s chief operating officer, described as trying to fit 10 pounds of rice in a 5-pound bag.

"One of the reasons we did this was because we needed to enhance our brand. We have a lot more to offer than what can be found in stores," she said.

"One of the unique things about Iolani is it’s not just a marketing brand," said Lloyd Kawakami, referring to companies that create stories around brands without a history or that are built around goods made cheaply abroad.

"People have been there and are getting smarter, asking themselves, ‘Why do I want to come to Hawaii and buy something made in China?’ I think ‘Made in Hawaii’ is becoming popular again and we are one of the largest manufacturers in Hawaii. We’ve been around and we’ve had the battles, so I feel we have a story to tell and it’s not a story that’s made up.

"We wanted to showcase our products and show our history and the story behind it because we’re the ones best able to do it. It’s what we do," said Kawakami, who is still managing to put together pieces of the story by combining research with fragments of memory.

One of the puzzlers was the image of King Kamehameha on Iolani’s original garment labels, when it might have made more sense to use an image of the palace.

Lloyd Kawakami was an infant when his parents, Keiji and Edith Kawakami, opened their first shop on Beretania Street in the area where the Board of Water Supply now stands.

"The first Iolani factory was in two small rooms and one had a dirt floor. I was in my playpen when it was raining — I don’t know how I remember this — but the roof leaked and I remember the floor turned into mud. It was weird.

"At that time, we didn’t have the huge Capitol building, so when they looked out, they could see Iolani Palace and the statue of King Kamehameha.

"I always wondered about that. Now I understand."

RECALLING the days of the alii in designing the new space, Carla Kawakami said she envisioned a carriage house — simple and functional — that might have been part of the royals’ summer retreats in Nuuanu and Manoa. She sourced building materials and decor from Re-use Hawaii, advancing the idea of tending to the land. Among her finds were panels from Mick Jagger’s Kailua home that line the dressing rooms. (After learning he couldn’t privatize the beach, the rock star never moved into the house.)

The safety-glass windows overlooking the factory operation were taken from another part of the building. The windows had been boarded up for decades so she didn’t know they existed before starting to tear down walls. Other items, such as stained-glass windows and artwork by Satoru Abe, came from the Kawakami home.

Such personal touches fill the store, giving fans locally and abroad a feeling of connection to the family and their extended circle.

The Wishing Bridge jewelry carried by the shop is made by the company’s marketing director, Lauryn Chun, and handbags are the contributions of Carla Kawakami’s friends.

The Kauai Kookies carried in the store come from the Kawakamis’ Kauai ohana in flavors otherwise available only at the Kauai Kookie Kompany’s factory store. And among the CDs carried are those of Manoa DNA, featuring Lloyd Kawakami and sons Nick and Alex. All the musicians whose CDs are sold agreed to autograph them, adding to the personal touch shown here.

Fabric remnants have been sewn up as drawstring bags that are Iolani on Kona Street’s signature packaging and could be considered a gift with every purchase.

While many in Hawaii have become cynical over the commercializing of Hawaii and commodification of "aloha," the family’s trips to Japan reinforced the notion that people there, as well as at home, merely long for authenticity behind the words, and Iolani is showing how the history of the garment industry is an intrinsic part of Hawaii’s history as well.

From clothing created by missionaries that became the first muumuu, to Japanese indigo fabrics and kimono brought by laborers and picture brides, "everyone added their own pieces and had a hand in the styles of Hawaii," Carla Kawakami said.

"We need to start taking more pride in what we do," Lloyd said. While the standard shape of the aloha shirt has been copied the world over, "it’s only an aloha shirt if it’s made in Hawaii," he said.

Iolani on Kona Street is set to open around July 15. Call 593-4520.


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