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Fashion Designer Nakeʻu Awai Reinvented at 85 by Aupuni Space

Nakeʻu Awai Fashion Show

Nakeʻu Awai's fashion shows are always theatrical events. He's been doing them since the 1980s. This year, a new team of stylists took hold of the 85-year-old designer's work and kicked it all up a notch.

"I remember when I first went to see a fashion show by Carol and Mary," said Awai, talking about the air-conditioned, tennis club, ladies-who-lunch boutique Carol and Mary that used to be at Ala Moana Center.

"I felt that the local models were strutting down the platform like they were wearing Parisian clothes, but they're wearing island wear. Island wear is casual, island wear is playful, island wear is out in the sun, into the surf. So I thought, 'Oh, tacky, tacky,'"

Awai went on to design for Carol and Mary, and other establishments, including Liberty House, where he did a holoku, or formal Hawaiian gowns, in wide white seersucker with colored linings.

Awai made clothing for Honolulu's poshest stores, and opened his boutique on Houghtailing Street in Kalihi. It's just five minutes from his home. He has always played with this high/low mix of local culture.

"One of the things I remember doing is I wanted to do a collection of things you could sell separately. Like a jacket, a pair of slacks, or shorts. It was going to be made out of khaki."

Yes, basic separates had to start somewhere. But Awai originally designed those basic separates to be much more local.

Nakeu Awai Fashion Palaka

"Palaka was first, and I was going for palaka because it's part of history from the old Japanese field workers and what they wore."

Awai is referring to a sort of checked fabric, traditionally in navy blue or red, an all-over pattern of crosshatch checks, formerly in a denim-like fabric.

"The original palaka was much heavier, and it was popular with the working class. it was cheap and it was heavy and it was durable so people that worked in the fields and cowboys bought it," Awai told Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

Palaka is making a comeback on caps, loafers, t-shirts. In Hawaiʻi, palaka is a reference to worker history. Awai prints on top of the checks, and presents the fabric in tailored styles. He would do a long jacket with a belt, often tailored collars, halter tops, tent dresses, or close-cut holoku with mutton chop sleeves. Awai for men features surprising colors, the fabric prints were mostly commissioned from Awai's long-time collaborator, Richard Vyse.

Awai, as a youth, left Hawaiʻi to join a touring company of Flower Drum Song. He was a singer and dancer in New York City, then for years in Los Angeles where he danced in television variety shows.

Awai performed and choreographed in Waikiki showrooms for years, and his models in fashion shows have always been more like actors in local vignettes.

Nakeu Awai Fashion Show 2

Awai said he picks up his style from his mother's older sister.

"She was vibrant. She had dyed hair, it was kind of orangey, amber. She wore Ship 'n Shore blouses with the collar up. Wide skirts were big back then."

Awai has a spring green plaid bias cut circle skirt in his shop right now. It pairs with a green maidenhair print top with Princess Ka'iulani sleeves. Awai's particular local mash-up proved fertile material for this year's post-COVID comeback fashion show.

The creative team at Aupuni Space took over the reins of Awai's annual event.

"And because theatre was my major at the University of Washington before I graduated, if you have seen any of my shows, there is this wonderful essence of theatrics and theatre."

Aloha wear has never looked more astonishing. Find visuals on Aupuni Space's Instagram. There is one more fashion show ahead, it's called "Come Chinatown, Come You and I." The jewel box event will be staged at Arts and Letters on Nu'uanu Avenue Aug. 1.

Noe Tanigawa covers art, culture and ideas for Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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