Hawai‘i Style: Fresh Takes

Oct 4, 2016

(l-r) Joe Serrao and Napali Souza, co-founders of the menswear brand, Salvage Public, in their Kaimukī studio. Their t-shirts are among pieces in the “Hawai‘i in Design” exhibition, a survey that includes graphics, surfboards, fashion, and furnishings by contemporary artists at the Honolulu Museum of Art through March 2017.
Credit noe tanigawa
A sampling of current designs, many of which will be featured in Savage Public's new brick and mortar, planned for South Shore Market, Kaka'ako, in late 2016.
Credit noe tanigawa

Most people who live in Hawai‘i are conscious of a Hawai‘i Style, and over the years many have tried to put a finger on what that style is.  In the 20th century, UH Professor John Charlot wrote about a Hawaiian esthetic, calling it a distillation of our natural environment.

HPR’s Noe Tanigawa discovered that connection with nature is taking new forms and going deeper as it runs through contemporary local designers.

(l-r) "Viper", "Crow", and "Betta", gowns by Koa Johnson, headpieces by Ry-n Shimabuku in “Hawai‘i in Design”. Right, CJ Kanuha, "Kai Popolohua Mea a Kane," koa surfboard.
Credit noe tanigawa

The Hawai‘i in Design show continues at the Honolulu Museum of Art through next March.  Salvage Public will open their first retail store soon at South Shore Market in Kaka‘ako.   Remember, November is Fashion Month in Hawai‘i, with many more opportunities to view and wear local designers. 

Souza and Serrao admit getting local guys to do "fashion" is an uphill battle.   Men in other countries have long ago abandoned big boxy tees, but here, you'll find mostly sisters and girlfriends springing for the really comfy, body conscious stuff.  Why to Serrao and Souza look so good?  They reveal their childhood inspirations this extended interview.

Healoha Johnston is curator for the Arts of Hawai‘i at the Honolulu Museum of Art, she curated the Hawai‘i in Design show there now through March 2017.  Early ideas for this exhibition were spurred by scholarship by UH Religion professor John Charlot, who wrote about Hawaiian aesthetics as a distillation of the natural environment.  How are current designers filtering the natural world and their connection to it?

"Not everyone in the exhibition is Hawaiian but all are distilling, responding to Hawai‘i but also projecting Hawai‘i.  What they put forth shapes how people view and understand Hawai‘i."

(l-r) "Baby", "Waikiki", "Fins", and "Pipeline", by Eric Walden, polyurethane foam and polyester resin.
Credit noe tanigawa

“Take Salvage Public, they have a market outside of Hawai‘i, in fact it’s one of their biggest markets.  And what I really liked about their design esthetic is that they reference iconic aspects of Hawai‘i.  The shirts that are on view say “Wall Rat” and “Sans Souci”.  Those are very specific references to Waikīkī but they’re not the typical iconic indicators.  So for me that’s a very local reference and these people are not conforming necessarily to the existing market and existing tourist expectations but are referencing these places based on their own experience as young men who grew up on O‘ahu.   All of the designers are trying to speak from a very honest place about their own experience in Hawai‘I which doesn’t necessarily include those stereotypes. “

“A lot of the artists and designers in this show are in their 40’s or younger.  They are setting the terms.  So yes, they are engaging commerce as designers do, and artists do, and yes they are engaging a tourism industry which we have, but they are more engaged in setting the terms.  And so, for example with  Kuha’o of Sig Zane and also with the young men with Salvage Public I feel like they find ways to market their ideas because they think that it’s important. They maximize social media.  These guys are so savvy, they know how to engage the market.”

Mark Chai, Lamps and Light Pods, made from recycled plastic and wood.
Credit noe tanigawa

“At one point I think it was a matter of reintroducing content, and I think now the designers are saying, okay, we have the content, let’s also consider form.  So it’s a matter of shaping content and form for people today to be able to wear.”

Trends in the form today?  ”I think it’s highly functional, I think people expect now that something not be simply symbolic, but also be functional, and we see that in things like Mark Chai’s lamps.  (People expect) That something makes sense in an environment, that is an amalgamation of multiple influences and is something that speaks more honestly to a diverse identity.”

It’s not just identifying what is local and hammering that.  “But it’s saying I like this, I like this, I like this, let’s put it together.  What does this look like?  How do we refine that?  How do we edit?  It’s exciting!”

Sig Zane, "Rain From Clear Sky," Gator board, in the "Hawai‘i in Design" show at the Honolulu Museum of Art through March 2017.
Credit noe tanigawa

“Salvage Public, they are infusing something as basic as a t-shirt with elements of thought and style.  I do think the fact they use t-shirts which is the colloquial garment to circulate everyday language is brilliant.  So it’s very simple.  It’s a t-shirt.  But it’s very smart.”

How do they sell something like Wall Rat on a t-shirt?  “I don’t know, honestly, I don’t know how they do it.  But I’m glad they are doing it.  I think it’s brilliant.”

They’re way beyond  shave ice, rainbows, rubbah slippahs, they’re establishing new image references for Hawai‘i in an international style

Editing is a large part of the process at Salvage Public, where co-founder Napali Souza says they stripped down imagery to text, often ‘ōlelo no‘eau, for starters.

“So that’s kinda how we started, by taking away and removing a lot of typical imagery because we just wanted something fresh.” 

Salvage Public, "Wall Rat" and "San Souci," silkscreen on cotton in HoMA's "Hawai‘i in Design" show.
Credit noe tanigawa

Salvage Public has been around three years now, online only, they’ve already been featured in the New York Times.  Along with paring down imagery, co-founder Joe Serrao says they focused first on a nice fit—that was new in the market.

“The same as our design, it’s a slightly more minimal t-shirt.  The little things about it, the neckline is a little slimmer, the body itself is slimmer, nothing’s really loud.”

Wearers praise the fabric, and the fact that it doesn’t scream tropical.

“That is sort of part of the thinking.  Can you wear this on some city street and not look like you just came off vacation?  That’s just how we dress.”

Pieces reference Hawai‘i on a more intimate level—which is where many tourists want to be, actually.  What is the Salvage Public guy like?

“He’s not trying too hard.  At the same time, he looks refined and he looks clean.”  Serrao and Souza admit getting local guys to do fashion is an uphill battle, but they’ll be opening their first brick and mortar soon with a full line of aloha shirts, t- shirts, the new board shorts are a little shorter, even jackets.   

“Clothes that are comfortable, first and foremost.  Hopefully good for the planet.  Maybe that’s sort of  where we set ourselves apart, is by focusing on clothes that are good for the planet.”

Or at least for Hawai‘i.  Salvage Public already uses organic cotton and dyes when possible, they do as much production in Hawai‘i as they can.  Making high quality locally takes commitment and money, they say. Price points become the big hurdle, because Souza says people expect even great clothes to be cheap.  

Keith Tallett, "Mauna Kea Snowchains (Lock Da Hubs) Flying Hawaiian Series, mixed media on panel.
Credit noe tanigawa