Fashion is all about creating an image, building a brand, attaching one's label to T-shirts, handbags and gallons of perfume, raking in millions, then ultimately trading those millions for a secluded life by the beach.
By Nadine Kam
So what if you already have the lifestyle?
This might explain the phenomenon that is Sig Zane, the rare designer who doesn't aspire to sell many clothes, generally shunning that prime publicity vehicle known as the fashion show.
Those who don't know Zane may attribute such behavior to an artiste's temperament. But Zane simply strives to strike a balance.
"There are other things in life," said the Honolulu-born, now Hilo-based designer. "When I moved to Hilo I was exposed to a life so beautiful, with good fishing, fewer people (than on Oahu) and plenty of places to take a four-wheel drive. I cannot just work. That's why I cannot open a lot of stores."
This makes Zane's participation in the Narcissus Fashion Show Sunday a rarity.
"I don't do fashions shows," he said flatly. "The reason I agreed to do this one was for Ban and Susanna Chan (of Aloha Born Free Fashions), because they have helped me out for years."
Ban Chan is the chairman of the Narcissus Festival this year, and the fashion show, per Zane's influence, will feature dancers from O'Brien Eselu's halau as models in motion. Other models will include Narcissus Queen Ying-Ying Lee; fire fighters from the Honolulu Fire Department, now marking its 150th anniversary; and "Baywatch" cast members. KGMB's Kuualoha Taylor will be the emcee.
Before meeting the Chans in 1990, Zane had a small factory in Hilo for hand-printing his fabrics and manufacturing his garments. "We'd concentrate on making aloha shirts, and fall behind on our dresses, so we'd go back to making aloha shirts and fall behind on dresses. We were always behind."
The Chans were able to meet his production demands, which are pretty humble compared to most clothing manufacturers.
"I only do 50 yards of each color combination, and then I only make one thing from it, one style of aloha shirt or dress, so it's really a limited edition," he said. "If you see anymore, well, maybe I forgot I did that combination."
Zane never intended to become a designer, chancing on his livelihood while trying to fashion a life for himself that would not be consumed by work. What he really should be called is a teacher.
"I used to dance kahiko. There's a lot of symbolism in the words, the chants, the motions of hula, and the plants we made lei out of. We made our own prints and one of the first prints I did was of taro. I was growing taro so it was something I knew intimately."
Zane, who is 100 percent Chinese, fell in love with hula when he moved to Hilo and attended the island's premiere hula event, the Merrie Monarch Festival in 1976. "I saw Halau 'O Kekuhi and I wanted to dance for them."
He not only joined the halau, he got the girl, his wife Nalani Kanakaole, who is now the halau's kumu hula, along with her sister Pualani Kanakaole Kanahele. Both are daughters of the famed dancer Edith Kanakaole, whose name graces the stadium where the Merrie Monarch Festival is held annually.
"My mother-in-law was a purist who wanted to maintain the tradition," Zane said. "At the same time, she said, 'Share what you know. Teach the language, teach the culture. Give it away as much as you can because that's how it's going to continue.' "
Like the movements of hula, Zane's kapa prints also tell stories. "Holo Mai Pele," for example, records the travels of Pele as the fire goddess made her way from Tahiti to Hawaii's major islands before settling at Halemaumau on the Big Island.
He frowns at the notion of others who use kapa designs for their graphic impact, without understanding the meaning of the symbols. "I'm lucky I had great teachers," he said, because education is the only way to instill respect for a culture.
"I've tried to continue to educate. Part of the purpose of my shop was to get all people to know about Hawaiian culture, engage them. That's why I have to be there and that's why I don't care to wholesale. I want to sell (my pieces). I want to tell the story. I want to see (customers') faces."
Zane started applying his precise, hand-cut floral designs to pareos in 1982, then opened his self-named shop in Hilo in 1985, selling aloha shirts and quilted jackets for women. To this day, every piece that carries Sig Zane's name is hand-printed and hand-cut. He recently opened a shop in Wailuku, Maui, because he said the town offers the same ambience and sense of history as Hilo.
And outside of work, life is good.
"All this was not planned. I fish and surf my life away," he said. "And Tutu Pele is always rumbling. She's a real energy force for a lot of artists."
Even the occasional business trip to Oahu can't faze him. "I have no cell phone. When I'm stuck in traffic I mellow out by chanting. I'm always learning new chants.
"I go to River Street for pho, maybe oxtail soup at Kam Bowl.
"This time they wanted me to go on TV. I said, 'No way.' "
What: Narcissus Fashion Show, featuring designs by Sig Zane, Princess Kaiulani Fashions, Local Motion, Kahala Sportswear, Joyce Arizumi, Sandra Chan and Joyce Arizumi
On the ramp
Place: Hilton Hawaiian Village Coral Ballroom
Date: 11:30 a.m. Sunday; boutique, silent auction start at 9 a.m.
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