In her work space at home, designer Zana Tsutakawa shows one of her creations, a deconstructed corset-style top. At left is one of her hangtags, bearing her signature and a Polaroid photo of the design for those who want a keepsake of the garments they wear.


Designer Zana Tsutakawa is living
her fashion dream in the isles

Step inside the Maunalani Heights home of clothing designer Zana Akane Tsutakawa, and you'll see a lot of things associated with recent college graduates: Empty bottles of Absolut vodka, Red Stripe beer and butterscotch schnapps decorate shelves like vases, just steps from color maps of Hawaii and the rest of the world that have been taped to opposite walls. Hemp shampoo sits atop the bathroom's shower stall, and an old military ammunition canister holds who knows what by the front door.

Akane clothing

Where: thirtynine- hotel, 39 Hotel St.

When: Noon to 6 p.m. Saturday

Admission: Free

Call: 599-2552

But tucked away in a corner that looks like a storage area sits a plain white sewing machine. Next to it, a mannequin from the 1940s models a funky creation that was originally a National Geographic T-shirt.

And hanging over the doorway to a small closet packed full of fabric is an oxygen mask.

"Hey, you never know when you're gonna need a model to go down a runway with it on," Tsutakawa says without flinching.

Welcome to the world of Akane Clothing.

At just 24 years old, Tsutakawa is living her dream. Born and raised in Seattle, the fifth-generation Japanese American moved to Honolulu about a year and a half ago to pursue her fashion goals.

"About three weeks after I graduated ... I sold my truck, most of what I owned, shipped the rest to myself and moved," she says while seated at her sewing machine, which she found abandoned on the side of a road near the four-bedroom duplex she shares with a cousin and an artist. "I feel extremely blessed out here."

It was during her studies for a bachelor's degree in studio art from Western Washington University that Tsutakawa realized her life's passion would be creating her own fashion designs. After making clothes for her rag dolls as a child, she progressed to sewing items for friends during high school. By the time she reached college, she had a job as a seamstress in a local costume shop.

With her parents' blessing, she made the jump across the Pacific Ocean without knowing what awaited in paradise. Luckily, she comes from a family of artists who understand her intentions, so there was no sense of shock or disappointment when she announced her plans.

Both her father and grandfather are sculptors. (Her grandfather designed the "three big blocks" at Ala Moana Center overlooking the koi ponds near American Savings Bank.) Tsutakawa also has an aunt who works as a writer and museum curator.

"All of my family is really creative," Tsutakawa says. "Everybody is really supportive of me."

Zana Tsutakawa works on a denim skirt.

TSUTAKAWA'S ARRIVAL in Honolulu came at just the right time. The economy was on an upswing, the local arts scene was starting to flourish and tourists were beginning to realize Hawaii was more of a hipster destination than they thought.

So she dived in headfirst, networking with night-life veterans and immersing herself in the downtown scene.

"A lot of people trip out on it," she says of the speed in which she was accepted by her peers. "They're like, 'We've lived here our whole lives -- how do you know so many people after living here for a year?'"

Tsutakawa first took a job as a personal chef for a Kahala family to earn some extra cash, but within six months she was able to quit and go into business for herself at a self-imposed wage of $20 per hour. Working out of her home, she scours local thrift shops for old clothes to transform into trendy threads that sell for $80 to $400.

"I really like the Goodwill in Kaimuki," she says while digging through a rack of finished products. "They have a lot of clothes that people have dropped off from Kahala, real high-quality stuff."

Others contribute their used items to Akane Clothing. Recently, Tsutakawa received rolls of hand-dyed kimono fabric when a friend's grandmother died.

Spending between 90 minutes and upward of 30 hours on a single garment, every design she creates is one of a kind. She has also been commissioned to make custom items, including basketball jerseys for members of the band Natural Vibrations.

Even the tags for her clothes are custom-made, each one individually numbered and signed by Tsutakawa with an accompanying Polaroid snapshot hot-glued next to it.


SPEND SOME time talking with Tsutakawa about the future of Akane Clothing, and it becomes obvious that she's torn between two types of customers.

The more lucrative prospects are those with money to spend and a desire to wear clothes that stand out in a crowd. They want to be noticed as they order a martini at the Ocean Club or slide into a VIP booth at the Hanohano Room. This type of customer also exists in greater numbers on the mainland and in other markets around the world.

Then there are the masses, lemmings in a sea of fashionistas that would jump at the chance to buy the same outfit Teri Hatcher wore during a recent episode of "Desperate Housewives."

Unfortunately, they don't have the kind of income to go out and pick up a $250 skirt or $140 shirt.

"Luxury goods have gotten just cheap enough and just mass-produced enough for regular schmucks working two jobs to buy them," Tsutakawa says. "It's so popular right now."

Both types of people buy Akane designs at North Shore Underground, Pink C. and thirtyninehotel, the three Oahu locations where her designs are currently sold. And following a visit to Paris earlier this year and an upcoming business trip to New York City, Tsutakawa realizes she needs to decide which kind of customer to pursue.

"It's gotten to the point that if I push a little bit harder and get more exposure, I have to be ready if the orders start coming in," she says. "But you know, I also have to recognize that exclusivity and the high price points are what people want.

"I'd like (Akane) to be for everybody. ... The goal is to have the $200 and $300 things but to also have more reasonably priced stuff."


IN ORDER to help get more local residents into her clothes, Tsutakawa hosts a monthly sale at thirtyninehotel with all items available at 30 percent off the regular price. This month, guest DJ Bruce Lee of Brooklyn, N.Y., will grace attendees with sick beats as they shop, and everyone who gets a hand stamp during the sale receives free entry into the Wave Waikiki the same night.

"I'm cutting stuff way down," she says. "I wouldn't want to sell clothes that I couldn't afford to buy myself."

The event is also her way of giving back to the space that's supported her creations the most.

She's been a fan of thirtyninehotel since it set up shop, and wants others to know the popular nightspot is also open during the day as a gallery.

"I like to go out and dance and have fun ... and (thirtyninehotel) is such a beautiful place to hang out," Tsutakawa said. "Also, nobody really knew that they were open.

"So I wanted to do this sale to make people go there."

Akane Clothing

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