The removal of his baseball cap conceded to a strip of bleached blonde hair down the middle of his scalp where I expected to see the invariability of black. He was Asian, first name, Jason, last name, Takahashi — which was more common than exotic, at least in the bubble of isolation shrouded by palm trees that we called home. Most know him as JT and he grew up like any of us from Hawaii would, sun-kissed and exposed to nothing more than UV rays in a vacuum of cultural diversity. Leaving the rock at 18 to attend university in Oregon sparked a lot of movement thereafter. A few months in Japan here, a few weeks in LA there and back to Hawaii in speckled spurts when comfort beckoned. Beers, art, music and engagement in things both imaginable and suspect to credence made up much of his 20s. He is older now and while many would call living in Hawaii a luxury, for JT, returning to this place time and time again from foreign shores only results in disappointment despite the promise of paradise.
“My friend always tells me like, ‘yo if you didn’t travel so much you wouldn’t be so disgruntled with being here.’ Once you start traveling and see what else is out there, that’s where you start to realize one of two things, Hawaii is a beautiful place, which I don’t disagree with, but you also realize how much we lack here. How much of everything here goes by ‘ignorance is bliss’. You take the bad with the good, with that paradise comes that isolated mentality and the culture’s built around this defense mechanism, defense from the unknown,” he said as we chatted in a coffee shop on a balmy night in October. With tourism as Hawaii’s biggest industry, the rest of the world and locals alike are spoon fed images of what this place should be like, feel like and look like. Trolleys take the form of colorful whales, you can take hula lessons in the courtyard at the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center and the cliches here are not cliches, they are aspirations. “Because they [the government] has nothing else to push, for a lack of a better option, they’re gonna push tourism, you can’t push creativity here. But why force Hawaii first and then prove why? Instead they need to push the cool things going on — or I don’t know, just something new,” JT said. Although majority of its residents are of mixed race, the stifling mold of the latter creates a regimented sense of self for people to grow into, making for a new sense of “lack of diversity”.
As the founder, owner and designer of three-year old streetwear brand and concept store, Vizume, JT has found his efforts to bring something new to the cultural fabric and scape of Hawaiian vogue to be an experiment in vindication. Vizume stands for “visual maintenance” but with a Japanese twist on the pronunciation and spelling. The concept store in the heart of Honolulu is barren of preconceived concepts of aloha. In its place are white walls, industrial grade racks and a living, plant wall that provides fresh air when foot traffic doesn’t open the door. The products are minimalistic, clean, hats and tee’s with rococo V’s on them, oversized hoodies done right, Drake with a clean-shave-esque jerseys, ashtrays and even beanies. The merchandise isn’t catered to humid days and hotter, Hawaiian nights, the product is concerned only with wrinkle-free and 24-carat panache. Putting his hat back on JT began again, “you know honestly, we’ve never concerned ourselves with Hawaii per se and I don’t mean that in a negative way. We just didn’t identify with how the local brands do [things], where it’s gotta be ‘something something Hawaii.’ That’s another hard point that we’ve always felt strongly about is that, it’s not ‘supporting Hawaii’ if you’re shoving Hawaii down people’s throats because then small-man-syndrome is automatic. I think thinking outside the box doesn’t mean not supporting Hawaii — in fact, I think the people that think outside the box are the people supporting Hawaii the most. The sad part is whether that effort will show a result in Hawaii. I personally don’t think it will come around.”
Breaking Hawaii down into unbiased terms can be quite challenging if you’re a person in the creative field trying to do anything more than tan your bum while managing to look good doing it. There is a certain close-mindedness and a fear of being different that renders individuality a rarity rather than a norm. The community is so closely knit together in a fragile web of relationships and the power of word of mouth ensures a certain kind of homogeneity orchestrated to contain “aloha” rather than to entertain the idea of progression. “This is a super generalization but the majority of the eyes that look are eyes of disdain for the person that sticks out,” said JT. With that being said it’s also significant to note that what JT is doing in term of aesthetic with the gothic-letters spelling out, “I feel like flying,” a play on Kanye of course, wouldn’t be considered avant-garde to the hypebeasts worldwide whose walk-in closets keep the kind of staples sold at Vizume on blast. “Our aesthetics are similar to everybody’s, I don’t think we stick out much [elsewhere] and in Hawaii, we get the negative end of the stick because we stick out. It’s never been unenjoyable experience to be the unique outcast in a place run by aggression and animosity,” he said.
But JT keeps designing, traveling, collaborating, bringing in uptown talent, hosting events and submersing himself in a culture of his own genesis. Although he perhaps is realizing that much of the older generations here are stuck in a rut of cultural complacency, he is finding that the young minds of Gen-Z are his new desired demographic. “I think small town mentality does play a big role in it because that inevitably breaks down to culture,” JT explained. That small town mentality which many mistake or consider to be manifest “aloha”, is what makes the culture here so unique. We often don’t associate life here to be similar to life in a rural town in middle-America but in a lot of ways the two are akin, one is just marketed in a more appealing way. JT explained, “Hawaii does a fine job in letting the world know that this is the ‘aloha state’, but with every individual who steps out of state and pushes aloha this, aloha that, in everyone’s face, then you kind of gotta wonder is it coming from a point of pride or is it coming from a self-esteem complex? Because you are the different guy and you automatically assume in yourself that you’re a lesser of a person which is hard because this is the culture this place breeds.”
While he would never call himself a martyr, stating that, “everyone that knows me knows that I never really gave a shit about doing something ‘for Hawaii’,” JT and Vizume through its existence, are creating a space for the existence of a cross-genre culture to exist. Gen-Z is a generation growing up on the Internet, JT describes them to have “fresh minds, they’re untainted buy the mentality out here per se so that generation is open to see the world.” For that reason, JT calls it “worth it” to keep Vizume in business even though he recently just had to pick up a day-job to support the venture. “I don’t know if I’m more excited for [these kids] as I am proud of them; like proud to see the fact that yo, these kids are here,” he said. For the existence of culture does not always rely on history, it does not live solely in textbooks. JT is instead finding Culture to be an ever-evolving reflection of the present, for it ultimately depends on what role you choose to play in the shaping of the latter — in the fashion world, it’s never been about fitting or breaking the mold, but instead it is to create your own.