Manaola Hawaii: Beyond the Runway
Homesickness has a way of settling in first thing in the morning when eyelids flutter and one notices that the sunlight fractures just slightly differently because he or she is not waking up under the guise of familiarity. For Carrington Manaola Yap, that guise was pegged by the mountain; the mauna, Mauna Kea, which he could see from his front door and during this time of year appeared snow-capped. The croaking of koki frogs betwixt a Hilo town proper, morning shower would signal that it was time to rise.
Now, upon waking, the dins of “ko-kee, ko-kee” yielded to the sounds of car engines rumbling to life from his new bedroom in Moanalua following a recent move, even before his alarm threw its daily tantrum. Though instinct might’ve told him to bury his face deeper into his pillow and pull the blankets just a little bit tighter making sure all ten toes were capped, the horrors of morning traffic in Honolulu were recollected. The commute itself was the new caffeine. Yap’s drive to Ala Moana Shopping Center where his storefront, Hula Lehua, was located proved to be cause enough to shed a few tears while Adele’s “Hello” played on the radio for the fourth time on any given morning.
Yet Yap’s doubts manifested as mental quicksand, lurking in the quiet moments in-between jogs around the neighborhood and standing in line for coffee. Feeling like he didn’t belong here was the exact reasons he needed to be here. “In my head I’m always talking like, ‘what’re you thinking? Are you serious?’ We’re in a building that is so commercialized; we’re in Ala Moana Center, there’s not much local business here and we’re actually making it happen. That, to me, is just a trip,” he said from the sofa situated in the middle of his five-and-dime. Yap’s face was kind but within the furrows of his brow beneath his black fedora, resided an inner strength. When he spoke, his words were lined with ancestral memory.
First and foremost, Yap is a steward of the Hawaiian culture. Secondly, he is a fashion designer who seeks to dress not our bodies, but our spirits. As a descendant of the revered, musically inclined and cultural arts oriented Lim family of Kohala, he grew up in the world of hula. He learned how to dance through life instead of simply shlepping to Starbucks for revival. His hands became adept to the art of textiles, his mind was keen to appreciating life in the islands, its living history and the regality of all forms of life from ferns to the lava flows signaling the presence of the Hawaiian goddess of fire, Pele. He was constantly creating. Immersed in the culture, Yap was thus able to see which aspects remained vibrant and which were seemingly stagnant. “It was a wake up call for me to be more proactive in really enlightening the rest of the world about a culture that has so much to offer the fashion world,” Yap said. Purpose adorned, he and his family found that between the hours of one to three in the morning were when there was the least “thinking in the air”, a magical window of time imbued with the promise of creative genesis. And so it was.
“Hawaii’s only premier Hawaiian underwear line” was Yap’s first collection and a grappling into the world of fashion, move over Victoria(’s Secret). Released in 2014, each beautifully risqué male-part coverage was made in limited quantities, 100 in each batch, selling for $40 a piece. “Why did I choose underwear?” he began, adjusting his fedora. “Pre-contact, Hawaii was very open to sexuality. Why? Sexuality created life and if you go back to the 1800’s where you have a lot of influence with religion with all those things with Hawaii and our fashion— in covering up exposed breasts and this and that. Before all that, they celebrated the beauty of men and women,” he said; and this is what Yap had set out to do again, to celebrate the Hawaii of old, when we had our own fashions sans the influence of the outside world. With corset-inducing European ideologies imposed on the people, the style of dress in the islands developed to range from malo’s to mu’u mu’u’s. “We kind of just got stuck there,” Yap said matter-of-factly, “and I was like if I’m going to do fashion, I’m going to do something that’s never been done before.”
The underwear line was coveted. Yap’s progression as a designer was inevitable and he moved into doing a full fashion line. Yet the trajectory for Yap didn’t follow Vogue’s standards simply because what was brewing smelt nothing like Chanel number five. Though he’s had a few runway shows and debuted the “Hawaiian stiletto”, for Yap, this was more about taking ownership of Hawaiian fashion from the likes of Tommy Bahama’s stiff shakas in a way that re-defined what it meant to be “Hawaiian” entirely.
Yet, Yap never wanted to start a fashion line. “My friends will tell you, I never thought that I would even like making a line like this, having things on racks and stuff. I was very like ‘no’, I’m a making it myself kind of person. The whole point was that I didn’t want to lose the spirituality and integrity of the designs I created and was afraid of that happening,” he said. And there that word is, “spirituality”, situated in the same context as hemlines and mascara. This for Yap, paired with the concept of “living pono” or with right intention, are the pillars on which this Hawaiian atelier leans. Manaola when translated from Hawaiian to English means “life-force”. Yap spoke of an inner spiritual power within each of us which grows as we age. His designs for this body, the ethereal body as we “dress ourselves a temple.” “Manaola Hawaii takes back the concept of our bodies and believing in the cultural aspect of a’ahu which is the traditional word for fashion in Hawaiian. Besides meaning “garment”, it means altar and we are trying to share that with the fashion industry and take us back to a more organic, spiritual path,” Yap said with vivre.
Hand carving all of his nature-inspired designs onto bamboo laths in the ‘ohe kapala method, Yap fashions a web of “sacred geometry”. For him, screen printing never seemed like an option. His work space is littered with wood carvings, butchered fabric scraps and manifestations of visionary residue, almost as it would be in old Hawaii. Yap spoke of the significance of the prints to be a means to balance a person, to set an intention into their day to day. “If somebody was a little edgy, maybe you could soften that person so the kapa would be decorated in a soft way, maybe the shapes could be rounded,” he said. But why does the unconventionality of any of this matter to the fashion world, let alone you and me?
Yap’s story, his dedication to his vision are an ode to what it means to be an entrepreneur today. While his designs speak for themselves in a language of striking color ways and intricate patterns forged from the interpretations of Hawaiian legends and the paradise that is our backyard, Yap’s inner realities of the latter mentioned homesickness (which is now beginning to fade) and a giving himself over to the company are in turn reflected with each stitch. The concepts of organicness, spirituality and right intention are what Yap needs in his own life and are also what society today needs in his opinion.
Hawaii Business has named him one of the “20 People to Watch” next month and these successes are attributed to his character. Here is a man who is successful because of who he is and his willingness to sacrifice his own happiness per say in order to be in a position to really impact Hawaii fashion at the heart of its capital at Ala Moana Center. “Why do I need to be here? Because this place (Honolulu) needs healing. It needs art,” Yap said. And though the healing he’s bringing is currently through fashion, it’s rooted elsewhere, it’s rooted in the culture of Hawaii. Yap plans on expanding into nightclubs, music, a modeling agency and the restaurant industry; and he’s going to be able to because Manaola Hawaii isn’t about fashion, it’s about the execution of a creative vision that became applicable to all walks of life.