Wavy: Samantha Feyen + Rance China: On being a creative in HNL

Samantha Feyen + Rance China: On being a creative in HNL

Meet: Rance China.

Couture had no curfew. Clicking the home button on his iPhone the white numbers on the screen displayed another obscenely late night/early morning. With fabric swatches littered on the ground, he reached for his mug to find only speckles of what was left of his coffee. Refreshing his news feed on Instagram no one had gotten back to him yet. Another sigh. A yawn. His eyelids were heavy but ambition is an insomniac. It was too late to go home, much to his parents continued discontent but their hissing looks when they spotted garment bags instead of law school textbooks as he walked in the door were taxing. He usually resorted to styling in the living rooms of friends or in coffee shops. These thoughts swirled amidst hoping GoodWill will have something he could use for the Honolulu Night market show in a week’s time and wondering what Coco Chanel herself would do…

Sleep finally came for Rance China; just as it had a few years ago when his inner Karl Lagerfeld first emerged in a lecture hall in Washington. He was planning on taking a quick nap in his friend’s fashion class. The standard backpack on desk and arms crossed to form a pillow was something every college student had perfected. He was studying sports medicine at the time when he traded dreams of successful rehab for his patient’s ankles for style and a plot twist ending in his own rendition of The Devil Wears Prada. 

Come fall, when the hypothetical tolling of the school bell would call students back to campus, Rance’s mother had fallen ill. He transferred home, taking classes at UH Manoa. The recent surgery on his own knee left him with a firsthand loathing for the career he had been on track to pursue so he made another change, pursuing a degree in journalism first but switching to marketing as his increased interaction with the world of fashion prompted him to do so. “That’s when I applied for Ala Moana (Magazine) and I didn’t think they would hire me as an intern because I had no experience. I didn't know anything but they took me on”, Rance said remembering.

He was first stationed behind a computer screen. Lists, emails and event planning became Manolos, Gucci and Escada as he attended his first photoshoot at a mansion in Honolulu’s Kahala district known for its wealth displayed in gated real estate alongside manicured palms. “I had to be there at five in the morning and go get them coffee and I had to steam things and pick up lunch but I was like this is so awesome”, he said breathlessly. This quotidian of luxury coated with creativity sparked a new direction for Rance’s career. As he interacted with stylists, photographers and models from New York on a particular shoot at a Waikiki mansion known as The Penthouse, the energy in the room was high-brow infectious. “That’s when I was like this is what I want to do, I want to be a stylist. I love putting it together, seeing it come to life. I don’t like just to be the stylist, I like to be the creative director as well, I see it in my head and like to implement it in anyway I can, no matter what it takes, I will do whatever it takes”, Rance said with 5th Avenue approved conviction.

Recalling the sleepless nights, odd looks from coffee shop patrons and setting multiple alarms to wake up with only a few hours of sleep, Rance China is now a name that people are starting to remember. “Some people think it’s just fun, but the nitty gritty work of it it’s not. There’s so much blood, sweat, tears behind everything that it’s just constant, constant. That’s what sets me apart, people think Hawaii is so behind but I’m trying to integrate it all,” Rance said. So whether it’s wearing a coat over a tank top and shorts, fawning over numerous, international style bloggers or staking out the newest donations at Goodwill, Rance is of a new breed and a new generation of fashion influencers who integrate the breadth of fashion with Hawaii’s aloha spirit. Hibiscus-in-the-ear not included.

Meet: Samantha Feyen.

Going to the grocery store with your father can go one of two ways, he’ll either buy you that candy bar you’re holding in your hands or he’ll tell you to put that back and mumble something about cavities. For Samantha Feyen, it wasn’t a candy bar but a disposable camera. Her father did the latter of the two options, leaving a little girl in a bind. She wanted the camera, like really wanted the camera. She looked around, up at the security camera on the ceiling pointed in the other direction and at her father looking at some pasta sauce and tucked the camera under her shirt.

As she recalls this pivotal memory at Longs, a smile quickly creeps over her warm, Thai-turned-Maui girl face. The voguish, wide-brimmed, black hat and her pursuit of a degree in fashion yielded to her upbringing in the hill tribes of Chiang-Mai where she ran around barefoot alongside water-buffalos, but only for a second. We sat in the Tea Farm cafe with her friend, stylist and creative ally, Rance China on a couch, listening to symphonic music softly crescendoing in the background. “I just ran with it,” said Sam looking out the windows, “I got into so much trouble when my dad was like, ‘where did you get that?!’, when I needed to get it developed, and I was like, ‘don’t worry about it’.” She loved the way these photos from the disposable came out. They were dreamy, as if looking through mist-shrouded eyes and soft like memories often revisited. Her love for photography began here but her pursuit of the capture didn’t begin until she began making jewelry, which for many of us, was like a right of passage into becoming a “with-it” island girl. Sam labeled it, “that weird, awkward phase where everyone had a shell bangle.”

It was her freshmen year of high-school when Sam started making jewelry. Although she now describes it as “really ghetto jewelry, man” her client base within her circle of friends began to grow. But something was still lacking and it was the photos. During a summer vacation, she worked at SUMMER PALACE??? and made enough money to buy her first DSLR camera which she too lovingly described as “ghetto”. Gathering her shell-strung jewelry and her new camera she began to stage what would be her first photoshoots. It was something that this generation is familiar with but for Sam it wasn’t just about “artsy pics” or a new Facebook profile picture. It was the emotion portrayed and the ability to capture beauty by her own standards. The photoshoots became a daily ritual with muses and locations as alms for Sam’s passion. She connected herself with a Hawaii it-girl at the time, Casey Liu, who taught her how to edit including the coveted, OG light-leaks before there was a filter for that too. “I started becoming this embodiment of this name everyone started calling me. It was my tumblr name and it wasn’t even something I gave myself. I was like, ‘samantheeyo photos?!’ Like eww, no. It just stuck and I do not regret it one bit,” Sam said.

Sam’s aesthetic is not all haku leis and girls in bikinis at sunset, though sometimes those elements do make an appearance in her photographs. She deems herself a visual honeymooner. Rance thinks her success has come because her photos are “naked”, “raw” and something everyone can feel something from. Putting her own style into words, she used the word “power”. The power of her photographs is difference in a world where there is such a thing as “Hawaii basic”. She challenges concepts by changing them. If it’s a bikini shoot, she wants weird hair, fishnets maybe, and giant shells instead of bikini tops. Her edits are darker tonally, a fuse between something New-York-esque and she never uses Photoshop. “The thing with Hawaii is that everything is so happy, beachy, sunshine— that I’m kind of glad that I get to be different. For some people I think they think that’s why I’m here and where I am today is because of that,” Sam said.

Moving to Oahu to attend university at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Sam has become a self-employed photographer, she’s the head photographer at San Lorenzo, she does PR & social media for Ava Sky and works in marketing at Geico. Though she no longer uses that “ghetto” DSLR she’s been able to carve out a place for herself in the world of photography in the islands. She’s got a thai-dragon tribal tattoo amongst others because she likes to surround herself with what she calls “Thai feeling”. But more than that it seems like she has cast herself in that role, moving towards a permanent becoming. The dragon itself lives within her photographs. Click. The shutter whirls again.

On the Creative Community in Honolulu:

Though you can still find pig parts dangling in the windows of establishments baring names like Imperial Goose and Rainbow Chopsticks or something containing the words lucky, dragon, yum yum, delight or express, Honolulu’s Chinatown district is a destination for than just cake noodle and cheap fruit. The pastime of First Friday is a monthly event that has drawn thirsty adults, young and old, ex-New Yorkers, art enthusiasts and those who were simply in need of something “different” to this scene how many years ago. Doors remained open past closing time and the sound of bass against the cool, night air played temptress to those who sought out the underground. As Chinatown became this hub, boutiques, bars, eateries, poetry slams, graffiti, skate and speciality shops now souse the dim sum air. Wallowing in each other’s creative juices they have managed to create a community when there was no such thing before.

For our generation we grew up watching this happen. We walked around at First Friday in high school not being able to get into most places past 10 because we weren’t of age, we stumbled across the pages of Contrast Magazine, paraded our newest dress from Fighting Eel around Ward Centre like it was our birthright and have watched as Kaka’ako is a carving out ofa space just for this growing community of creatives. Yet as we age into graduation from university and have to decide whether we’re going to make the move home back to the islands or stay up in the mainland because of the “opportunity” and “home is just too expensive”, our mind’s eye turns to these people, these places. For people like Sam and Rance who are at the helm of breaking into this community, they are finding that the older generation isn’t quite ready to secede the thrown. Sam said it kind of goes something like this, “it’s kind of like we’ve established ourselves, wait your turn kind of a thing. It’s like a weird, unspoken bond between starting out creative people in general. It’s like we’re kind of sitting and waiting for our turn. You don’t want to step on anyone’s toes in the industry so we can’t open our mouth much, it’s more like listen and learn and then when it’s your turn, it’s your turn.”

Change is happening so quickly on these shores. People are beginning to care about fashion either because of social media or because they’re realizing that Acacia swimsuits are a bit cuter than those sold at Wallmart. “The fashion industry in Hawaii is on a bubble, I think in a year it’s gonna explode. So many people our age are just gonna graduate or something and everyone is going to be all over it,” Rance said; which is why he’s over being cautious, why he’s spreading himself across this piece of toast like it’s all PB&J and he never spreads too thin. He’s doing everything and anything to put himself in a position where he’ll be the one that will get passed the torch. And that’s perhaps one of the negatives Rance nods his head towards. With so many creative people, trying to do similar things in such a small vicinity, it’s going to be every Hawaiian for themselves.

Sam calls this the “millennial mentality”. Our generation doesn’t want to wait it’s turn, it wants to grab the torch and run like hell. “You have to get out there. The thing about people in Hawaii is that you expect it to be served on a platter to you but you can’t expect that. You need to get to know people out of your comfort zone and make friends and start interning and working and that’s how you put your hook out there and sooner or later, after people start knowing your name you start building that reputation for yourself. That’s how it is here, if you don’t do it it’s right back into the background and no one knows about you,” Sam said stoutly.

As a team, Sam and Rance describe their creative workflow as being like the syncopated menstrual cycles of female best friends who hang out almost too much. They’re taking on the fashion industry, climbing the steps that those before them carved out of the memories of JC Penny’s and full coverage bikini bottoms. They are mapping their path as they go, leaving a trail of redefined beauty and sand from their wake. The definition of success is reinvented. The dream is their reality. So whether it’s Havaianas or Locals, remember, it matters. To be a creative is to never live a “comfortable life”, security comes in the form of creation itself and for that, there is no formula.