By Jenny Cao-Wu

Hawaii is known for its pristine beaches, Aloha spirit, and year-round tropical weather. It’s a combination that doesn’t exist anywhere else.

It is not, however, known for being particularly fashion forward.

Sure, Hawaii is a great place to shop. Waikiki probably boasts one of the world’s highest concentration of Louis Vuitton stores per square mile and Ala Moana Shopping Center houses just about every major retailer from Forever 21 to Neiman Marcus.

But aside from major national and international brands that have a presence here, Hawaii is home to only a handful of well-known local fashion labels, most of which manufacture aloha wear.

There also seems to be fewer fashion enthusiasts here in Hawaii, at least when approximated by the number of active fashion bloggers here in the state. A Google search for “Hawaii Fashion Blog” returns about one page of legitimate fashion blogs. Compared to the hundreds of blogs that are returned when you search “New York City Fashion Blog” or “LA Fashion Blog,” we are vastly outnumbered even after accounting for the difference in population between our state and LA or New York City (1.40versus 3.88 and 8.41 million, respectively, as of 2013).

But changes are in motion.

Events like Hawaiian May and Hawaii Fashion Month give a platform for local fashion designers to show off their uniquely Hawaiian point of view not only with local fashion lovers, but with visitors from Japan and the mainland as well. Bringing in well-known outside talent to participate in these events also helps put the spotlight on the local fashion scene. They help foster more conversations about Hawaii fashion and how we can work together to collectively grow the industry.

In recent years, there have also been more designers and brands that have helped put Hawaii on the fashion map, so to speak. Ari South, a contestant on Project Runway, became known as a Hawaii based designer who could compete with the best of them in New York City. Other brands like Fighting Eel and L’tarte have a loyal following both inside and outside of Hawaii. These designers and brands help to show other people that Hawaiian fashion can also be fashion forward, diverse, and exciting.

Though we live on an island, our market is growing! Now more than ever, Hawaii has become a truly international destination. We not only have Japanese visitors, but also a growing number of visitors from other parts of Asia, Australia, the States, and the rest of the world. Social media and modern technology has also helped local fashion brands reach an even more diverse audience.

I’m optimistic about the future of the Hawaii fashion industry, but there are still many challenges. Though we love the weather here, the lack of seasons makes it difficult to design and find a market for more than just the resort wear and spring/summer seasons. Culturally, compared to somewhere like New York City or LA, we may be (understandably) more interested in the amazing beaches and plentiful outdoor activities rather than fashion. The cost of living here is very high and many folks are earning less than what they would otherwise make on the mainland, which means many people have less disposable income to spend on fashion purchases.

Furthermore, manufacturing is also a huge challenge for local designers. Getting supplies is costly thanks to high freight rates. There are relatively few manufacturing facilities and with the likes of Tori Richard and Jams World trying to manufacture more in their home state, they make it challenging for up and coming designers to get on the already limited manufacturing schedule.

So when is Hawaii going to become a fashion capital? Only time will tell!

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