Styles Of The Past

All of Kira Kamamalu’s designs feature Native Hawaiian storytelling, like this dress in Pele red.

Kira Kamamalu’s original art clothing perpetuates the myths and legends of Hawai‘i’s gods and goddesses, all while adding a vintage twist.

She’s one part artist, one part storyteller, one part dynamo, and the remainder everything you could want in a talented local fashion designer. Kira Kamamalu radiates joy in art — and in life.

“Even though I’m known as a portrait artist and woodworker, I’ve always designed clothes, and this is something I’ve been working on for years,” she says of her clothing, all of which tells stories of ancient Hawai‘i. “I’ve always been into fashion; it’s a beautiful way to express yourself.”

Kamamalu, 35, was born in Hilo and comes from a family of athletes and dancers. Her parents started The Club in Kona in 1988, and were triathletes and Ironman competitors.

Kamamalu has been making clothes since her preteen years.

“I had a great childhood and was raised a lot by my great-grandmother, Grama Lee,” Kamamalu recalls. “I realize now how wonderful it was that her life wisdom was so easily able to complement my youthful exuberance. We were a great team.”

Her great-grandmother, a revered Kona matriarch, encouraged Kamamalu to sew from an early age, which resulted in plenty of mu‘umu‘u, skorts, rompers and other fashions suitable for a pre-teen. During her childhood, Kamamalu danced hula, which solidified an appreciation of her Hawaiian roots.

“In hula, you make everything yourself,” she explains. “So my fashion line today evolved from my hula background, with a contemporary twist. Things should always evolve, but I wanted to give a nod to my cultural background while holding on to tradition — and add style.”

In Kamamalu’s garments, she lets the fabrics tell the story. Reading like a storyboard from left to right, each piece tells of one of three great Hawaiian legends: Pele settling in Hawai‘i; Maui’s hook from heaven; and the legendary Hāloa, the kalo sprout who became the first Hawaiian.

In the story of Pele’s arrival, according to Kamamalu, Pele sets out from Tahiti to find a new home, and with her shark brother, Kamohoali‘i, journeys with her youngest sister Hi‘iakaikapoliopele protected in an egg. Upon finding the Hawaiian Islands, Pele digs with her ‘ō‘ō (digging stick) into each of the islands. Traveling through the chain, she finally makes her home in Kīlauea Crater on Hawai‘i Island.

The vibrant color combination of red and yellow on Kamamalu’s Pele design supports that famous legend.

Kira Kamamalu’s creations come in various colors like Hāloa yellow

The same homage to storytelling history is evident in her Maui designs, in which hues of blue and white echo the water and sky elements of the fable. For Hāloa’s myth, a mix of organic greens, yellows and pinks help communicate that earthy narrative.

Fascinated by styles of the past, Kamamalu creates her own versions of the classics, including swing, bustier and pencil dresses. She says she is influenced by her mom, Marlina, who collects vintage fashions.

“My mom and I love really nice fabrics and clothing that are well-made and can last forever,” Kamamalu says. “This is the way they used to do it. We love flattering, feminine designs that give women their waists back. It’s what I strive for in my clothing line.”

In addition, Kamamalu has added men’s longand short-sleeved aloha shirts from the same fabrics.

Kamamalu’s mom Marlina models the wedding dress her daughter custom made.

She begins the concepts for all of her fabrics the “old school” way — with watercolor on paper. Then, she takes a digital photo of the illustrations and sends these off to her manufacturer, where a sample is created. Once approved, the fabrics are created in both cotton and rayon, and she sews a prototype, which is then sent to the manufacturer in Thailand.

Her line has been selling well at Kona Rock & Mineral (the former Flamingo’s) and Hana Hou in Hilo (owned by Sig Zane’s sister), as well as at Kaua‘i Museum in Līhu‘e and Hula Girl in Kapa‘a.

“I knew nothing about the process of creating a clothing line, but now I’ve got it all down to a science,” Kamamalu says with a laugh. “It took a long time to do it, and there were a lot of growing pains. So it’s been really fun and rewarding to see it evolve. My niche is so local. I love local!”

Kamamalu was originally on track to go into veterinary medicine, having graduated with a pre-med degree from University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, which she attended on a full athletic scholarship. But after graduation, she opted for a short stay in Europe, where she fell in love with art and painting, and decided to drop medicine and become an artist.

She believes, however, that both her studies in anatomy and her aptitude for athletics helped her become a stronger, more competent portrait artist.

She cites kumu hula Etua Lopes and her hālau as huge influences in her life and art. She also credits art mentors Edwin Kayton and Verna Keoho of Kona with encouraging her in her artistic pursuits.

Speaking of Kona, Kamamalu recently held a fashion show on the Kailua-Kona seawall, right in front of Gertrude’s (which her mom owns).

“It is the best catwalk on the globe,” Kamamalu exclaims of the venerable wall. “I was hoping all the everyday elements of Kona would be present as the models walked, such as sea-spray, the fishermen casting their lines and kids swimming.”

One of her proudest creations is her mother’s wedding dress, designed for her recent summer nuptials.

“In thinking of how I would design this,” Kamamalu remembers, “I marinated on it for a while and then thought, I should make it for her fiance, Greg (Shirley), who is a musician and my mom’s business partner in Gertrude’s. What would Greg like to see her in? And I went from there.”

So, she created the champagne pink gown with a one-shoulder strap because Shirley is into tango.

Adding a flattering line, Kamamalu fashioned a low front hem with a train and cross-body with flowers and purple orchids.

“I wanted the look of flowers thrown on the ground after the bride, so the train carried petals,” Kamamalu adds.

She then topped the bride’s classic look off with a sweet “fascinator,” a small vintage-style hat that is worn at a tilt. It was the ultimate tribute to her mom, whom she describes as the “coolest woman ever.”

“In a way, my fashions are a continuing tribute to my great-grandmother,”says Kamamalu. “When I wanted to create something, she always asked me, ‘What story are you telling?’ So I was raised that way. Through the art on my fabrics, I can perpetuate stories and build on tradition.”

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