By Nadine Kam
I didn't know what to expect from a Nake'u Awai fashion show when I received an invitation to his 40th anniversary "E Hula Mai" event.
I'd never been to any of his shows because, strangely enough for a person who got his start as a performer on stage from Hawaii to Hollywood to New York, he never sought the limelight in his second career. Yet, just as every year, his show at Dole Cannery's Pomaika'i Ballroom was sold out.
There was a mystery bag in the center of each table, marked "Do Not Open." At the end of the music fest and parade of Hawaiian designs, Nake'u's dancer-singer-models stepped onto the ballroom floor to open the bags full of flowers and toss them into air so the flowers rained gracefully onto guests.
I happened to be sitting right in front of Neke'u so ended up being pelted with flowers, a first.
When I interviewed him a few weeks ago, he made it clear that his shows are not your typical catwalk, with models walking a straight line. Instead, they are musical extravaganzas that usually feature Broadway tunes, but this year, he presented Hawaiian music—both contemporary and ancient—that explored some of the history of Hawaii and Waikiki, celebrated the ali'i and memory of friends who have died, and explored lyrics of Hawaiian songs we take for granted.
Chalk it up to his love of theater, but he said, “Runway, to me, is boring.”
“When models come in, they always want to show me their walk. I just smile and tell them I hate that point-and-turn. They try to come off as high fashion, and island fashion is not high fashion.
"In my shows, the women play all kinds of characters who might wear the clothes. They might be a public school teacher or a hustler on Mamo Street in Hilo.”
Awai’s career as a fashion designer was a natural extension of his first career as a dancer/performer in the 1960s. He moved from Hawaii to study dance at the University of Washington, where he considered himself destined for Broadway.
“I thought I was hot stuff. My first Broadway audition, there were 250 guys, and I found out I wasn’t that hot after all.”
To add to his dilemma, he said that during that era, Broadway casting was white.
“I didn’t understand until I left New York that they never would have cast me, because I would have stood out too much as a person of color.”
He tired of New York winters, and about the time he could finally afford an electric blanket, he began making his way back West, first spending five months in Reno performing in “Hello Tokyo” with Jimmy Borges, before arriving in Hollywood during an era of television music specials hosted by performers like Don Ho, Petula Clark, Dionne Warwick, Jack Benny and Ann Miller.
“I’d audition, work, pau work. In between jobs, I’d run into everybody in the unemployment line.”
In his downtime, he learned macrame techniques from a friend, and soon his macrame belts were being sold in Beverly Hills and sought by performers ranging from The Sylvers, a family act from Watts that rivaled The Jackson Five; “West Side Story’s” George Chakiris, and Elvis Presley, who he described as a friendly guy who tried his best to fit in with his dancers. "Except when Col. Tom Parker (his manager) was around. He'd say, 'Elvis!' and he'd come to attention."
In his search for side jobs to make ends meet, Awai also worked for Bob Mackie, an illustrator-turned-designer who gained notoreity in the 1970s for the flamboyant TV costumes and red carpet ensembles he created for Cher.
“Meeting designers, I became more aware of fashion, and more choreographers wanted me to design costumes for them,” said Awai, who quickly learned what a lucrative business it could be after being paid $4,000 to create five costumes for Sammy Davis Jr.’s Las Vegas dancers.
A stage production of “Flower Drum Song” brought him back home when he was in his 30s, and his father helped him finance his first collection of fully lined holoku that he sold to Liberty House for $60 each, which the retailer marked up to $120, a luxury price at that time.
He also sold designs to Carol & Mary, another high-end retailer, only to find that this particular segment of the market needed extra coddling, which did not appeal to him.
A turning point in his progressive direction came after he created a collection with khaki fabric, only to be told by an LH buyer, “Vogue magazine says the colors for fall are rust, oatmeal and hunter green.”
“They talked like that, and I said to myself, those are not local colors. To a certain extent, you have to play the game, and I didn’t want to. I moved out of Waikiki to Kalihi, where I’ve been ever since.
"I was doing dramatic fashion that wasn’t for everybody. I wanted to do something for the local people.”
He began creating mu’umu’u, holoku, holomu’u, aloha shirts and a handful of rompers compatible with local lifestyles, using commercial fabric. But, inspired by his friend and fellow designer Allen Akina, who had also returned home following a successful career as a Hollywood hair stylist, he soon began creating his own prints on fabric. These ranged from delicate line drawings of Hawaiian women and island flora, to bold graphics utilizing such Hawaiian elements as desings rendered from the ohe kapala, or bamboo stamps.
While other designers sought media attention, Awai never went asking for stories. As director of his own life story, he said, "If it happened, it happened. I didn't need the limelight. I just liked working on things that I liked and shows I liked, for local people, which energizes me.
"I never thought about retiring. I look forward to working every day. I still get up at 5."
Nadine Kam is Style Editor and staff restaurant critic at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser; her coverage is in print on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Contact her via email at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Rebel Mouse.