Who’s making noise on the tracks these days? None other than Micah Kamohoalii, whose Hawaiian-style designs are garnering rave reviews from New York to Milan.
A true Waimea boy, Micah Kamohoalii rode his horse to elementary school.
With his backpack on, the paniolo in preparation would tie his noble horse to a post near the campus before heading to class.
This mode of transportation is perfectly suited to the northern countryside of Hawai’i Island, which is full of rolling hills, green pastures and cattle as far as the eye can see. The air there is also lively, as the town is located at 2,600 meters above sea level, set against the majestic backdrop of Mauna Kea.
“I grew up in Waimea my whole life,” Kamohoalii says proudly. “My family has come from this town, I usually tell people, for the last 100 generations. My family has been here forever.”
Growing up in a town with a population of 400 at the time taught him the meaning of community from an early age. Everyone took care of each other and no one was left behind.
“The word community is ‘common’ and ‘togetherness,'” he shares. “We learned that we have to be like this because we have no other resources. There was no government money brought to us; it was all over by the time it hit Hilo and Kona. We had to learn how to share, work together and be a family unit if we ever wanted to get anywhere.”
So when New York Fashion Week came knocking and Kamohoalii had no clothes to show, he reached out to his community and they came—as they always do.
It all started when the Honoka’a Middle and High School graduate, who has been designing and selling clothing through Dezigns by Kamohoalii since the early 2000s, held a pop-up shop during Merrie Monarch, a week-long cultural festival that he calls it “Hawai’s Fashion Week,” to sell his wares ranging from men’s and women’s clothing to pillows and coffee mugs. It was a successful, whirlwind weekend, and Kamohoali had nothing left by the end of it, when he received an email he thought was too good to be true.
“I thought it was a hoax, so I put it in the spam folder,” he says with a laugh. “Then the next day, I said, ‘Imagine if that was true,’ so I wrote back, not really believing it, saying, ‘Sure, whatever. We set up a Zoom call and here I was thinking (people) were going to ask for Target and Walmart gift cards. But when they came in, they were real executives from New York Fashion Week—and you could tell they were the real deal—and I said, ‘Oh, hi, give me a second,’ and I did my hair and went back. “
Kamohoalii says very real, not fake fashion officials saw his Telly Award-winning ad – which featured his ‘ohana in their local kingdom, on the beach and on horseback, staying true to their Waimea roots — as well as his part in the Emmy-nominated Hawai’i Fashion Showcase that premiered last year. They asked him if he was interested in strutting his stuff on the New York catwalk in four weeks, to which Kamohoalii, of course, responded with an enthusiastic yes. Although, when reality set in after the phone call, he yelled, “Wait, I’ve got no clothes!”
“I told my cousin who is the chief operating officer and he said: Don’t worry. I understood.’ I said, ‘What are you going to do? You don’t sew,” Kamohoalii recalls in a joking tone. “He called everyone in our town and my aunt — I’m a kumu hula too — and said, ‘Hey, kumu got invited to New York Fashion Week.’ I need you to return all the clothes you just bought from us. We have to use it and we will give it back to you.’ Everyone came – and this is the community for you.
“At New York Fashion Week, when people asked me, ‘So how did you choose this collection?’ I couldn’t tell them I used everything I could get my hands on,” he says with his ever-present smile.
After a month of planning, fundraising and rehearsals, it was finally show time. Kamohoalii and his company of models, musical performers and cultural practitioners brought local fashion to a global stage – Hawaiian style. Part of the allure of the show was Kamohoalii’s commitment to ensuring that the audience, which was filled with some of the industry’s finest, knew the story behind the garments they were seeing before them.
“I tell people that I am part of the cloth makers of the world. This is a rare breed because most people go to the shop and buy the fabric,” says Kamohoalii, adding that kapa making runs deep in his family background. “I come from the people who fabricated the fabric – the people who made the materials that then became fashionable. I told them that I had to be able to present this on stage because this is the origin of what Fashion Week is.
“I have to explain what they’re going to see so they understand what they’re going to see. I don’t want them to see caps and think it’s really terrible freedom. I want them to know that this bark grew in my yard.”
The heartfelt comment, along with a surprise performance from the latest models who broke into a hula before leaving the stage, sent the crowd, which Kamohoalii says usually snaps its fingers to clap to avoid disrupting the show, going wild. . .
“It looked like a football game,” says Kamohoalii, noting that many people were moved to tears. “They were yelling and screaming and you could tell people threw in the towel with the hit because it wasn’t doing him justice.”
The showcase landed Kamohoali in publications such as Vanity Fair, Vogue, New York Times AND Forbesto name a few, and soon after, officials from European fashion weeks were on the other line.
Kamohoalii is currently at Milan Fashion Week, having just finished London Fashion Week and before taking the train to finish Paris Fashion Week.
“It’s always been about my community,” he shares. “It’s about coming together, pulling our resources together and making it happen. We’re taking aspiring talent, cultural practitioners and a variety of community members as role models – and none of them fit the mold. When I had to submit my lookbook to Paris Fashion Week, their response was, “None of them are up to Paris Fashion Week standards.” I was like, ‘Hmm, was that a question, a statement, or a negative or positive remark?’ All I wrote was: ‘Yes. And that’s the way we like it.’
“I’m showing what Hawai’i can bring to the table — and that’s beauty in all shapes and sizes. You can see all our beauty from top to bottom and all our races are mixed together. If I were to try to do Paris, I would take models from Paris. I’m not trying to do Paris, I’m trying to do Hawai’i in Paris.”
The shows will be different in each city, though all will combine the traditional with the modern. In London, Kamohoalii pays homage to the feathers worn by Hawaiian royalty; in Milan, he will demonstrate the creation of kappa; and in Paris, it’s all about lau hala and other items that are finely woven.
“I know there’s a language barrier when we hit France and Italy, but you don’t have to speak our language to understand a Hawaiian heart,” shares Kamohoalii. “Our culture is so moving; it’s the drumbeat, it’s emotional. You don’t have to speak the same language to know that something is powerful and for it to touch you.
“I hope to at least leave the impression on these countries that there is a connection between people, place, honoring your history and having respect and love for everything around you. We are teaching the world Hawaiian values and sharing our aloha.”
Along with the three fashion shows, Kamohoalii will hold three more concerts in each of the major cities with his reason being simply “because I’m crazy like that”. Featuring Amy Hānaiali’i, Kainani Kahaunaele and Jeff Peterson, the musical performances will honor the Hawaiian monarchy and its time spent in Europe.
Kamohoalii has come a long way – literally and metaphorically – from the small town he loves so much. He may have temporarily traded the country roads of Hawai’i Island for the major tracks of the world, but no matter where life takes him, he’ll always be a proud Waimea boy — and his community will be by his side.
Micah Kamohoalii’s vision for his brand was born out of a bit of an awkward situation. During his college years, he saved all his money to buy a designer aloha shirt. Feeling like the coolest person on the planet, he turned up at a party wearing his new outfit – only to find 10 other guys wearing the same thing.
“We looked like the house gang,” says Kamohoalii with a laugh.
Learning from that experience, Kamohoalii only releases about 60 pieces of the same style and color at a time, with about 250 looks in total. Each press channels Hawaiian culture in some way, with the company’s foundation being “preserving our past and perpetuating it for the future,” to hear Kamohoalii put it.
“All (the prints) connect us to the origin of who we are, but it also becomes a spiritual totem for us. When we wear our lightning bolt design, we realize it comes from the mountains – how can you not feel empowered?
“We are empowering ourselves spiritually, physically and mentally by wearing clothing that is meaningful and purposeful and empowers us throughout the day. We wear clothes that tell our story and tell our story.”
Dezigns by Kamohoalii has locations at Pearlridge Center (98-1005 Moanalua Road) and Windward Mall (46-056 Kamehameha Hwy.). For more information, visit dbkamohoalii.com.