Who is making noise on the runways these days? None other than Micah Kamohoalii, whose Hawaiian-inspired designs have garnered rave reviews from New York to Milan.
Micah Kamohoalii, a real Waimea boy, used to ride his horse to elementary school.
With his backpack, the budding paniolo tied his noble steed to a post near campus before heading off to class.
This mode of transportation is perfectly suited to the island of Hawaii’s northern landscape, which is lush with rolling hills, green pastures, and livestock as far as the eye can see. The air there is fresh, too, as the city sits at 2,600 feet above sea level, with the grand backdrop of Mauna Kea.
“I grew up in Waimea my whole life,” says Kamohoalii proudly. “My family is from this town, I’ve usually been telling people that for 100 generations. My family has lived here forever.”
Growing up in a town with 400 inhabitants at the time, he was taught early on what community means. Everyone looked out for each other and no one was left behind.
“The word community is ‘together’ and ‘unity,'” he shares. “We learned that we have to be like this because we don’t have other resources. There was no government money coming to us; it all drained when it hit Hilo and Kona. We had to learn to share, work together and be a family if we were ever going to achieve anything.”
When New York Fashion Week knocked and Kamohoalii didn’t have any clothes to show, he called his community and they came — like they always do.
It all started when the Honoka’a High and Intermediate School graduate, who has been creating and selling clothes through Dezigns by Kamohoalii since the early 2000s, made a pop- up store hosted “Fashion Week” to sell its items, which range from men’s and women’s clothing to pillows and coffee mugs. It was a successful, turbulent weekend, and Kamohoalii was left with nothing at the end when he received an email that he thought was too good to be true.
“I thought it was a joke, so I put it in the spam folder,” he says, laughing. “Then the next day, I was like, ‘Imagine this being real,’ so without really believing it, I texted back and said, ‘Sure, whatever.’ We set up a Zoom call, and I thought there would be (people) asking for Target and Walmart gift cards. But when they showed up, they were real New York Fashion Week executives — and you could tell they were real — and I said, “Oh, hi, give me a second,” and I straightened my hair and came back. “
Kamohoalii says the very real and not fake fashion officials saw his Telly Award-winning commercial — which showed his ‘ohana at their local heiau, on the beach and on horseback to stay true to their Waimea roots — as well as his role in it the Emmy-nominated Hawai’i Fashion Showcase, which premiered last year. They asked him if he would be interested in walking the New York runway in four weeks’ time, to which Kamohoalii of course replied with an enthusiastic yes. However, when reality set in after the call, he exclaimed, “Wait, I don’t have any clothes!”
“I told my cousin who the chief operating officer was and he said, ‘Don’t worry. I understand it.’ I thought, ‘What are you up to? You don’t sew,’” Kamohoalii recalls with a joking undertone. “He called everyone in our town and my Halau — I’m a Kumu Hula too — and said, ‘Hey, Kumu has been invited to New York Fashion Week. I need you to bring me back all the clothes you just bought from us. We have to use it and we will bring it back to you.’ Everyone got through – and that’s community for you.
“When people asked me at New York Fashion Week, ‘So how did you choose this collection?’ I couldn’t tell them I was using 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 showtime. Kamohoalii and his entourage of models, musicians and cultural figures brought local fashion to a global stage – Hawaiian style. Part of the show’s allure was Kamohoalii’s commitment to making sure the audience, filled with some of the best in the business, knew the story behind the clothes they saw in front of them.
“I tell people I’m one of the fabric creators in the world. It’s a rare breed because most people go to the store and buy the stuff,” says Kamohoalii, adding that kapa making runs deep in his family lineage. “I come from the people who made the cloth – the ones who made the materials, which were then turned into fashion. I told them I had to do that on stage because that’s the origin of what fashion week is.
“I have to explain to them what they’re going to see, so they understand what they’re going to see. I don’t want them to see Kapa and think it’s really terrible linen. I want them to know that this bark grew in my garden.”
The heartfelt commentary, along with a surprise performance from the final models, who broke out in a hula before exiting the stage, sent the crowd, who Kamohoalii says usually snaps their fingers to applaud in order not to disrupt the show, going wild .
“It sounded like a football game,” says Kamohoalii, noting that many people were moved to tears. “They were screaming and screaming and you could see people were throwing in the towel with the snap because it didn’t do justice to that.”
The showcase Kamohoalii ended up in publications such as vanity fair, Fashion, The New York Times and forbesto name a few, and soon after, European fashion week officials were on the other end.
Currently, Kamohoalii is at Milan Fashion Week, having just finished London Fashion Week and before catching the train for Paris Fashion Week.
“This has always been about my community,” he shares. “It’s about coming together, pulling our resources together and making it happen. We take emerging talent, cultural creators, and a whole range of community members as our models – and none of them fits into a box. When I had to submit my lookbook to Paris Fashion Week, her response was, ‘None of them are up to Paris Fashion Week standards.’ I thought, ‘Hmm, was that a question, a statement, or a negative or positive comment?’ I just texted back, “Yes. And that’s how we like it.”
“I showcase what Hawaii can bring to the table – and that is beauty in every shape and size. You can see all our beauty from top to bottom and all our races are mixed together. If I tried to do Paris, I would get Parisian models. I’m not trying to do Paris, I’m trying to do Hawaii in Paris.”
The shows will be different in each city, although they will all blend 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 Kapa; and Paris is all about lau hala and other finely woven items.
“I know there’s a language barrier when we meet France and Italy, but you don’t have to speak our language to understand a Hawaiian heart,” says 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 touches you.
“I hope that in these countries we at least give the impression that there is a connection between people, places, the honor of your history and respect and love for all that surrounds you. We bring Hawaiian values to the world and share our Aloha.”
In addition to the three fashion shows, Kamohoalii will also hold three concerts in each of the major cities on the grounds of “because I’m so crazy”. Featuring Amy Hānaiali’i, Kainani Kahaunaele and Jeff Peterson, the musical performances will honor the Hawaiian monarchy and their 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 the island of Hawaii for the best airstrips in the world, but no matter where life takes him, he’ll always be a proud Waimea boy – and his community will always be by his side.
Micah Kamohoalii’s vision for his brand emerged from a somewhat uncomfortable situation. During his college days, he saved all his money to buy himself a designer Aloha shirt. Feeling like the coolest person on the planet, he showed up at a party in his new clothes – only to find 10 other guys wearing the same one.
“We looked like the house band,” says Kamohoalii, laughing.
Kamohoalii learned from this experience and only releases about 60 pieces of the same style and color at a time, for a total of about 250 looks. Each print conveys Hawaiian culture in some way, with the company’s foundation being “to preserve our past and carry it forward for the future,” as Kamohoalii puts it.
“All (imprints) connect us to the origin of who we are, but it also becomes a spiritual totem for us. When we wear our lightning bolt pattern design, we understand this comes from the mountains – why don’t you feel empowered?
“We strengthen ourselves mentally, physically and spiritually by wearing clothing that is meaningful, 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.). Visit dbkamohoalii.com for more information.