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Jan 25, 2019

Kealopiko: Rooted in Place

Three friends—Ane Bakutis, Jamie Makasobe, and Hina Kneubuhl—came onto the local fashion scene in 2006 with a fresh take on Hawaiian apparel.

At a time when bright, starchy aloha shirts dominated retail racks, they noticed there were few options for comfortable and casual Hawaiian attire. Working from home, they created Kealopiko, a clothing brand with hand-made designs focusing on a more authentic Hawai'i—the plants and animals, the language and practices, the people and places, and the stories and history of these treasured islands. From selling T-shirts out of the back of a truck to opening their first brick-and-mortar location at South Shore Market, Kealopiko has made great strides by supporting their local community on Moloka'i and staying true to their values. Recently, we caught up with co-founder Ane Bakutis to talk about their unique approach to the apparel they create and their inspiring journey along the way.

What type of values and practices did you employ to set yourself apart from other Hawai'i designers when you first broke onto the scene?

We started off with strong values built upon sustainability and using environmentally friendly inks and dyes. No one was doing that at the time for Hawaiian clothing. Eco-friendly fashion was just getting started and it was just catching on in Hawai'i. Also, all of our designs tell a story and we have Hawaiian language on each design. It was a niche people were hungry for.

How did you grow from T-shirts to other types of apparel?

We were living on O'ahu when we started the brand. We always wanted to do aloha wear because it's so much a part of Hawai'i. We started making aloha shirts in 2008 using environmentally friendly dyes, and making each shirt unique. My grandfather was in the U.S. Navy when he came to Hawai'i. He went to a shop in Chinatown, picked out fabric, and had a dress made for my grandmother. Her dress was unique, one of a kind. We tried making one-of-a-kind aloha shirts, but that was difficult and time consuming, so now we make small batches of 15 aloha shirts across all the sizes with the same color and pattern, but the placement of the pattern is different, so you still get a unique shirt. We do that with all our attire now—real small batches to make it special. We make two types of clothing, a casual knit line and aloha apparel. Aloha apparel needed its own name, because we touch the same piece of fabric 15 times to make an aloha shirt. We call it All Aloha. Everything made on Moloka'i is made with all aloha.

What's your connection to the Moloka'i community?

In 2008, I moved to Moloka'i and started a family. There are not a lot of jobs on the island, so we moved our production to Moloka'i, too, which coincided perfectly with adding aloha shirts to our brand. All the dyeing and printing is done on Moloka'i. We hire on-island and keep the labor force here. It's more expensive to do production here—shipping raw materials from O'ahu to Moloka'i and then product back to O'ahu—but it's part of our value base and it's what's important to us, to support these small communities. We could do it on O'ahu, but we wouldn't have the same connection. All the people that work for us are connected to the designs and they are representing the environment and how special it is. Kealopiko was growing every year, but that growth was limited to the amount of product we could make. Moloka'i doesn't have an industrial area, not even a commercial space to rent. As a company, we decided to invest in ourselves and built a warehouse on my property on Moloka'i.

Why did you choose South Shore Market as the venue for your first brick-and-mortar boutique?

We really liked what Howard Hughes was doing with Ward Village, the fact that the new buildings had thought and meaning—the architecture and naming—that resonated with us because we do that with out products. And they're building a community based on the history of the place. It was really important to us that this place had roots and that Howard Hughes knew the roots, too. The goal at South Shore Market is to keep it local and the other shops are small local businesses like ours. That's how you grow, with your community. You're able to network and grow together.

You collaborated with Peter Merriman for his new restaurant in Ward Village. What did you work together to create?

I'm part of a sister company called Motu Living and we do interiors, soft goods and interior design for commercial and private spaces. Merriman's contacted Kealopiko originally. They saw our products and designs at the South Shore Market store and the look resonated with them. We got together with Peter Merriman. We did a few products for him and he connected with a kamakahala design, a plant only found in wet areas in the high peaks of all islands. Ka hala i ka nu'u—the hala of the highest summit. He liked that desgin so we did it for his banquet seating and we did the centerpiece for the restaurant—a photo of King Kalākaua on his birthday having a banquet for everyone.

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