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Jun 07, 2017

The Fabric of Life

Photos by Amos Kotomori

At a time when Fast Fashion dominates the retail market, it's inspiring to hear the success stories of designers who've continued to place a premium on the quality of their work, not the quantity.

In the Honolulu fashion scene, Amos Kotomori has written that success story. For decades, Kotomori, has proven that there's still a market for premium-quality apparel that tells a story. His shirts, scarves, and other garments are instantly recognizable and are practically becoming iconic among enthusiasts.

How would you describe your designs?

A lot of my work is based on stories that I grew up with. I'm also very interested in including symbolism into my designs when I can. As an example, growing up I heard the story of 9 Dragons. According to the legend, in our lifetime, we will all meet 9 dragons that represent different challenges that we have to overcome to grow as people. The most difficult dragon is the last dragon, because you don't see it. To me, hearing this story growing up, stuck with me so I included it in one of my men's shirts, complete with eight visible dragons. The ninth dragon, is obscured behind the collar. I have a lot of fun with my work. I like to say that wearing one of my designs is like wearing a prayer.

Looking at your latest line of men's shirts, we can see that the work feels very reflective; it's like each garment is telling a story.

I'm a survivor of cancer and major heart surgery, so I've learned to put a lot of love and feeling into my work. I love what I do. You know, a lot of people say that my shirts are lucky. They'll actually wear them in Vegas. [Laughs] As I mentioned, I like to mix in shades of myself into to my work. I travel quite a bit to Bali and Thailand for work. I'm a real believer in the idea that the more you travel, the smaller the world gets. So I take inspiration from my life and the places I've been and incorporate that into my work to create something truly unique.

You've been known to place a premium on using really high-quality fabrics.

Yes, that's true. Because of the places that I've been lucky enough to travel to, I've been exposed to some really amazing fabrics, like French linen or a double-weave silk shirt; the outside is silk and the inside is cotton. I like to use the best possible fabrics whenever possible.

As a local designer who's been a central figure in the city's design scene for years, do you believe that the fashion and creative scene in Honolulu is growing?

I worry that the fashion scene isn't growing as fast it can. Twenty to 30 years ago it felt like apparel production was huge here. But then it died, despite having a lot of talented people. But I think online marketing has helped to bring it back and has given young designers an opportunity to connect with potential customers without have to open up a brick-and-mortar store, which can be very expensive. But nothing takes the place of feeling, touching and wearing something, so I think that's important. But I do I think it's turning a corner as more young people from Hawai'i choose to pursue their passion. I would love to see an Aloha Friday-type of event. Imagine this: one day a week, we all make an effort to wear locally made clothing. It's a little thing like that could make a huge difference to a lot of local designers.

Where do you see your line and life five years from now?

In five years…who knows? Hopefully I'll continue to meet new people, see new things, and travel more. I love that South Shore Market gathers young entrepreneurs and encourages collaboration. That's one of the things I'm most looking forward to about opening up the pop-up shop. No matter what happens, I would love to support nonprofits through my work and shine a light on young designers. That's where I see my future. I've never seen myself as a one-man show; it's always a group effort. I don't think it's the time to stand alone; it's the time to support one another.

Let's talk about your upcoming pop-up shop at South Shore Market, what can we expect?

For me, organizing and opening up this pop-up shop was all about seeing what's next and also about letting go. The purpose of the pop-up is to release pieces I've had in my personal collection as well some new things that I people will really love. I'll be selling my shirts, scarves for women, and a lot of other fun pieces. In addition to working as a designer, I'm also a stylist. I'll have a rack of wardrobe that I've collected that will be available as well. I really have some great fabric that I love that I'm looking forward to showcasing and selling. The whole concept is sort of like an artist's garage. It's composed of my work and things that I've collected during my travels to Bali, Paris, and Thailand. It will be full of little things, meaningful things, and unexpected treasures. We'll be open for 10 days, from June 9 to June 18. We'll also have an opening party at New Wave Friday, with an opening blessing at 6.

What are you looking to forward most about the pop-up shop?

The whole thing. I think it's going to be a lot of fun. Some days, I'll be painting designs in the space and working. I really want it to feel like an artist's garage, a place where work happens and you can find unique things. If people come by the space and see me working, it's okay to come in and say hi and chat.

Kotomori will be opening up a namesake pop-up shop at New Wave Friday, located at South Shore Market. The shop, which will be open 10 days, from June 9 to June 18, offers patrons a chance to rub elbows with one of Hawai'i's most respected designers and peruse his personal collection. Prior to the opening, we caught up Kotomori to discuss how work, his new venture, and his thoughts on the future of design in Honolulu.

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