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Cult Couture

Lan Chung (left) and Rona Bennett of Fighting Eel

Lan Chung (left) and Rona Bennett of Fighting Eel

That’s what local designers Lan Chung and Rona Bennett created with the mysteriously named Fighting Eel brand. They’ve added other lines over the years, including two for kids, and now they’re introducing a can’t-miss fitness line

They say when one door closes, another opens. So could be the start to the story of Fighting Eel, the ultra-popular local fashion brand with a cult following, four retail stores and an online shop, as well as an ever-expanding collection of lines, including Fighting Eel, Ava Sky, Mini Eel, Mini Ava Sky, Rola (a fine jewelry line that debuted last November) and Ava Sky Fit (a new activewear line launching this week).

Fighting Eel made its debut in 2003, the same year that French fashion boutique Agnes B. closed its Ala Moana store, where Fighting Eel designers Lan Chung was store manager and Rona Bennett was a sales associate.

Chung and Bennett, who also were roommates at the time living in Pacific Heights, already were in the early stages of starting their own brand. So, when they learned they soon would be unemployed, they decided to go full force with their fashion line.

“We just had to learn as we went,” recalls Bennett. “We had no experience in production. We used our savings, but we always put the money back and built it.”

The two recall the early days when they did everything themselves — from cutting to sewing, tagging and packing, handwriting invoices and delivering, working countless hours and enduring all types of manual labor.

Their first collection featured a variety of appliqu├ęd tops, followed by simple elastic-waist palazzo pants and matching Modal jersey fabric blazers, tube dresses and even hair barrettes.

But as an unknown label at the time, it was difficult to get the attention of buyers. Stores weren’t interested, until finally a few local boutiques took a chance on them, including Rafael Ala Moana and North Shore Underground.

“After that first collection, we were, like, we can do this, and we did another collection,” says Bennett. “But instead of trying to produce everything first (like they did before), we actually made samples and went to showrooms in L.A., and we found a showroom that took us and they were the first one to get us accounts.”

Their designs became known for simplicity, comfort and versatility — pieces that you can dress up or dress down, wear day or night, to work or play, and with high heels or slippers. They’re practical, easy-to-wear fashions, and they make you look good too.

Then came every designer’s dream — photographs of celebrities wearing their creations. The first was Mariah Carey. “That happened toward the beginning

when we first started, it was exciting,” recalls Chung. “(Mariah was pictured) with a jumper we weren’t sure about, and then she wore it and we were, like, I guess people like it. After that, people just started calling.”

Other A-list celebrities spotted in Fighting Eel early on include Eva Longoria, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Hayden Panettiere and Kristin Cavallari. More recently, Rihanna was seen wearing an Ava Sky romper during a trip to Hawaii last year, and actresses Rachel McAdams and Emma Stone shopped at the Fighting Eel flagship downtown store in 2013 during filming of Aloha.

At one point, Fighting Eel was in 200-plus stores nationwide, including iconic New York retail chains Barneys, Intermix and Searle, as well as in Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom.

Then, in 2010, they opened their own store at 1133 Bethel St. (across from Hawaii Theatre). And a couple of years later, they pulled out of wholesaling completely. Since then, they’ve added stores in Kailua (629 Kailua Road, next to Whole Foods), in Waikiki at Royal Hawaiian Center and in Kahala Mall, and, in the process, growing their staff of three to about 45.

“I think wholesale is not that exciting or fun or profitable,” explains Bennett. “It’s a lot of stress for not always a good profit, and there are so many other factors involved, where every time we open a store, we can grow our customer base locally.

“It kind of has a local cult following. The people who are really into it are really into it, even their kids are getting into it, and they’re into Ava Sky now and their kids are into Ava Sky. We’re very fortunate we have a very loyal fanbase, and I think it’s because we design for our customers. That’s our inspiration. We try to make things that sell, that people want.”

Fighting Eel, which is manufactured in Hawaii and now is designed by Bennett, is available only at Fighting Eel stores and online at fightingeel.com. In addition to women’s clothing, Fighting Eel makes T-shirts, tote bags, hats, towels, cell phone cases and other accessories, plus a signature perfume.

Its sister line Ava Sky, which was introduced in 2012 and is manufactured in Bali, is designed by Chung and named after her 6-year-old daughter Ava. It features an easy-to-wear style similar to Fighting Eel, but with more of a vacation vibe, and a mix of fabrics. Ava Sky is available at Fighting Eel stores, online and in some boutiques on the North Shore, Neighbor Islands and on the Mainland.

“It’s a good complement; you can wear all the pieces together and there are some crossover pieces that people really like, so we just make it in both lines,” notes Bennett.

A few years ago, they also added Mini Eel and Mini Ava Sky, offering matching looks for girls age 2 to 10.

Chung, a 1991 graduate of McKinley High School, has a fashion design and merchandising degree from University of Hawaii at Manoa. Bennett, a 1992 graduate of Roosevelt High, studied photography and earned a degree in art from UH-Manoa. The two first met in second grade at Jefferson Elementary School, and reconnected as adults.

Both worked in retail for about 12 years — Chung at HIC, Esprit and Agnes B.; Bennett, who also was a tutor, at Benetton and Agnes B.

Chung admits that, as a young girl, she never dreamed of becoming a designer. Instead, she had thoughts of working for a fashion magazine.

Bennett, meanwhile, wrote a letter to Calvin Klein when she was in sixth grade, telling him that she wanted to be a fashion designer.

“He wrote back to me and said I should go to FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology), and sent me photos of his collections, his bio, his portrait and information about going to FIT,” she says.

Throughout their journey, Chung and Bennett also have grown personally. Chung became a mom with husband Donovan Agor, who is director of construction and facilities for Na Hoku. Bennett married her longtime boyfriend Jeremy Bennett, who works in IT.

In their free time, they both enjoy yoga, and, yes, after 12 years of doing business together, they still are friends.

“We have the same goals,” says Bennett, who also likes to surf. “We usually think the same too. So, if there’s a problem, we come up with similar solutions. Also, we’re pretty even keel personality-wise.

“We just do what’s right for the business. Sometimes we try stuff and it doesn’t work, and we’re just, like, OK. I think a lot of times people get so attached to certain ideas and if it doesn’t work out, they take it personally.

For us, we’re just, like, that didn’t work out, let’s just move to the next thing.”

“Also, there’s no ego,” adds Chung. “We work well together, and we don’t let things bother us too much.”

And while they’re constantly creating new designs to share with the world, there’s one thing they won’t reveal: the meaning of the name Fighting Eel.

“It’s our secret,” says Bennett. “They can guess what they want to.”