Journey Through Fashion
Manaola Yap has a remarkable way of weaving a narrative of Hawai‘i’s history and culture in every piece of clothing he designs.
In the history of Hawaiian fashion design, perhaps no one has catapulted to success as quickly as Carrington Manaola Yap, designer and founder of culture-conscious Manaola Hawai‘i.
In four years, Yap, 31, went from shocking the crowd with a line of men’s underwear at his first MAMo Wearable Arts Show to selling out during his first Merrie Monarch Festival pop-up shop in Hilo. In that timeframe, he also opened his own storefront location in Ala Moana Center, Hula Lehua, and in 2017, presented his designs at a coveted solo show during New York Fashion Week.
It has been a whirlwind of prepping for special projects and pop-up shops, dressing celebs for red carpet events and concerts, and showcasing the Manaola Hawai‘i brand worldwide — all while keeping up with demand here at home.
Yap says he is “bringing spirituality back to fashion,” inspired by Hawaiian mythology, culture and the topography of the land.
For Yap, whose mother, Nani Lim Yap, is part of a family of award-winning musicians and kumu hula of Hālau Manaola, his formative years revolved around hula.
“When I got home from school every day, it was hula — whether it was making costumes or practicing for a show. If you’re not culturally rooted, it’s hard to touch what’s sacred. But for us, it’s a part of our lineage,” he explains.
The Manaola Hawai‘i brand is based on balance, adds Yap. “We look at repetitious patterns in nature and synchronicity in design. We look at balancing the positive and negative, ku and hina.”
The brand’s label is ‘uwila, the lightning bolt, which is directly associated with his birthplace: the Big Island.
“Lightning has always been a symbol of strength and power and life force,” says Yap. “But it’s also the protection print — something that protects our spirit and the energy we hold. It’s also the strength of our ancestors, reminding us that they’re watching over us.”
All 12 of Yap’s original prints were inspired by the Big Island, places that he says are storied, and that he still goes to for inspiration. ‘Āko‘ako‘a, the coral print, resembles the coral flats outside of Kawaihae Harbor. And Niho Ku, a pattern of triangles, is reminiscent of the jagged rock along the Kohala coast.
“People always ask you what’s your ‘why,’ and my ‘why’ is storytelling,” says Yap. “Hula and our culture is based on storytelling because everything was passed down orally through mythology and legends. Growing up in all of that, I wanted to figure out how I could take what I love and express it in a different way. Fashion was that outlet for me.”
Yap, it seems, can’t stop creating. “There are so many layers to how I design something,” he explains. “I could sit anywhere … in a café or at the top of a mountain on a hike and inspiration will come flying in. I can never turn it off.”
What most people don’t know, he says, is while one designer fashion show might feature 12-15 looks on average, Yap can have more than quadruple that number at the ready.
“Our first show was 60-something looks because I’m not interested in the industry standard; I’m focused on telling the story,” he says. “In New York, I had more than 90 couture looks. I did edit it down, but all of those pieces are from me not being able to shut my creativity off.”
Yap’s mother is the only one, he says, who can reel him in.
“She will literally tell me, ‘You have to stop because you’re driving everybody nuts. To you, it’s not enough, but it’s already beyond.’ My mom plays a big role in my design process,” he says.
New York Fashion Week was exhilarating, Yap recalls.
“It was an intense moment for me to see for the first time our culture put on a platform in an industry that is so commercialized, and to be able to come from an authentic place, and to see these people be moved by it all, that was crazy,” he says. “These fashion critics come in with an attitude because they are watching shows all day for weeks. But when they came to our show, they left in tears.”
After fashion week, life for Yap hasn’t stood still for a moment. He and his team, which includes his parents, sister Asia and company CEO Zachary Pang, continue to educate others about Hawaiian culture through design across the globe, although some of their most important work is happening here at home.
Last year, they started the Hale Kua Project, a nonprofit organization helping to inspire, cultivate and sustain indigenous culture in Hawai‘i’s youth through commerce. “We are helping artists learn how to find themselves, put things together and be able to make a living from what they do the right way — all the things that with Manaola Hawai‘i I had to find on my own,” Yap explains.
A few months ago, Hale Kua Project had its first student retreat in Kohala. For five days, the 10 haumāna, who will continue to be mentored by Yap over the next five years, learned how to dye fabric with natural dyes, carve the ‘ohe kapala (bamboo stamps) from which Yap creates his own designs, learned about Hawaiian culture and visited with other artists like Sig Zane. The group will continue to learn about manufacturing, production, marketing and sourcing products in the years to come.
“I can show them what I’ve done and hope they can use it as an experience,” Yap says. “It’s not a fashion program. It’s finding what makes them happy and helping them to achieve that.”
He adds, “It really fills me with so much joy and definitely makes me proud as a Hawaiian to see our culture flourish in other ways than just hula and tourism,” Yap says. “Our people wearing Manaola designs and feeling proud to wear it, it’s really enriching to me. I try to act all cool, but I get tickled every time I see it, honestly.”
Yap says he’s worked hard to keep the integrity of his designs by creating small runs of color palettes, design and styles so you don’t see the same item when you go to an event or party. But this means that Yap has to design three times more pieces to keep up his inventory.
“It’s difficult, but that has been my vision with Manaola Hawai‘i: to have people feel special when they wear it,” he says. “To put out the volume I need for the consumer, instead of designing two tops, I have to design six. And it’s all hand done.”
Yap is always listening to customer requests, too.
“My aunties are always complaining they want something comfortable,” he says. “They love to wear fancy stuff when they go to a party, but when they go to work or are just cruising, they want something comfortable. So we will be launching our new line, He ‘Olu Lifestyle, this month with blouses, dresses and kaftans that are free-flowing, stretchy and comfy, made from high-quality knits. Stuff people can wear every day that will be more affordable.”
He ‘Olu Lifestyle will also feature a new bag collection, as well. He also designed a newly named “Mahalo” shirt to give back to the community, made from recycled fabrics. He creates high-end furniture and wall treatments, active wear, couture and, of course, his small, curated Manaola Hawai‘i line of men’s and women’s wear made with naturally dyed fabrics.
“We get letters from around the world and have loyal customers in Japan, Australia, Germany and China,” Yap says. “I think people can connect to our brand and with Hawai‘i as the host culture. I want it to be that brand where no matter who you are or where you come from, you feel comfortable wearing it. That’s the thing about ‘ohe kapala — it’s timeless.”
For more information, visit manaolahawaii.com.