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Surf’s Up For Sig

Sig Zane hangs loose in his Paliku Surf space in Hilo

It’s three decades and counting for SigZane and his design company, which has been making waves across the globe for its perpetuation of Hawaiian culture.

How did a Honolulu-born boy with a background in real estate become a local icon of fashion and design? It all started with love.

Though Sig Zane, owner of Sig Zane Designs, first went to the Big Island to attend University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, it was his love of surfing and fishing that brought him back for frequent visits.

Maybe more importantly, it was his adoration of a woman who would later become his wife. That love would lead him to build a family and a business that would earn him international acclaim as an artist.

Zane, wife Nalani Kanaka‘ole and son Kuha‘o Zane enjoy a moment together. PHOTO COURTESY SIG ZANE

At first, Zane taught himself silk-screening, so he would have a unique gift to give his then girlfriend (now wife), Nalani Kanaka‘ole. The first print he ever made was the white ginger blossom.

“I used to pick that flower from a patch in the back of Mānoa Valley, and I would string it into a lei for her,” he recalls.

But where Zane and Kanaka‘ole found inspiration for a business opportunity was on a search for a shirt to wear to a party.

“I remember my wife and I going to the local stores and noticing that aloha shirts were not Hawaiian,” Zane recalls. “They were all made by artists from the mainland with this foreign thought of ‘This is Hawai‘i.’ (Nalani and I) thought that we should do aloha shirts featuring real Hawaiian plants and real Hawaiian traditions because then they would be real Hawaiian shirts.”

The Sig Zane crew consists of (from left) product development’s Cody Welsh, Zane, art director Brandy-Alia Serikaku, Sig on Smith manager Zen Yoshifuku and project manager Brittini Kuwahara. PHOTO COURTESY SIG ZANE

With Nalani’s expertise in Hawaiian culture and his skill in design, Zane opened a small store in 1985 on Kīlauea Avenue and Mamo Street.

“At the start, there were many zero days,” he recalls.

But Aunty Dottie Thompson, co-founder of the annual Merrie Monarch Festival, helped him.

“Aunty Dottie put our fashion on the Merrie Monarch stage,” he adds. “That helped us establish ourselves in the hula world. Hilo is the piko (center) of hula and the hula dancers wanted to wear something (authentically) Hawaiian, so that was the jump-start we needed.”

Sig Zane is perhaps best known for aloha shirts, even today.

“The aloha shirt was our first canvas. We decided on that because once on, we could talk about it. We could talk about that design and what it means,” Zane says. “Back when we started, we were actually riding the new wave of the Hawaiian renaissance. My mother-in-law, Edith Kanaka‘ole, was adamant about us sharing our knowledge, and most of that knowledge comes from the foundation of hula first.”

Cone-shaped face masks are “the preferred choice” of customers, says Zane. PHOTO COURTESY NANI KELIIHOOMALU

Zane still prepares each design the way he did when he started — hand-cut with an X-Acto knife on Amber-lith film.

“Maybe about eight years ago, they announced they were going to stop making Amberlith film, so I bought as much as I could and I told my son, Kuha‘o, that when I run out, that’s when I’m going to retire,” Zane says. ” A lot of people design by computer nowadays, but to me, it’s the show of hand — when it’s not perfect. I think that’s the spirit of the print in that art.”

It can take months for one of Zane’s designs to come to life.

“Sometimes years, even, because I meditate on it first,” he adds. “I think about … I want to do that tree, but how will I put it on that canvas? It has to be presentable, but at the same time I’m trying to express that story behind the print and its cultural significance.”

One of Zane’s first designs was the taro, which he created in celebration of his only child’s first birthday.

“Kuha‘o, was born in 1982, and while I was preparing for his first birthday, I had planted all the taro for his party,” he recalls. “So I knew it intimately. The term ‘ohana comes from the taro. It’s a symbol of the family for how it grows and multiplies. The stalk of taro is the next generation, so all of this has plenty importance for the family.”

Kuha‘o is Zane’s successor and already managing many aspects of the business, though his first job at the company was sorting hangers. Zane is not big on titles, referring to his son as “the man” or “the heir,” while he retains his role as founder and artist of the company. Zane says that Kuha‘o, who attended design school, takes his creations to the next level.

“I’ve always been into design on some level,” Kuha‘o says. “(There is) a search for ever-evolving solutions to daily problems. I like to create items that I’d want to wear. We create for our lifestyle and bring our friends and customers along.”

Zane, who decided to shutter his Hilo store and only conduct online transactions there during the coronavirus pandemic, chose a different path for his Honolulu shop. Located at 1020 Smith St., Sig on Smith remains open to the public on Fridays only. Customers hoping to get their hands on Zane’s line of men’s aloha shirts can still drop in, but must first make an appointment.

“It’s a small operation and we’re using it as sort of our testing ground,” says Zane of his O‘ahu-based shop. “Right now, I don’t feel safe at all opening our Hilo store, and I don’t foresee that changing anytime in July or August.”

While he remains famous for his traditional Hawaiian wear, Zane continues to use his creativity to go beyond the aloha shirt. For one thing, he’s meeting the demand for face masks as people make them a necessary part of their daily safety routine. Currently, his shop is offering cone-shaped, pleated and keiki masks, which are being sold as an assorted pack of three for $36.

“Some people like the pleated masks, but the cone-shaped mask appears to be the preferred choice,” he says.

In addition, his canvases include everything from surfboards to oceanwear, as well as hotel interiors and company logos through Zane’s design arm SZKaiao, the uniforms for Hawaiian Airlines, and even an airplane itself.

“We did aloha shirts for so many years, so we wanted to do something different,” Zanesays. “The ‘Ohana airplane by Hawaiian Airlines was thrilling, but we had just 15 days to put it together. I wanted to use the taro since that is a symbol of ‘ohana, and we also utilized the ‘ohe kāpala (bamboo stamping) because that was one of the highest forms of art that the Hawaiians invented.”

It has been a long journey for Zane to evolve into a master cutter.

“But it has been so rewarding,” he says, noting not everything was a success right off the bat. In fact, it took him 17 years of cutting to be able to maneuver the intricate design of the palapalai fern.

Zane says that their family travels, paired with his son’s 30 years as a hula dancer with his wife’s Hālau O Kekuhi, have given Kuha‘o a global view rooted in Hawaiian culture.

“He’s got that perspective of his ancestors but with global experience, which makes him a renaissance kid,” Zane says. “He always had a pencil and paper by his side, too, because I was printing and had to babysit him, yeah? And I kept all those treasures.”

Of course, when Zane expanded his Hilo store, relocating to a choice ocean-front spot back in 1992, the move had more to do with the surf than anything else.

“I wanted to be the first out,” says Zane, who sports prescription sunglasses that protect his eyes from the ocean glare. “It is rare for Hilo Bay to break, so I wanted to be surfing. People would come to the store and there would be a sign on the door: ‘I’m across the street, I’ll be right back.'”

He has never become too busy to hop in the water, but one thing that has changed is the competition within the Hawaiian design world.

“I’m excited about all these new designers that are up-and-coming,” Zane says. “I love that Hawaiian wear is now a specific genre of fashion. Before, I was the only one, which was easy. But now it ups our game. We are all building this genre together and making it a stronger voice in the world.”