Three Hawaiian-inspired prints and manager Maryann Barnett at Noa Noa Hawai‘i Ward.
Image: Eleanor Svaton

Legendary designers Nake‘u Awai and Joan Simon Smoyer share their histories in the international hula fashion biz

The difference between Waikiki-style aloha wear and native Hawaiian hula-inspired designs is the difference between a pineapple mai tai and a cup of ‘awa. Both are strongly associated with Hawaii, but only one creates a natural buzz.

There are two kinds of hula: kahiko and ‘auana. Kahiko is the ancient hula, with dancers in ti leaf or pau skirts and lei around the head, ankles, and wrists. ‘Auana is hula with a modern influence, allowing much great diversity in costuming. Variations of both can be found by such esteemed island designers as Nakeu Awai and Joan Simon Smoyer.

Nakeu Awai

Ask hula aficionados about hula fashion’s history and you’re bound to hear about Nakeu Awai. With decades of experience in the industry, he and his designs have reached near-iconic status. In color, imagination, and innovation, he’s the Andy Warhol of hula fashion. But, he says, he has restrained his designs and styles, winndowing them down to the most popular in order to maintain consistency in his brand.

Asked about how he got his start in fashion, one name came to mind: Elvis. Then he added, “And Sammy Davis’ girls,” a reference to his career as a dancer in Reno and Hollywood–not hula, but jazz. The shift to fashion came when the award-winning kumu hula Alicia K. Keawekane Smith, whose studio was once next to Awai’s Kalihi shop, asked him to design costumes for her halau. The rest is fashion history.

These days, Awai says most of his big orders come from halau in Japan, where tickets for hula shows can cost up to $350 apiece. But here in Hawaii, budgetary restrictions force halau to make things for themselves, buying yards of Awaiʻs printed fabric.

Awai supports this idea, even though he makes more money off the finished product. Itʻs important, he says, for a dancer to have a relationship to the costume. “A girl should make her own,” he said of pau skirts. There is a sacredness in the making, wearing, and owning of a costume. Awai believes that a pau skirt is much different from other hula costumes and should never be washed, “because the mana carries over from dance to dance.”

Joan Simon Smoyer

Also inspired to work with kumu hula to create custom designs for their halau, Joan Simon Smoyer of Noa Noa Hawaii offers more than 500 Polynesian-inspired print designs. In addition to the pa’u skirt, she makes a “sash skirt”, one of the most versatile and popular for hula and available in several different styles.

Both Awai and Smoyer mix and match print designs, colors, and clothing styles, constantly producing limited runs of different combinations, but the similarities stop at their printing process: Awai uses screen printing, while all Noa Noa fabric is hand-dyed with batik methods in Indonesia.

Noa Noa’s five locations on Oahu and the Big Island sell pau skirts as well, but according to Ward store manager Maryann Barnett, these are impossible to keep in stock. For those interested in taking Awai’s advice and trying their own hand at making pau skirts, Kumu Kea, of Na Puakea O Koolaupoko in Kailua, offers patterns and advice on her website, [www.realhula.com]. She explains the different ways of making a pau skirt and important pau skirt protocol.

Hula dancer or not, for the right price you can look the part, while supporting local designers and honoring hula’s history at the same time.

Awai’s men’s and women’s styles are available at his shop at the intersection of Dillingham and School in Kalihi or at Native Books/Na Mea Hawaii in Ward Warehouse. Visit [NoaNoaHawaii.com] for a list of Smoyer’s store locations. Also visit [tutuvisitoa.com].