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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Maui designer's creations attracting Hollywood set

By Paula Rath
Advertiser Staff Writer

Maui fashion designer Maggie Coulombe creates quite a stir when she enters a room, especially when she's towing a rack of her floaty, flirty silk dresses in brilliant shades of red, blue, yellow and green. Now her sexy designs are stirring up the Hollywood set as Halle Berry, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie don her dresses.

Maggie Coulombe often layers her pieces for different effects. From left, Kaitlyn Metcalf wears a yellow skirt ($350) and a green halter, cowl neck dress ($695), and Sarah Noyle is in a red dress ($2,650) in the style worn by Paris Hilton to a pre-Oscars party. Models courtesy of Kathy Muller Agency.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Although it might seem so to those who haven't heard of her before, however, Coulombe's rise in the fashion world has not been meteoric.

She was born in Sault Ste. Marie, a tiny town north of Toronto. Her parents escaped from North Korea and ran a little chicken farm called Mighty Fresh Eggs.

While in high school, Coulombe worked with her mentor, Judi Cooper-Sealy, on costumes for music videos. "Mom and Dad said, there's no way you're gonna do this," Coulombe said. When she was 17, her parents insisted she go to medical school and marry a businessman, but Coulombe ran away and continued on her fashion path.

After seven years in the club and entertainment world, Cooper-Sealy advised Coulombe to go back to school, "so I could design and join the union," Coulombe said.

"I had to get a portfolio together which, at the age of 24, was pretty scary."

She attended Ryerson University and, four years later, graduated as designer of the year. She used her $5,000 award to start Rag Tag, a wholesale denim company, for which she purchased thousands of pounds of Levi's 501 jeans, cut them up, embellished and reconstructed them.

She segued Rag Tag into Jet Star Clothing, a line of black lycra club clothes for men and women. She also began creating custom clothes for television and film productions, as well as costumes for the Jeff Healey band.

Maui No Ka Oi

In the middle of all this, Coulombe flew to Maui to spend time with her sister, Jean Hornia, who was going through a divorce. "I was so busy that I should never have taken off, but she kept begging me, so I did," Coulombe said.

Kaitlyn Metcalf models Maui designer Maggie Coulombe's signature pareo style ($150), which can be worn six ways, at the Sheraton Moana Surfrider in Waikiki.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

That trip changed her life. Her first night on Maui she had dinner with an old Toronto friend, restaurateur Louis Coulombe. "That was April 1, 1995. Two weeks later, on April 17, we got married. It was so easy for me to decide. I went back to Toronto and sold everything except my Jeep and my sewing machine and moved to Maui."

Her first few months on Maui, she baked bread for her husband's Lahaina restaurant, I'o. However her hands became restless and she yearned for her passion, fashion.

In 1995 she started Maui Threads, offering alterations for retailers such as Banana Republic, Chanel, Prada and Gucci. She said it was the best possible education. "You won't believe how much you can learn about finishings by opening up a Chanel jacket and putting it back together," she said. It was another form of schooling, learning how couture garments are constructed.

In 2001, she opened her first retail shop, a 400-square-foot space downstairs from her home. After a two-year struggle to break even, she took a chance on a 1,200-square-foot location next door to her husband's restaurant. "It was so scary," she said, "But it was the best decision I ever made."

Her decisions, it would seem, are often spontaneous. but not ditzy: Coulombe has an intellectual curiosity that exerts itself into all areas of her life.

Having read that babies are unable to speak until they are about 2 years old only because their vocal cords have not yet developed, not because of any lack of communication skills, she set out to teach her son, David, "baby sign language." From the age of 7 months, she showed him signs for "I need to nurse" and "I need a diaper change."

"He never cried," she said with motherly pride as she shared a photo of a cherubic hapa keiki. "He didn't need to. He could always tell me what he wanted."

Now 4, David can communicate in two languages, French and English, and, as a nod to her heritage, mom wants him to learn Korean as well.

Maui Meets Hollywood

The Maui/Hollywood connection has been a boost for Coulombe's fashion business. Halle Berry, Vanessa Williams, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie are among her customers. The July issue of "In Style" magazine featured Hewitt in a Maggie Coulombe original. Nicole Richie wore a Coulombe dress in "US" and Paris Hilton has appeared on the pages of "In Style" in a yellow Coulombe dress.


During the last Emmy and Oscar seasons, Coulombe rented rooms in the Mondrian Hotel in Los Angeles and held trunk shows for the stars. The next event will be Sept. 14-21; she and her partner, Arid Chappell, will "set up shop and call all our clients and serve them champagne and pupus, and they'll come and shop. The hotel provides everything, including a sewing machine," Coulombe said.

Coulombe met Chappell quite by accident. He was working in an art gallery downstairs from her studio. She liked his energy and enthusiasm and he admired her talent.

It's always a bit of a mystery why some partnerships work, especially in the cut-throat business of fashion. In many ways, Coulombe and Chappell seem like opposites, yet they share a common aesthetic and work ethic.

"It's just to work, work, work all the time," Chappell said with a chuckle. "We eat, sleep and breathe this (fashion) every day."

Maggie Coulombe Boutique

• 505 Front St., Lahaina, Maui

• Hours: 10 a.m.i10 p.m., MondaysiSaturdays, 1i10 p.m. Sundays

• (808) 662-0696


"We bolster each other and encourage each other," Coulombe explained. They help each other in myriad ways. For example, when David was an infant, Chappell baby-sat as Coulombe worked feverishly at her sewing machine.

While Coulombe is far from shy, she often finds it difficult to promote herself. Chappell does not — he has no problem being "out there" whenever possible, promoting her designs.

His background as an independent filmmaker (his film "Front Street" made the rounds of film festivals last winter) gives him ties to an industry that they both want to penetrate. The cadre of stars wearing her designs is a good start.

Chappell also enables Coulombe to take time out for her family. Every Thursday, she and her husband and son spend the afternoon and night in a yurt on their farm in Kula. They harvest citrus, apples, grapes, carrots, mulberries and passionfruit for use in his restaurants.

What's next for Maggie Coulombe? She plans to bypass O'ahu and the Mainland and simply go straight to fashion's roots: a little boutique in Paris, perhaps?

Reach Paula Rath at 525-5454 or prath@honoluluadvertiser.com.