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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, January 10, 2005

Pacific designs get noticed

By Paula Rath
Advertiser Staff Writer

Pili means to cling to, hold tight, touch, bring together. It's a word with several levels of kaona (hidden meanings). It's also a word that means the same thing in many Polynesian languages, including Hawaiian, Tahitian, Maori and Samoan.

Daughter Lacey Chu of Nu'uanu, in a silk skirt in the print called "Makawalu," meaning eight faces, with mother Barbara Chu, in linen print "Nai'a," the fish skirt and shawl wrapped as an over skirt.

Photos by Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

"It's a word that is constant," said Herman Piikea Clark, Jr., who is part Hawaiian and was born and raised in Honolulu but now lives in Palmerston North, New Zealand. "To me it means clinging to my heritage, my homeland and my wife. In western Polynesia, we're all related peoples, and pili links that connection in all of us."

That's why Clark and his wife, Sue Pearson, who is a seventh-generation Norfolk Islander, call their new clothing line Pili. For Clark, another kaona is to use Pili to help return a Pacific identity to Hawai'i.

Pili is by no means a conventional clothing company. Its aesthetic is contemporary, while its methods are based on 3,000-year-old Polynesian traditions that speak to Clark's and Pearson's ancestries.

Printmakers inspired

Pili was an accident. The creative couple never intended to become clothing designers. They are fine artists who met at a Pacific artists' conference in 1995 at which 40 artists from around the Pacific were joined by 40 Maori artists from New Zealand.

Their formal training is in printmaking on paper. Clark earned his M.A. in printmaking and painting from the University of Hawai'i-Manoa in 1997. He is working on a Ph.D. in indigenous art education while teaching at Massey University on the North Island of New Zealand. Pearson received her printmaking degree from Newcastle University in New South Wales, Australia.

Pearson grew up on tiny Norfolk Island, population 2,000, three miles long and five miles wide, located between New Zealand and New Caledonia, populated by descendants of the Bounty mutineers from Pitcairn Island. The island has a long tradition of indigenous textiles, as among the possessions the women brought with them from Pitcairn were pieces of tapa, from which they made clothing for their families.

Clark developed a passion for Hawaiian history while a student at Punahou. "I used to hide out all the time in the Hawaiian room in Cooke Library," he said. His father, Herman Piikea Clark, Sr., a well-known Punahou, Oregon State and Chicago Bears football player, stirred his interest in genealogy. As he has traveled and lived in other places, his interest has expanded from the Hawaiian Islands and culture to all the cultures of the western Pacific.

As if academics, fine art and a new business are not enough, the couple has two children, ages 4 and 18 months.

Traditional methods, contemporary design

The Clarks became interested in fabric when Pearson's cousin, Jean Clarkson, a prominent fabric designer who teaches at Auckland University, held a workshop in Norfolk Island.

Herman Piikea Clark Jr., in his "Nai'a" print, meaning "the fishes," with his wife, Sue Pearson in a silk "Tiare" print dress.
They were drawn to textiles. "We thought it was a way of balancing what we do in academia with making something that's relevant to our community," Clark said. "An art piece becomes more intimate when someone chooses to use it to adorn their body. It becomes a physical affirmation of our work."

After the workshop, they went home and experimented with pots of dye and tubs of mud in the back yard.

Their printing methods evolved from the Hawaiian kapa (tapa) traditions, using stamps and carved plates to transfer their images onto cloth.

They currently choose to use only natural fibers (linen and silk) which they purchase from China, Uzbekistan, India and Thailand. However, the business is so new that "nothing is settled yet," Clark said, and everything is subject to change.

At first they printed from hand-carved wooden blocks, but they have since found that foam core is easier and more effective.

They were doing all the printing themselves until Pearson trained a Maori print artist, Teaarani Tewhata. "It requires a really sensitive touch to get the texture so the print is three-dimensional rather than two-dimensional," Pearson explained.

Their technique produces a design different from that on a fabric that is silk-screened or printed on conventional textile presses. "Our image has a lot more life in it," Clark said.

The colors are subtle, and their combinations are clearly the work of artists. The designs have a strong, distinctly contemporary look, but are often inspired by ancestral stories.

Clark and Pearson each create the designs, although they have a similar strength and aesthetic. One of Clark's designs tells the story of the ancient navigator Paao and his voyage from Tahiti to Hawai'i.

A Pearson motif features the ulu (breadfruit) because, she explained, the men of the Bounty were going to Tahiti to collect breadfruit trees, "So, you see, it was the breadfruit that brought my ancestors together."

A bend in the road

Lacey and Barbara Chu in silk "Makawalu" (eight faces) print.


Men's shirts: Neiman Marcus Men's Department, Level 3, $195; the department store may soon stock Pili textile designs.

Women's clothing: The women's line of Pili Designs is not yet available in stores but may be ordered through piikea@ihug.co.nz.

Fine art by Herman Piikea Clark, Jr. and Sue Pearson: The Fine Art Associates

Pili Designs was just a small, homespun operation printing enough shirts and skirts to keep the couple clothed. They were also experimenting with large wall hangings, expanding their art forms.

That is, until one day when Clark was delivering one of his framed fine-art prints to Neiman Marcus to take its place on the retailer's walls. Boris Milgram, a former men's department manager at the Ala Moana Center store, spotted Clark down the hall. "Where did you get that shirt?" he asked.

"Well, uh, I made it myself," Clark answered.

"Can you make us 1,000 more?" Walker said.

"Uh, well, no ... but maybe 100 or so," Clark replied.

A business was born.

Pili Designs has produced about 200 men's shirts so far. They are working on a women's line to include a long skirt, a sophisticated interpretation of a sarong with a shell buckle for tying the knot and abalone-shell embellishments, as well as silk dresses that can be worn alone or layered with a shawl wrapped as a top or skirt.

Neiman Marcus is now considering the women's line, as well as talking to the Clarks about producing table linens and wall hangings.

Learning the business

As fashion neophytes, the Clarks are in the learning phase of design, manufacturing and marketing.

Because the designers are committed to using indigenous materials whenever possible, Pili garments buttons and embellishments are made of abalone shell. That presented a problem because the O'ahu fisheries folks said Pili needed a license to send shell buttons to the United States — even on one sample shirt. Weeks passed while they tried to untangle the situation.

"Every day we learn something," Clark said with a shy grin.

While they will continue to print their fabrics in New Zealand, Pili hopes to start manufacturing the clothes on O'ahu. A North Shore seamstress is trying her hand at sewing the women's line.

Another meaning for pili is "a narrow or precarious pass." an accurate definition for the way Clark and Pearson are approaching the hard-as-nails industry, it's a struggle every step of the way.

But their hearts are in Pili Designs, and they clearly are a couple for whom the heart leads.

Reach Paula Rath at 525-5464 or prath@honoluluadvertiser.com.