Mänoa DNA pursues family roots in fashion
By Wayne Harada
With music and fashion in its DNA, the Island music group Manoa DNA will launch a new venture in mid-June to galvanize its lineage and build a solid foundation with the retail, visitor and entertainment communities.
Iolani on Kona Street, a plantation-style retail outlet doubling as a mini-museum boasting current fashions, framed vintage designs and historical video, is under construction at a hideaway second-floor Kakaako site adjoining the aloha wear factory where a whole lotta stitching's going on.
Iolani is the core of the Kawakami clan, which lives in Manoa and provides an artistic arm that precedes music. Second-generation family patriarch Lloyd Kawakami has been president of the Iolani sportswear label for more than two decades, succeeding his pioneering late father Keiji Kawakami, a member of the famed "Go for Broke" 442nd Regimental Combat Team, who launched the label in 1953 with his retired wife Edith. She still works at the factory office.
But with Lloyd Kawakami's three-years-young career as a singer-musician alongside his sons, the family fabric is becoming increasingly visible.
Kawakami is the D (for Dad) in Manoa DNA; the N is Nick and the A is Alex, his sons and partners in song. Nick, the older son, has taken on the IO-Sports men's line at Iolani. Alex is the composer in the trio, creating music for the Hawaii Tourism Authority's Japan campaigns that have given Manoa DNA global exposure, "but is here (at the headquarters) to help at the drop of the hat," said Dad.
While the group's fans here and in Japan are very aware of their music, the threads that link to the Kawakami family's flourishing Iolani Sportswear brand have been somewhat understated, even if the aloha wear has been a staple online and in racks at Sears, Liberty House and, now, Macy's for decades.
"People are always asking us about what we wear," said dad Kawakami, about the Iolani styles he and his sons don in public and on stage. "Iolani on Kona Street will have some of our wear and the store will be a more efficient use of our space, help enhance our image and provide more value to our product. When my father died (last year), the family faced a challenge. His legacy needs to continue."
Iolani's modest Kakaako factory, at 1234 Kona St. — between Piikoi and Pensacola streets, a stone's throw from Ala Moana Center — is being updated with the new 2,000 square feet of retail space, where clothes, music and family values will mingle. "Yes, Manoa DNA will play at the grand opening and periodically appear there to support the product," said Lloyd Kawakami.
By looking to its glorious five-decade past, the Kawakami family hopes to ensure a future that will boost its marketability locally and globally, particularly with East-bound visitors.
The new space will reduce factory production space to 14,000 square feet but will finally give the company a face — and a place — where visitors can observe, through a pair of windows, how work crews create the men's and women's aloha garb that has been favored by discriminating fashionistas for more than five decades.
Formed only three years ago, Manoa DNA's three-part harmonies on Hawaiian and folk-pop classics have connected with Waikíkí and Japan audiences.
The act piggybacks two regular Waikíkí gigs, Fridays at LuLu's on Kapahulu Avenue and Saturdays at Kani Ka Pila Grille at the Outrigger Reef on the Beach, with frequent jaunts to Japan, where the men are immensely popular — you might say Delighting Nippon Audiences — thanks to a regular radio show (79.5 Radio-i in Nagoya), video (on NHK Television) and a surge of live performances.
"We'll be leaving for Japan on April 27 for a three-week tour which will include Golden Week performances for Hawaii Tourism Japan in Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima and Yokohama," said Lloyd Kawakami.
In Japan, they're all over the map. An animated music video, "Aloha You: Kizuna," recorded for NHK's favored "Minna No Uta" program, is being broadcast daily in April and May. "Kizuna," from Manoa DNA's "Pure Aloha" CD, was released last week expressly for the Japan audience. A new CD, "Evolution," is anticipated for June release.
With the demands of his musical career, Lloyd Kawakami has relied on his wife Carla to oversee the development and completion of the Iolani experience, just as mom Edith Kawakami had shouldered many responsibilities for her entrepreneurial late husband. Lloyd met his wife-to-be when he was gigging years ago at Horatio's.
"Iolani has been the best-kept secret in town," said Carla Kawakami, who is ready to share the family wares and story with an actual storefront. "The space will be nostalgic, funky, eclectic; you'll get some history, see old (sewing machines), and we're all about recycling — using old windows, for instance, where workers can be observed, plus walls from Mick Jagger's house in Kailua, which will be the paneling in the dressing room."
In the past, Iolani specialized in kabe shirts, using precious silk imported from Japan. In the '60s and '70s, the label launched a signature men's line, embracing a silk-screened design down one side of an otherwise solid-colored shirt, designed by Jackson Morisawa and now overseen by son Nick Kawakami.
Lloyd Kawakami said that the company name refers to Iolani Palace, not the school or Iolani Luahine, the fabled poet of the hula, since the palace was visible from the plant's second site, on Beretania Street.
He recalls the era when Iolani had 100 employees; the company now has 20. He remembers being corralled in a playpen as an infant, with dirt floors that muddied in the factory when it rained.
He also remembers his father ("a Renaissance man, before his time") giving him the choice to stick with the family business, or seek out his own livelihood. "I chose to help and support, after college in Oregon and working with Hawaiian Airlines and Liberty House for awhile," said Kawakami. "Our sons, who have the music career, also choose to help. I guess that's part of thread of our family history."