Students from Kapolei High School on O‘ahu present a story on the Hawai‘i-themed artwork engraved on the columns of O‘ahu’s rail project. The column art was designed by local architect Daniel Kanekuni and, according to HART spokesperson Bill Brennan, adds a sense of place and local identity to the rail project. Rail proponents and opponents alike feel that the column artwork is a good thing. However, some rail opponents, such as UH Professor of Civil Engineering Panos Prevedouros, feel that the real eye-sore will be the elevated rail stations. Says Prevedouros, “How much lipstick do they think they can put on that pig?”
–Students from Maui Waena Intermediate School show how a Kahului family’s mochi- pounding tradition continues, despite the recent loss of the family matriarch who had been the heart of the event.
–Students from Hawai‘i Technology Academy in Leeward O‘ahu show us the proper way to pack a military care package.
–Students from Konawaena High School on Hawai‘i Island profile a Konawaena graduate who went on to form the internationally renowned heavy metal reggae band Pepper.
–Students from Moanalua High School on O‘ahu profile a lesbian couple at their school who work to spread the joy of diversity and the message of tolerance for those who are different.
–Students from Maui High School profile a star athlete who had to sit out the football season because of a heart condition but continued to inspire his teammates by volunteering as an assistant coach.
This program encores Saturday, April 15, at 12:00 pm and Sunday, April 16, at 3:00 pm. You can also view HIKI NŌ episodes on our website, www.pbshawaii.org/hikino.
Examine the significance of the royal wardrobes of English monarchs over the last 400 years. Learn why most kings and queens have carefully choreographed every aspect of their apparel and why, for those who haven’t, the consequences have sometimes been calamitous.
Meet Iris Apfel, the quick-witted, flamboyantly dressed 93-year-old style maven who’s had an outsized presence on the New York fashion scene for decades. Albert Maysles’ film shows a woman with an inspirational enthusiasm for fashion, art and people.
This is the first feature-length documentary to explore the Black Panther Party, its significance to the broader American culture, its cultural and political awakening for black people and the painful lessons wrought when a movement derails. Master documentarian Stanley Nelson goes straight to the source, weaving rare archival footage with the voices of the people who were there: police, FBI informants, journalists, white supporters and detractors, and Black Panthers who remained loyal to the party and those who left it. Featuring Kathleen Cleaver, Jamal Joseph, and dozens of others, the film is a vibrant chronicle of this pivotal movement that gave rise to a new revolutionary culture in America.
Burt, travel expert Steve Perillo and Burt’s son Nicholas, spend a week in Florence. They visit the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum and discover why Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Sophia Loren and Julia Roberts wore his shoes in their movies. They find out how product placement influenced the artworks of the Renaissance and tour the great tourist attractions of the city.
From 1941 to 1978, the husband-and-wife team of Ray and Charles Eames brought unique talents to their partnership. He was an architect by training; she was a painter and sculptor. Together, they are considered America’s most important and influential designers, whose work literally helped shape the second half of the 20th century and remains culturally vital and commercially popular today. Ray and Charles Eames are, perhaps, best remembered for their mid-century modern furniture, built from novel materials like molded plywood, fiberglass-reinforced plastic, bent metal wire and aluminum – offering consumers beautiful, functional, yet inexpensive products. Revered for their designs and fascinating as individuals, they have risen to iconic status in American culture, but their influence on significant events and movements in American life – from the development of modernism to the rise of the computer age – has been less widely understood.
Leslie Wilcox talks story with Nake’u Awai, a Kalihi-based clothing designer renowned for his timeless and unique island wear. Nake’u initially pursued an entertainment career that led him to Broadway and Hollywood. Eventually he returned home, where he found his calling in fashion design. For three decades, Nake’u’s creative Hawaiian prints and equally stunning fashion shows have wowed clientele throughout the islands.
I used to often tell my mom, How come we can’t go shopping in slippers and wear shorts? And was, No, any time you’re Downtown, it’s pants and shoes. Well, all the Haole tourists wear slipper and shorts. But, yeah.
It’s a long way from Kalihi to New York, to Hollywood and back, but it’s the journey of a man whose life has been dedicated to entertainment and design, from a big city to a little shop at the foot of Kamehameha Heights. It’s Nake‘u Awai, on Long Story Short.
Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. In this edition of Long Story Short, you’ll meet a Honolulu man who’s had a fascinated—well, careers, really. After graduating from Kamehameha Schools with an interest in drama, Nake‘u Awai went on to take his shot in the bright lights of the New York theater scene. Later, he appeared in network television shows in the heyday of live TV production.
But these are careers that few in Hawaii really know much about, because since he returned home, he’s made a name for himself as a fashion designer. To have a Nake‘u Awai design in your collection is to have a dress or shirt that will never go out of style.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Punchbowl.
What was that like?
Sidewalk skating. Golden Wall Theater—swim and tap at the YWCA down on Richards Street.
Tap, as in tap dance?
Tap dance; Mrs. Barnes. My first try at dancing, and swim, it was mainly swimming, and I got interested. Oh, I want to take tap, I want to take tapping. And then, I snuck into Alice Keawekane’s, some of her classes, and that’s Alicia Smith, Loyal’s mother is Alice Keawekane. And Loyal and Alicia, I mean, they’re all connected, Loyal and Alicia. And she taught hula. And because, when you’re waiting for your parents to pick you up … Come on, keiki, come join. So I snuck into some of her hula classes. So that was my early exposure to dance, which I would use later on. Golden Wall Theater, lot of my background comes from the movies, from the time we were little, during war years when blackout was part of our living. I don’t remember that part of it, ‘cause I was a baby. But Mom would take the kids and she, so it was brother and two sisters, and we’d go to the Golden Wall. And she’d come out and it would be all dark, and she’d hold me as the baby, and everybody would grab around her skirt, and we’d make it home.
And Golden Wall showed the latest Hollywood movies?
All and one day, I thought maybe if I had enough money, I’d bring back Saturday matinees. It was where all the kids came. And ee screamed our hearts out, because it was all the Westerns, and they would have serial chapters where at the end, the guy would be falling off the cliff. Next week—
—follow through what happens. And when he fell off the cliff, he grabbed a branch, so he was saved, yeah.
Do you remember how much it cost to go to those matinees?
What did you have for snacks?
I wasn’t too much of a snacker, but popcorn, I guess. And they had seed mui in bags, the paper bags. I mean, they dug it out like this, and that’s how you got it.
Influenced by all those afternoons at the movies in the Golden Wall Theater in Nuuanu, Nakeu Awai began to see a future in art and design, eventually merging theater and fashion.
But you’re a visual person, so movies—
But this helped—
—were preferable for you.
Yeah. This helped me, yes. Yes. And then television came after that, from black and white into color. Yeah. So a lot of things that I create today because aside from fashions, it’s putting fashions into visuals that is I enjoy that more.
So putting fashions into, say, musical revues?
And … shows.
I enjoy that. I enjoy that the most. And using other people’s—you know, so I will use my clothes as well as the other people and do shows. Because drama was what I majored in at University of Washington.
So the shows are more important than the clothes that you have designed?
I feel that. The segments that I do are universal emotions that we all experience.
Have you thought of doing other than your fashion-related shows as musical revues?
I’m open to, I’m always open to being creative. I’ve already started my Christmas show this year. I’m thinking about next year up at the Waikoloa. You know, Pili Pang’s haula in Waimea.
So you’re that generation that sort of—you were before the Hawaiian renaissance. You didn’t speak Hawaiian.
No. In fact, we grew up speaking only English.
And Kamehameha insisted on it when you were a student there.
And Kamehameha had a Hawaiian language teacher. His name was Reverend Judd. But I felt so bad, and I guess I wasn’t strong enough to stand up against my peers. But it was after lunch, and the movie The Blue Angel, where the guy becomes taken advantage of, where he plays the dummy in the club, and all these horrible things happen to him. In the movie The Blue Angel, with Marlene Dietrich, yeah. So the same thing I thought about this man. See, so I relate back to when I saw this man. After lunch, kids brought straws back from the dining hall and was doing spitballs at him. And this old man was going, Oh, ooh.
And he was the Hawaiian teacher.
Yeah, language. And so, did we learn the language?
What did your parents do for a living?
My dad was a land abstracter.
What’s a land abstracter?
Well, he worked at the Land Office, and it was reading land deeds and stuffs, and translating them. So on his own, he helped a lot of Hawaiians find land that was due them, that they weren’t aware of. He’d ask them, Where were you born, who’s your parents? And he’d go do research kind of stuff. And my mom was an educator. And every weekend, my dad because see, we grew up without cars, because Mother and Dad never drove. We’d get on the taxi down at Aala Park. The kind that had all the extra seats, and go to Haleiwa because—
Is that a jitney?
Was that a jitney, with extra seats?
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, but it was called the Waialua Taxicab, and it drove you to your homes in Haleiwa, Waialua. And then it’d come back and pick you up. But we’d spend weekends there because he’d work up in the taro patch. Every weekend, he was in the loi, because—and by himself. And loi and kalo, as kalo people today will know, it’s hard work
It’s very hard work.
And you have to keep working at it. You can’t let it go by, because—
So he worked five days a week, and then he goes to the taro patches—
—on the weekends?
That’s not a weekend. That’s not a break.
But he enjoyed that. And he would bring back a bag of taro, and he would cook, we would have to peel.
That’s what he did it for, a bag of taro?
And he also sold. He started selling some of his kalo to Chun Hoon’s Market, the old market on Nuuanu. So we had fresh poi. It was lumpy. I preferred the factory poi, because it was smoother, but we’d peel. Oh, and I still have his boards somewhere in my shop, the poi boards that he used and pounded poi.
Did you tell him his poi was too lumpy for you?
‘Cause he’d just strain it, yeah. And so, I mean, it was fine. It was fresh. But, after you get spoiled by having some factory made poi.
What was your mom like?
Mom was a hard worker. She believed in education, so she pushed all of us. After I graduated from Kamehameha School, I really wanted to get out and get into the working field. But, No, you gotta to go to college. So she pushed for that. Hard worker, a woman that wore the same pair of shoes until it kaputsed, then she got a new pair of shoes. So she gave up a lot. But then she wanted to see the world, so my first year after University of Washington, she wanted to see America. And Father hated traveling. So she ployed me into going, and so we saw America on Greyhound. From Seattle, we went straight across the northern route to visit friends and upstate New York, and then went down south, and came back across. Yeah.
Was she still very frugal?
Yeah. As she got older, because see, I was the last one. Everybody was—the two sisters were on their own, Brother was on his own, so maybe she felt a little more freer to do these trips. Because then she and Dad went to China, with Char’s Tours. I still remember that, because it was such a negative thing.
After graduating from the University of Washington, and seeing North America by bus, it was time for graduate school. Catholic University in Washington, D.C. was a fine school; but for a young man from Hawaii in the 1950s, D.C. was not quite the place to study theater. Where would Nake‘u Awai head next?
So I told my parents. What are you going to do? I said, Live. Pause, pause. And they hung up on me, click. Next episode. So I moved to New York. But, I went all over New York. And when you’re young, you’re really kinda daring, so I looked up every conceivable rental. The nice thing about New York is they have rentals by price. So you can look for what you want to spend, and they’re right there. Well, I went Bowery, I went Harlem, I went all over New York. And after when I settled in New York, I said to myself, I would never, ever go back to all the areas that I went into. But one wintry morning, I was in Brooklyn Heights, and this woman in—you know, they have brownstones. She opened this tall black door. And she had a place, and it was within my price range, and it was a … so everytime I watch TV, they have those steps going up into the brownstones, and to the side they have these two steps that go underneath. I was there. It went from sidewalk, all the way to the back of the house. It was long rental.
And did you think you were gonna be a lifelong New Yorker at that point?
I wanted to. Because New York will always be my happiest years.
Why did you leave New York?
[CHUCKLE] How many winters did you get through?
Four. And the last winter, I had electric blankets. But when you’re sleeping, you go, [GRUNT]. Just slight turning. It was freezing. And I had moved, how you move around, you find a better place. So my last rental was on the fifth floor of this walkup. Wonderful. I wish I still did that. Overlooked the—you could see the Statue of Liberty, and the lower rivers before they split off the Hudson, and the Hudson and the other river, and subway and stuff, and stuff, and stuffs. Yeah, but New York, the energy, there’s no city that has the energy that keeps you, keeps you going.
Did you feel your Hawaiianess in New York?
Yes. I have some pictures somewhere that we’ll see Rowena Akana and I, and this Filipino guy doing a Hawaiian revue down in Atlantic City for Tutasi Wilson. She was a woman that lived in Florida, and would come up and do these big Hawaiian conventions in Atlantic City. And that was the only time I did Hawaiian. I never really studied Hawaiian. There was a Hawaiian restaurant that all the Hawaiians gathered, but I quickly stayed away from it, because even back then in the 60s, the Alamihi Syndrome … Hawaiians—
The alamihi is the black crab that goes crawling up, yeah? And as it gets up to the top, another one will come and grab and pull them both down. So, I didn’t want to be part of the Alamihi Syndrome.
Definitely not. The ambitious Nake‘u Awai had a lot more that he wanted to do, and he kept on his path, a path which eventually led him back to Kalihi. But first, there would be a stop in Hollywood.
I keep expecting that you’re gonna say, And then I became a costumer and a design person. But you’re not saying that.
When did that come along?
Not until my years in Hollywood. Because then, after the last winter, I came home, and got right into My Fair Lady with Linda Ryan. And the choreographer who came from Vegas saw that I had potential, so he pushed me to get the role of Carpathy the Hungarian. So besides being a dancer, I played a secondary part. And so I did that. While I was doing that, the people that I worked with in Atlantic City, Flower Drum Song, were being hired for this show in Reno. Direct from Japan, Hello Tokyo. We need another guy. Well, there’s Joel Awai, he lives in Honolulu. So they called me. I got hired to go up to Reno. And the three male singer dancers were myself, Jimmy Borges, and Bob Ito. Now, Bob Ito … Quincy. Remember that show? It was where he was the mortician.
His assistant was this very well spoken Japanese guy, Bob Ito.
I remember him. Okay, that’s Bob Ito.
And he spoke so well. See, Bob Ito is a Canadian, so of course, he will speak very well.
And that’s where you met Jimmy Borges?
And that’s where I met Jimmy Borges.
What was he like then?
Well, like all the dancers, they make fun of the singer’s walk, Jimmy.
In other words, the same leg and the same arm swing. Instead of opposition, yeah? That’s the natural walk. They walk da, da, da, da. Yeah.
So he was definitely a singer, the way he walked.
Yeah, but the three of us had to do singing and dancing. I stayed in West Hollywood until I found my own place. Then I started going to auditions, and I started dancing on television. So that is the next nine years of my life.
Nine years dancing on television and other venues. What kind of dancing did you do?
Jazz; modern dance. Back then, musical specials were big, so I performed like the Jack Benny Special, or the Petula Clark Special, or Elvis had a special I was a part of.
Now, you said you weren’t an extraordinary dancer, but it sounds like you’re getting some good roles. You’re getting hired.
Well, so maybe I was better than some of the others. But I mean, I don’t consider myself a solo dancer, because I worked with a number of people who were great solo dancers, like in the Elvis Presley Special.
So what was it like? Did you actually encounter Elvis? You saw him on the set?
Well, Elvis was a very quiet, timid fellow who was like a school kid. And when he tried to relax and socialize, the moment Colonel Parker came in Elvis.
How old was Elvis then? Was he out of the Army?
He was out of the Army, yeah. I don’t know. Because this was in preparation for him to go to—because Elvis performed, then he went to movies, then he went into the Army. Now he’s out of the Army, and he’s gearing to go back to— because then he made a big—after television special, he went to Vegas, yeah? I think Elvis and I would be about the same age. I don’t remember. Do you know how old he is, or would be?
No, I don’t know how old he would be.
So did you have any interaction with him?
No. No. Because he didn’t socialize with us, because he was under wraps, or when he did come in and the Colonel would come in, he would jump up and he would disappear. Yeah; so dancers, they’re like cattle. They’re just kept in some room until they need them. And the thing with television, which is really junk, is you don’t have time to really warm up. So we call it the warm up special. We’d come to work, go get our face done. So you go to make up, get your face done, then we greased up our bodies with um, Bengay. Because then—
You didn’t want to hurt. [CHUCKLE]
Yeah. No, because then when you got up to dance, you would be all warmed up. Because Bengay would get your muscles and bones ready for performing. Because you never knew; sometimes you would wait hours before they’d call you. Dancers! So like when these musicals started to dwindle, the first people they got rid of were the dancers. The second people they got rid of were the singers. The last people they got rid of were the actors. That pecking order; yeah. So I worked with a lot of big names. Bill Cosby was one, his special. I came back to do Don Ho’s special, because the dancers were hired in LA, and so we came back when he did his special. And I still remember getting flown, a few of us getting flown to Lahaina to work with the children at the elementary school there, where they did this One Paddle, Two Paddle, walking down Front Street. And we were like guides, yeah, or aides or guides, I mean, as dancers. So that was Do Ho’s special.
It was in Lahaina, during the shooting of a Don Ho television special, that the germ of the idea of a career in fashion design finally took hold in Nake‘u Awai. Remember those photos of jumpsuit Elvis, macramé’d beaded belt flying? That was his handiwork.
While I was there, I was fortunate to have a close friend from Japan teach us how to do macramé. And because all Japanese children grow up learning knots, what the sailors do, the art of knotting. And so he taught us how to do macramé. And so this other fellow from Hawaii and I decided to go into business doing macramé belts. This was before the hippies then got hemp and were doing macramé baskets, macramé wall hanging and stuffs. We did belts and accessories. So I sold these belts to stores in Beverly Hills, to fur shops in Beverly Hills, to designers like Bob Mackey, where I still have some drawings. ‘Cause Bob Mackey was a good artist, and that’s how he started before he got into fashions. He was an artist who drew for designers. And so, he gave me some sketches of macramé that we did for Carol Burnett and stuffs and stuffs, where we did the macramé, and he did these sketches. Because he could make the drawing look like Carol Burnett. And so I got to meet designers besides he, Jean Louis, which is the old film that Lana Turner did, her gowns by Jean Louis. Jean Louis, who was a French designer who also, for a long time, did the uniforms for United Airlines, long ago. Well, he had a factory in Beverly Hills. And what’s interesting, half of his factory were Japanese, and the other half of his factory were Haole. And you could tell the difference, because the Japanese factory was zz, zz, zz. The Haole factory, [GIBBERISH]. So, I became aware of clothing design there. My Black choreographer mentor, Claude Thompson, felt that I could do it. So he gave me this job where I was doing costumes for Sammy Davis’ girls, because Claude was choreographing them. And he wanted me to do the costumes, so I was given this wonderful budget to do costumes for six girls. And that was my first try at clothing.
What did you do for them? What kind of costumes did you come up with?
I had fun. I was very creative. I went downtown LA and found all these places like where you could buy leather. And I bought chamois. The stuff you clean cars with? I bought skeins of chamois and cut them into—left parts of it rough, because the edges of chamois uncut, and did a wrap blouse for them, and sewed and hung beads on them. And then I got scarves that they did what the Blacks do, a do-wrap, the tight um, head wrap with a knot here, and bought a whole bunch of scarves, and did a scarf skirt. So I asked friends of mine, Well, if I want a scarf skirt, how do you do it? Well, you hang the scarf point-to-point, you sew from point to this point, from point to that point. And so, as long as I knew the construction, then I could pass it on to a seamstress. So they had these scarf skirts. So when they stood … would be all scarves hanging, but when they spun, it didn’t split apart, it connected. And with that, I had these big clunky boots.
And it worked.
Yeah. He loved it, and Sammy loved it too. So on a couple of times, I met Sammy and his wife Altovise, who was one of his dancers that he ended up marrying, and Sammy’s little black poodle, who I hated, because he’d run down from the house, and he’d straddle your foot, and shee all over you.
And I’d go … [GAGGING]. [CHUCKLE]
When you look at your career, and you’re still going, how do you describe it?
Well, it’s something that I look forward to every morning. It’s not like I don’t want to go to work. I get ready, I get up at five-fifteen, I do my things.
What’s in your shop? Tell us about your shop.
My shop is a collection of my fashions, and a collection of things that I like, and have cluttered my shop with. Like I have these blown-out Portuguese man-o- war [CHUCKLE] that Colleen Kimura did. So it’s like this blue spacey thing, and it has all the tendrils hanging down. And I have an old wreath that Noelani Pomroy did when she came from Kauai. I have an old, old, old, old wreath that Amelia Bailey brought to the shop many years ago, that’s still hanging up there. So it’s like going in a Chinese shop full of all kinds of—I mean, people come in, and they’re like [CHUCKLE]—the look is … Or they’ll come in, and they’ll take a long time, because there are too many textures and colors, and blends, and things to look at. I mean, yeah. And I like it. Everybody says, You need a bigger shop. No, I’ve gotten used to it.
At the time of this conversation in the summer of 2011, Nake‘u Awai continues to create and design, an icon of Hawaiian fashion. From his overflowing shop in Kalihi, he continues the dance of life, inspiring a new generation with his timeless textiles. For Long Story Short, and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.
For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.
When you see Elvis and he has these gyrating hips with these belts with beads on them, those were the belts that we did for Bill Ballou was the designer. A lot of things, as I look back, I’ve done stuffs that people didn’t understand what I did, and why I was doing it until later, and then you see them doing it and understanding it.
If you know the name Mamo, it’s probably because Mamo Howell is one of Hawaii’s most successful fashion designers and retailers. Quite an accomplishment for a woman – half Hawaiian – who started her business in her 40s.
But that’s not where Mamo’s story began. As a teenager she danced hula in Waikiki to help support her family and later became a high-fashion model, strutting on runways in New York and Paris. Hawaii’s first top model.
Aloha! And mahalo for joining me for another Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. If you know the name Mamo, it’s probably because Mamo Howell is one of Hawaii’s most successful fashion designers and retailers. Quite an accom- plishment for a woman – half Hawaiian – who started her business in her 40s. But that’s not where Mamo’s story began. As a teenager she danced hula in Waikiki to help support her family and later became a high-fashion model, strutting on runways in New York and Paris. Hawaii’s first top model. That was 50 years ago. Let’s catch up with her today.
We know you today as Mamo Howell, the designer, the business owner, the retailer. But in the 1950s, Mamo Howell was known as a high fashion model, all over the papers. And you were even described in one caption as ‘Polynesian Goddess.’
Must have happened a lot to you because you were just the slinkiest, most beautiful model. And you’d already had three children.
Oh yeah; mm. I’m in reverse. My life is reverse. No, but—
How did all that happen?
You know, I was dancing at the Halekulani Hotel. I was a dancer before I became a model. And I was seen dancing and offered a contract to go to New York to model. And when I got there I accepted it. It was a very good contract. And when I accepted it and went there, they insisted I lose weight. And I thought I was all right. You know, I thought I was hot stuff, huh? I don’t have to worry. No, no, no. So I could only eat—they watched my diet. I could only eat, you know, melon and foods that were not full of calories. And I got down to—I mean, my goodness. Today I’d be a size four. At that time it was a size eight.
How did the size of the models then compare to the size of the models now? We keep hearing models get skinnier and skinnier and skinnier.
Well no, we were skinny then. We got skinny then. But it’s just that it wasn’t called—a size four today was a size six or an eight then. That’s the difference. Somehow, the numbers changed. And I don’t know why. If it’s because it makes women think they’re thinner by the size being smaller; but actually you know, it’s the same. It’s just the numbers changed, you know. And that’s how I got into modeling, was really through dancing, through hula.
You got discovered.
Yeah, I guess so. But I was already married and had my three children. I was very, very young.
That must have been really unusual at the time to go away to New York to model, and your three kids were home.
Well, yes, but thank God for my wonderful family and my mother. You know, mothers, wonderful mothers. And then I took them with me from time to time. They would come fly with me to New York, and especially summertime. Then come back here, and my family took good care. My husband was here, so it all worked out very good.
And in New York that constitutes being a woman of color at the time.
I guess; yes.
Were you the only one?
Yes, I was. I was. All the other girls were from throughout the country. But there were—there were no Black models then. You know, that I don’t remember any Black models at all.
You didn’t just model in New York; then you hit Paris.
Well, yeah; then I was discovered there, and I was sent to Paris. And off I went there. And I loved it. It was like — I liked the language too, because I’d had a lot of that in school. You know, French nuns in Sacred Hearts Academy.
And you never lost yourself when you were a high fallutin’ high fashion model in New York and Paris.
No. No, no, no, no. Never. I always came right home here. This is my home. And not that there aren’t in many you know, temptations all over the place. No, I always came home. It’s the place to be.
And went to your Hawaiian roots, right back from Paris.
Did you wear real avant-garde or scanty clothing on the runway?
Very. Clothing I’d never seen before. I mean, the chiffons and the beautiful velvets, and what have you. Very, very high, high fashion. I was working for a company called Nettie Rosenstein at the time. She was like the Coco Chanel of America. And she was famous for her little black dress. And she did a lot of poir du soir. That’s what she loved. Poir du soir was her thing. And so we did a lot. The lines were pretty big, large. Like we had four models, we did showroom shows every day at ten and another one at two. And the buyers from all over the country would come. But it was very high fashion. We did a lot of the shows at the Pierre Hotel and the Waldorf. It was fabulous. It was a great, great experience for a girl coming from Hawaii, who’s only who’s got as far as Kona. You know what I mean? So it was — it was quite an experience.
Hawaii’s first high-fashion model. The first Polynesian to go global in the fashion industry. That was in the 1950’s. Amazing. From that heady start, Mamo Howell reinvented herself to become a leading Hawaii designer and entrepreneur. We’ll find out how that came about – next.
How do you go from model and hula dancer to fashion designer, business entrepreneur?
Well, you know, you’re much like a model, dancer. Much like an athlete. There’s just so much time you have. The time span for a dancer or a model is very — it’s really short. It’s not a long span.
Does somebody have to tell you, or do you know?
No; I knew. I wanted to start before they stopped asking me. So I was talking to David Eldredge at Punahou. And he offered me a job during the summer to do an enrichment course for summer in the fashion thing and the modeling. And so I did. And I just kind of transitioned right there to maybe having a course now, and then I looked around the market and decided that what we had on the market was not of our culture – the prints and everything. They were lovely, but they were not of our culture at all.
They were just florals or …
Mm hm. And then I thought what they don’t have on the market is something I grew up with, and that was a kihei pili – which all Hawaiian mothers made for their children. The little blanket with the flannel on one side, and that.
There wasn’t any on the market. So I designed on those. And I really started with that baby blanket, that’s what. I had a hard time selling it too. It took time. And then with that – and oh, the quilt – the Hawaiian quilt. That was another thing I didn’t see on the market at all, which is our, you know, the art of what Hawaiian women were doing. My mom, my grandmother; they were all quilters.
And you started when you were in your fifties, right? That’s when Mamo really took off.
Just about; yeah. About mid-forty, forty-five. Right; yeah. Which is crazy. Nobody starts that at that age. But then you have to, because again, you can’t go on dancing and modeling forever. It’s a young woman’s profession. You have to think something else. I didn’t want to be a, maybe a clerk in a store, ‘cause I didn’t think I’d be happy doing that. And so I went into designing. But I did have the background, which you know, with Nettie Rosenstein and Dior. So I had that background, which is what pushed me on. And then I’d been modeling here—
–in Hawaii for all the — most of the manufacturers in town, you know.
So you knew the market.
So I knew the market. Shaheen’s; you remember Shaheen’s?
Alfred; did a lot for him. And all — Kahala Sportswear, Nat Norfleet; I worked for him for a while in his office, as well as his model, showroom model. And so I was — I’d been in it for quite a while, you know.
You didn’t start with dresses at all; you started with blankets and quilts.
Blankets. Dresses were not even in my head. Started with the quilt blankets and all of that. And before you know it, I had a hard time selling that. So …
So things aren’t going very well.
Not the — things are not flying. No. So then I thought, well, what I have to do, then you know, it’s done; the print was done, the screens were done – of two prints that I had, of the quit. So what do we do with it? I decided, well, I’m gonna make a muumuu with it. Okay. And that’s when it started. That’s when it happened. The muumuu. Carol & Mary, Nancy Lang — you remember Nancy Lang?
Well, Nancy was really the first one to buy my muus. She bought two. And then Carol & Mary right after that bought some also. But Carol & Mary told me with my blankets — they bought the blankets too. They said to me, we’ll take your blankets, your kihei pili, if you give it to us first, and you give it to us, we’ll have it for three months before you give it to anybody else. Well, what they didn’t know was that I’d been out there trying to sell, and nobody would buy it. So I said, Oh, okay, you can have it first. And I had to make an appearance on the floor, and help customers, and put it in the paper. That’s what happened. It started with that. But I really had no intention of doing dresses at the time. It just evolved that way.
And your concept was high fashion muumuu, and nobody really thought of muumuus that way.
No. No. No. And they still don’t, really, you know. I find today that not too many women are wearing muumuus too much.
Oh, there was a newspaper article one day that said, you know, if you want to be taken seriously as a businesswoman, nix the old muumuu.
That’s right. That’s right. So when I came on the market, I did two regular muumuus. The regular, you know, the non-fitting fitted ones. And then I decided, you know, there’s so much more to fashion than just the muumuu. And I gleaned some of the — my thoughts and ideas from Dior and Nettie Rosenstein and some of the big designers, and put them into fashion. Made skirts and tops, and different things. And that’s where we are at now. Because really, you don’t really see a lot of muumuus being worn. You know? But it’s more the older people wearing muus.
So as you continue with your business, you can’t continue to concentrate on muumuu, long muumuu, traditional style.
No. We will never stop making the muu. We always will. We’ll still do that. But we progress with style and fashion, and how things are going. And I subscribe to a magazine that’s like the Bible of the industry, Women’s Wear Daily out of New York. And you see the trends that are way before, you know, six months ahead of time. But even so, Hawaii is still different from the mainland. I mean, they may say green is in there, but it’s not green—I mean, it’s not in here in Hawaii. Hawaii is different. We’re totally kind of by ourselves.
What are some of the other ways we differ from mainland buyers?
Well, the mainland buyers are more gutsy. They take chances. They’re right out there. They’re demanding something new, demanding something different. They don’t want the same thing. Here, they want kind of the same, safe things ‘cause their heads are on the block. Doesn’t sell, they’re in trouble. But that’s the big difference I see in the buyers here and the buyers on the mainland.
Did you ever have a huge flop in terms of a dress design?
Oh, sure. Oh, yeah. There were a couple of things we’ve made, I thought, Wow, this is going to be really hot. And it’s not. But there again, you know, people who come into the shop to my shop, they still have this idea that we are just Mamo muumuu, and this kind of unfortunate stigma that’s with Hawaiian wear, that it somehow is just not quite up to par, it’s not quite good enough. Some of our broadcasters don’t wear Hawaiian wear on Fridays. I think you might know who, a couple, some of the—
I know a few of them.
Some of those. Yeah. But that’s okay. That’s how they feel. It’s not dressy enough, it’s not it’s just too casual.
I heard one say, ‘How can I report on the war in Iraq when I’m wearing flowers?’ That was one of the comments I heard from a newscaster.
Yeah. I think that’s ridiculous. See, we’re in Hawaii. I mean, what do you do in New York? I mean, if you’re gonna be living in New York in December, of course you’re not gonna wear the flower stuff. But in summer, why not? Well, we are in Hawaii. I think that’s the main thing. That’s where we are. We’re Hawaii; we should be with something of our islands, of our culture, of the coconut trees and the beautiful oceans and the colors, and the flowers. And how can you not, you know, be wearing something of Hawaii. I can’t see it.
Look at you in your slinky black tee-shirt.
Oh, thank you.
You’re well past conventional retirement age. I’m sure most people don’t realize that, but—
Oh, aren’t you nice. Thank you.
You’re closer to eighty than to seventy.
So how long do you go on working in this very challenging and dynamic business?
Well, you know, if I didn’t love it so much, I think I would be gone already, long time ago. I do love it. But I do. I do feel that I have to start thinking realistically. And I’ve never taken a vacation. And I’m thinking — and even my doctor says, You know, you have to start taking off and don’t go in every single day from nine to five or whatever. And he’s right, because I do think that there’s a lot of stress going on. And if I didn’t love the business so much, oh, I’d be in — what would you say when we were kids? We’d be in Room 13 in Kaneohe.
I remember that expression.
In Room 13. Remember that? That’s where I’d be.
That’s a reference to the State Hospital on the Windward Side of Oahu. Coming up next, Mamo Howell shares stories about adversity, success and legacy – and perhaps how she’ll start planning her first vacation.
One of our PBS Hawaii viewers remembers that you had humble beginnings, and wonders, ‘Of all the obstacles you’ve had in your quest to achieve, what’s been the toughest adversity to get through?’
I think the toughest is convincing the buyers that our culture is not to be pushed aside. I think – I mean, I’ve been battling for like five years, when I first came out with my designs, with like Liberty House. I couldn’t get into Liberty House because the quilts. They never saw that before – they didn’t want that. So I had a hard time convincing any buyer I went to at first. It took me five years before I could get anything on the market at all.
Was it your product, the type of product, or was it the fact that you’re a former hula dancer, model, woman?
Well, I think all of that. But mostly the product. But I think all of that. They didn’t take me seriously. You know, hula dancer, you know, things and the model, and you know, the frivolous kind of thing, and that also, my designs weren’t what they thought would sell. And it did not seem — see, it was too different, so the buyers have to be safe. They feel they have to be safe.
Well, how did you convince them? Or was it that one — Carol & Mary saying, ‘Yeah, I’ll take it.’
Well, that one Carol & Mary thing did start me off with the blankets. Exactly right. And I got going there, then Nancy Lang. But the really big start was with a fellow by the name of Fred Hasegawa. He was at Liberty House. And he was, I think, he was a rural manager or one of those. Anyway, he came and he recognized — local boy, part-Hawaiian, Japanese. And he recognized what I had. And he came to my home. He came to my house.
And you had seamstresses at your home, right?
Only one. I had one seamstress, one cutter, and me, you know. And he came to my home, and looked around, and that’s— that’s how I really — I mean, the orders really came in big. I mean, I was really doing, wow, you know. So that’s what happened. But that was my toughest thing – was trying to get us out on the market. We had a hard time. When you’re up against the big boys, you’re up against the Hilo Hattie’s and the Tori Richards, whom I used to model for when I was young. And all of them – Iolani and all the big companies, you know.
And then you became so successful, you had to worry about knockoffs here and there.
Well, the interesting thing about that is I was so naïve, I didn’t know about knockoffs. I didn’t think about it. One of the buyers — she’s no longer there – she’s retired long time ago. But she said to me, ‘Do you know, Mamo’, she said, ‘What you should do,’ she bought my stuff. She says, ‘Oh, I love it.’ She says, ‘What you’d better start thinking of doing is knocking yourself off.’ I said, ‘Well, what does that mean? What do you mean by…’ She says, ‘Because you’re gonna be copied. You’re gonna — people are just going to – there’ll be like an avalanche coming down.’ And I said, ‘Really?’ And she was right. Because everybody after that came out with a quilt. It’s on every hotel and stationery, and it’s everywhere.
You know, in any business, but particularly I think the fashion business, you can’t just start and everything goes along. You always have to sustain the business by reinventing it as you go along.
Always. You have to keep going. And somebody said that to me once a long time ago, ‘Mamo’ — my blankets, you know, she says. I said, ‘Oh, thank God.’ She says, ‘No, no,’ she says. ‘You have to keep going.’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, I guess so.’ I didn’t think about it.
Find something else, do something differently.
You have to. Or you’re dead in the water. Then quit.
Have you ever felt dead in the water, or like you should quit?
Never. I think that’s another thing about — if I wasn’t so positive I wouldn’t let anybody talk me out of anything. I mean, they said, ‘What?’ They said, ‘You’re gonna compete with the big boys?’ ‘I’m not competing with the big boys; I’m coming out with something that nobody’s doing, no one has, no manufacturer or designer out there is doing my look, quilt, the Hawaiian—nobody is. So I’m not competing with them at all. I’m bringing something on the market that’s brand new.’ And that was part of my problems too, ‘cause that’s when they all got on the same bandwagon, you know. But you can’t let anybody – you have to be focused and stay there. Yeah.
Do you have a succession plan for the business?
Well, you know, I did. My daughter was supposed to take over. Now she’s on the mainland, she can’t. But you know, something very interesting has just happened recently. My grandson who’s out of college, he’s with a company on the mainland called Cerbae, C-E-R-B-A-E. And he’s been there with them for three years, and he’s learned an awful lot. And what he’s interested in doing is fusing some of my kind of looks with that look, and doing another label. His name is Tautua. And he was here for a little while, talking with me. And it’s very, very encouraging, because this is where he, I — it’s going to him. I think I think he’ll do a good job with it ‘cause he’s enthusiastic. He loves — he loves it. And he’s an artist. He’s young.
And he’s family.
And he’s family. And he’s handsome. And I think — I think that’s what is gonna happen with him. So that makes me feel a little better ‘cause I need an exit plan. And I have to start to thinking of it now. You know, as age comes on, I have to start thinking — it’s gotta go on. And I want my legacy to be there, and I want this to continue. I want the — our culture and Hawaiian prints and all that to, to go on. Because I don’t want to do the hokey Waikiki corn things that’s on the market. A lot of it is on the market now and has been for years. That’s not Hawaii, that’s not Hawaiian culture, that’s not where I’m coming from. And I think that’s where Tautua will take it – into the cultural side.
So what if your grandson takes your designs and makes them into something that you would never put up with?
Well, that would be interesting.
And you’re out of the company by then.
That’s gonna be interesting. But he’s already shown me some things that he’s done, and I think he’s — I think he’s on the right track., I mean. But that would be interesting, wouldn’t it? ‘Cause you know how these kids are. You don’t know what they’re gonna do. I mean—
I think you’d be one unhappy tutu.
Yeah. I have faith in him. I mean, it’s gotta be something that’s gonna sell. You know, it can’t be so far out. But the company he’s with is a very good company and they might — he’s thinking of probably some kind of a merger maybe. That’ll be very good. I’ll be very comfortable with that. ‘Cause it’s a tough business to handle by yourself. Not easy.
You know, you’ve done so much in your life, and you’ve accomplished a lot. You helped to support your family when you were a teenager by dancing hula when you’ve raised children. You’re a world traveler. And you mentioned legacy. Of all the things you’ve done, is there one particular thing you’re most proud of and would like to be remembered for?
My design. I think the fact that I’m bringing out the culture of Hawaii in our motifs and all of that. I’m proud of that. But starting very young and earning money – I remember dancing, yes, and helping my mom. Because you know, when my father died, he was only forty-two years old and left her with seven children. Us. So when I was dancing I remember making two dollars and fifty cents a show and coming home and giving it to my mother. And that was good for me. You understand things then.
Tough to lose your dad at such a young age. How old were you?
Oh, I might have been eleven. And I was the youngest in the family. So you know. And you know, all families have something going on. My mother moved to the Big Island and we went over with her – my two brothers and I. We were the youngest ones.
Went over on the Humuula. We went steerage. [The future model was in steerage.
In steerage. But you know what? It was — we had more fun on steerage ‘cause we could run all over the place. Go into those little rooms, claustrophobia time. No, no, no. That’s what we did. Then you get to Kailua-Kona and then they have to send the boats out to take you in, I mean. But it was nice. It was a nice time.
So your whole life, you’ve just kept going. No matter what hit you, you kept going, and you kept believing in yourself.
You have to. Yes; absolutely. You have to keep going.
How do you know you’re right?
Well, you know, if you let too many people steer you, you won’t — you’ll never — you have to just go straight ahead. I mean, this wandering around – somebody will tug you this way, somebody will tug you thisther way. And you can’t – I mean, you should believe in yourself all the time. Not that you always – not that you’re always right. You make mistakes. You make wrong decisions sometimes. I’ve made many. You know, the thing is you just get back on track as fast as you can. And go on.
And she keeps going. This daughter who helped support her widowed mother as a teen…this mother of three who traveled through Europe as a high-fashion model… this designer who started a business in her mid-40s. Mamo Howell keeps charming us today. Mahalo to Mamo – and to you – for joining me for another Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou!
Anne Namba is the creator of a fashion line blending vintage Japanese fabrics and contemporary fashion, “kimono couture.” Her brand, Anne Namba Designs, is being picked up nationally by Nordstrom’s and is featured in other select Mainland stores. Anne graduated from Kalani High School and went on to the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. After stints in the garment industry in New York and L.A., Anne started her own business.
Aloha no, I’m Leslie Wilcox welcoming you to another episode of Long Story Short. This one is a little different. Usually I’m getting to know the guest at the same time you are. But this time, our guest is someone I happen to have grown up with. Used to hang out at her home with her family, saw her go through school, boyfriends, marriage, major career moves. So I already know her— and I also know she’s full of surprises. Anne Namba is the creator of a fashion line blending vintage Japanese fabrics and contemporary fashion, “kimono couture.” Her brand, Anne Namba Designs, is being picked up nationally by Nordstrom’s and is featured in other select Mainland stores. Anne graduated from Kalani High School and went on to the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. After stints in the garment industry in New York and L.A., Anne started her own business.
When I met you, you were in third grade; I was in fifth. And you showed up at Aina Haina Elementary School with your sister—wearing an—you were so exotic, because you were carrying your books in a bag and the strap was on your forehead. It was a woven tribal bag. And everyone took about five second looks, if you can do such a thing.
Yeah. Okay; exotic would not be the correct term. I was like nerd. I was like weirdo. That’s ‘cause we had just come back from living in Thailand. And those were like our little book bags. And they were actually these ethnic bags from Thailand. And my mother was like, These are perfect to carry your books in. So that’s how you carried ‘em, was on your head, so you didn’t get shoulder, you know, aches or anything. So we did that. Oh, my god.
I can’t remember the year, but we were young, and you and I took sewing classes together. Your first formal sewing class.
That’s right. Yeah; that was—I think it was yeah, it was soon after. I know I wanted to learn how to sew, and so Nodie came too.
My sister, Nodie, and you were there and Tammy Higa was there. And yeah, you guys were terrible; I remember that.
I don’t remember that part; not at all.
Oh, you were terrible.
Well, you were about twelve. And is that—did you discover that you were so much better than the rest of us?
Well, I just loved it. I loved it, and it came natural—you know, very natural—
Did you know before that, that you’d be good at it?
Well, I think my mom will be horrified by this story. But it’s true. Because I was the second daughter, I got all of my older sister’s hand-me-downs. And I never had my own clothes. So the only way to get my own clothes was to actually make them, which is why I wanted to learn how to sew. And so I remember my grandmother died, my Japanese grandmother died, and she had one of those really old fashioned sewing machines that you pumped the pedal and it would go. And so I just started fooling around. I found some fabric, and I made this little outfit, not knowing what I was doing. And my mother saw that, and she was like, Oh, maybe you need to take sewing lessons. I’m like, Oh, yeah, I’d love it. So that’s when I started doing it. And Nodie started wearing all of my clothes, so everyone thought that they were her clothes, and I was still wearing her hand-me-downs. So then I started renting them to her, which was my whole entrepreneurial start, so—
How much did you charge her?
I can’t remember, but it was in high school. ‘Cause I’m going, That’s not fair. I buy the fabric, I make the outfit, and then you wear it like it’s your clothes, and everyone just assumes that I’m wearing your old clothes.
Well, I remember at a certain point in that class, I was trying to follow the lines of my Simplicity pattern. And I looked over at you and you weren’t even using a pattern. You were just free-forming it.
Yeah; I remember you would pin everything, like every inch apart. I was like, Oh, my god.
And you would just be done. Like, what’s she still working on? And you would design your own clothes at that point.
Yeah; I started off by just like altering a pattern, or you know. And then I used to go to India Imports and buy the bedspreads there, and—you know, ‘cause that was the hippie days, and make, you know, our long sort of muumuu things. And then people started asking me to sew it for them, so that’s when I started doing that and charging money. So I started way back when.
Was that natural for you, the idea of the—you know, the creative part and the commerce part?
Oh, absolutely. I was like, I’m not doing this for free.
But tough, right? Because so many people asked you to do favors, and Anne could you help me with this.
Yeah. I still to this day have a hard time saying no.
Your family was very supportive of you in this business.
Yeah; yeah. They always—you know, when I announced that I wanted to be a fashion designer, it was like, oh. But they supported me all the way, and you know when I think back now, my parents, you know, they had to scrape together money to send me away to New York to go to school. And you know, back then, you just think, Well, that’s what I want to do, of course they’re gonna pay for it.
Because your father was a professor, he believed in higher ed.
Would he have liked you to have been a scientist like he is?
Oh, they knew that that was never a possibility. In fact, they saved some of my old reports cards. And my kids were shocked. They’re all like, Mom, you got Ds? It’s like, but look at Art; it’s A’s.
Picked the right job.
So you went away to New York, and was that like for you?
I remember um, when I first landed in New York—and nowadays, you know, parents take kids on college tours, and they set them up. I just got there, and got out of the train station with all my suitcases, and some man comes up and said, Do you need a cab? And I’m like, Yeah. And he picked up my bags and just took off through Madison Square Gardens. And I’m following him; he takes me to the curb, and he hails a cab for me. And I was like, Oh, I thought he was a cab driver. And then he asked me for a tip. And I was just like, Oh; what? And then the cab driver starts yelling at him for doing that, ‘cause he was scamming me. So the cab driver and this guy then start fist fighting on the street. And then I’m just watching in horror. And then he yells at me; he says, Get in the cab. So I get in the cab, and I’m just like going, I just want to go to FIT, you know, just to the school. I was in shock. I was like, Oh, my god, this is New York. And then I got there and decided I was gonna go—there was a bagel shop, and I wanted to get a sandwich. And everyone’s in there, shouting out their orders, and I’m politely standing, waiting and waiting. And finally, the bagel guy looks at me and he goes, You gonna order, or what? And I was like, Oh, I’m sorry. So that was my very first hour in New York City.
You realized, I’d better ratchet up my—
I was like, Oh, wow.
–confidence level here.
Well, by the time I visited you—and this was in the 80’s—you were working in the fashion industry, Radio City Music Hall. Right?
You were costuming the dancers
That’s right; that’s right.
I remember thinking, What’s happened to Anne? Because you walked—
Oh, I know.
–about five times faster than you ever had, and we were just walking. We weren’t going to any particular place.
I thought, Where are they?
You talked faster, and you were very proactive in dealing with people. You know, just combative, as a matter of fact, as I recall.
Yeah; back—oh, back then—well, especially in fashion, and in school too, it’s really a super competitive field. So you have to— you can be intimidated; you gotta just get out there and—
Did that come naturally for you?
No. I was shy. Remember? I was really shy as a kid. So yeah, I don’t know what happened along the way.
But was it hard, or do you just remember thinking, This is what I have to do, therefore it’s what I’ll do?
No; it was hard. I remember feeling like a country bumpkin when I first got up there, and not being sophisticated, not knowing anything, not being fashionable, not being able to buy the latest you know, fashion.
Did you think you were gonna cut it? Did you think you might not make it?
I never thought that I wasn’t gonna be a fashion designer; I always thought that’s—you know, I’m gonna work in fashion. But I never thought I would be where I am today. I didn’t have that in my fantasies.
What did you think you would do with your degree once you got out of this prestigious fashion school?
I thought I would just be probably designing for you know, companies in New York City. And that someday I might be able to, you know, design for, you know, one of the big—you know, Calvin Klein or something like that. And to me, that would have been like, wow. But then, you know, of course, I burnt out of the city and and left, so—
What did you think when you were leaving the city? Did you think—
Oh, you were glad to go?
I was like, Oh—
And what next?
Well, I moved to L.A. because I thought there’s a good fashion center there, so I moved to LA. And then at that point, I still did not want my own company. So I moved there, and I wanted to get into costuming again. But it’s so tough; that industry is really, really a hard industry to get into. And I fell back into the garment district, into the—actually producing overseas. So that started a whole ‘nother interest in overseas and producing over there. And then naively thought, you know, Oh, my bosses are a bunch of jokers, they don’t know what they’re doing. You know. I just thought, pff, I’m doing all the work here, I might as well open my own business and—you know, very naively. Because running a business and designing stuff is completely—it’s a lot more than just designing pretty clothes. And so I moved back to Honolulu, because I thought, Well, at least if it doesn’t work out, I have a roof over my head, and I know that my family will feed me. So I moved back to Hawaii, and worked here for about a year, just to sort of get the climate, figure out resources, and how it all works here, which is a lot slower.
Yeah; I noticed you started walking more slowly again. And talking more slowly.
And then I started my business. And it’s been great.
And you did literally start your business under your parents’ roof.
Yup. I got the old bedroom, and I updated the—my grandmother’s sewing machine, though. And just—I was a one-man show. I did everything myself.
Anne launched a boutique in 1989 and Anne Namba Designs was born. Despite being what she terms a “one man show” during those early days of the business, Anne credits family members for their unwavering support. More on that as our conversation continues.
Must be a thrill to hear when somebody is wearing an Anne Namba.
The first time I heard my name used in that way, like, Oh, I wore my Anne Namba, and I’m like, Wait, that’s me. What do you mean you wore my Anne Namba? You know. And now, you know, I’ll just say, Oh, I’m gonna wear an Anne Namba. And so I’m very used to it now.
I remember your dad liked to help you pick the models.
That is my dad’s main objective with all my shows.
And your mom is very long-suffering. Kind of rolls her eyes, and smiles.
No; all the models know that if my dad doesn’t like them they don’t get hired again. So they all make sure to say, Hello, Dr. Namba, whenever he comes to my shows.
You had to find a niche for yourself when you got back home.
How did how did Eurasian clothes get to you? How did that idea get planted?
Well I think a lot of it had to do with the influence of always traveling, seeing different cultures, seeing different fabrics which—I love Japanese fabric; love the kimono, the culture, the food, everything. And so I was very taken with the fabric and the kimono, but you can’t really wear a kimono, ‘cause either you look like you’re wearing a costume or a bathrobe. And so I decided, since I had the background of fashion and how do to, you know, Western contemporary style clothing and flattering lines, that I would incorporate the two. And it’s nothing new; people had been doing it before. But you know, I have a different sort of take on it than—you know, everyone has their own sort of individual take. You know, and then slowly got into doing my own prints, because I’m running out of kimonos.
I was gonna ask you; where did you get all the kimono that you used, and how was that taken in Japan? Are they wild about you cutting up kimonos?
Actually, they’re starting to do it now.
You see a lot more of it happening.
Were they doing that at the time you started?
No; no, not at all. In fact, they would be just like, Why are you using that old stuff? And they would not themselves buy it, because it’s almost looked upon, back then, as you couldn’t afford new clothes so you had to remake one of your old kimonos. Nowadays, though, again, you see a lot of the younger generation. I was shopping some of the stores the last time I was there, and you’re seeing Japanese labels, jeans with kimono pockets and patches on it. So things are changing. I have a lot of Chinese influence too, and some of my prints are Chinese inspired, as well as styles. I did one whole collection once for a showing that I did that was all based on Chinese different dynasties. And I researched it and did that whole thing.
That must be fun, the research. Historical research.
Oh, yeah. Yeah; yeah. It’s a lot of fun.
Now, you said you’re getting into prints too.
I’ve been doing prints for a long time, actually. If you have your own fabric, then you can mass produce the styles. So I started doing that, oh, gosh, quite a while ago. And right now, that’s my main wholesale collection.
Who designs your fabrics?
My nephew. He started—that’s Nodie’s son. And he started when he was like fifteen; he’s really talented artist, and so I started having him do some artwork for me. And nowadays, it’s all done on the computer. So you know, we’ll discuss ideas, and I’ll look at things, and you know, if I don’t like a color, you know, he presses a button, it’s, How’s that? It’s much different today.
And he designed the fabric you’re wearing now?
What are women most concerned about when they dress, in general?
Well, my mission statement is to make every women look taller, thinner, and I just added younger, now that I can relate.
How do you do that, though? Just the cut of the—
The cut, yeah. You know, you don’t want dowdy cuts. You know, you try to keep it modern, but wearable for people that don’t have the most—you know, the perfect body. And it’s funny that, you know, if you have a certain flattering style on people, and you know how to achieve it, then when they put on the garment, they’re like, I love it. And they don’t know particularly why, but they love the cut.
It must be frustrating, ‘cause sometimes you probably want to design for fashion model types who can wear anything. And you have to be realistic and design for people who are regular folks.
Actually, for me, I—mostly because I’m not built like a model, I always design with myself in mind. Like, what would I want to wear. And naturally, you know, I want to look taller, slimmer, younger, so I’ll do that. And when the models put it on, I just see that as like, you know, icing on the cake. It’s just like, oh, well, they’re just so tall and thin. So I don’t design for model figures at all, and I never have. And it’s just when they throw it on and it’s that much better, then you know, that’s great. But you know, I’ll have women that say, Well, of course it looks good on her, she’s six feet tall and size, you know, zero. But I’m like, No, it’s not true. If you put it on—it’s actually too big on her, but you know, that’s her job to make it look better. And put it on, ‘cause it’ll look good on you too. And I was just approached by another store for—to do plus sizes. So now I might expand into that.
Yeah. So is there a new area of the business you’re going to be moving into, or are you gonna be at this level for a while? How’s it working?
Well, at this point, for me to expand in my wholesale division, that’s the easiest, ‘cause I contract everything out. So the hard part is designing the fabric, designing the collection, and then getting it produced. Once I do that, I can up my numbers. And so I could say, Cut 50 of these, or cut 500. It’s just adding more numbers.
That could be an exponential move then.
Yeah; yeah. And it wouldn’t be that much more for us to do; it’s just upping the numbers when we order things. So we’re looking at that. Aother division of mine that is just going gangbusters is my bridal division. And that started out as you know, client coming in; Oh, my daughter’s getting married, why don’t you make a dress. And well, 500 people came to her wedding, and they all—you know, it was great advertising. So now we’re going gangbusters with our bridal.
What do women look for in bridal dresses when they come to you? What do they want?
They want the Asian, you know, influence look. A lot of the girls want to have that. Different fabric, something you know, some of ‘em, you know, it reflects their heritage. Just something—you know, a lot of times, they want something simple, but really different. And so when they come to us, then you know, that’s what they get. We custom make all of our gowns for our brides.
So I understand you’re gonna be appearing across the nation in a particular store. Something new is happening?
Yes; yes. I am, well, I’m participating in the new Nordstrom store, so we’re just going gangbusters getting all the collections ready for them. And of course that goes nationwide. So that’s big.
That’s huge. How much do you think that’ll add to your business in percentage?
Gosh; you know, like I said, I got a D in math, so I don’t know; that’s why I have my husband. Marriage is a business.
Another family member helping—
Yes; yes, yes.
–in the business and being a resource.
Yes; so we do and I’m using my daughter as a model now. So yeah. So we have lots of nepotism.
And it works for you.
What do your kids take away from your running a business and being a fashion designer, do you think?
Well, I hope that they don’t think that life is all about stress. That’s really what I hope they—you know, they don’t do. ‘Cause you know, I worry that—a lot of times, I’m like, Mom’s had a bad day, I’m really stressed. And I don’t want them to think that’s what running a business is about. So I try to watch that, but a lot of times, I know I’m, How was your day, Mom. It’s like, [GROWL]. I think I—well, I constantly remind them that it is a business, so it can go up and down. And in fact, I’ve tried to get—my daughter has done a little bit of her own business. And this is just—you know, I’m trying to get her to have an entrepreneurial spirit, and to realize that if you work hard, and you know, you try to use your head about things and you know, if you have a little bit of talent and you just figure out how to take advantage of it, you know, that you can make money. And so she’s been making money off of little things too. And so I think she’s gonna be able to—and she wants to go into fashion and into business, so I think she’s gotten that from the business, and she really enjoys that part of it. She’s a great salesperson too, so—
Were there times where you wanted to rethink the whole business, or when it was really difficult to decide where to go next with it?
No. Actually, once I started, I never thought—I mean, before I started, I thought, well, you know, no guts, no glory, right, and I can always get a job. So—why not? And started doing it, and I never once said, I want to give up, or this isn’t working, or I rather work for somebody. Never, ever. But then I’ve just been really lucky, and things have been going really well for me. So—
And you’ve seen other fashion businesses lose their way.
Yeah. Yeah; come and go. But you know, I’ve been able to sort of market my look, the image, and you know, create a good image. And just keep on top of things. Although my body’s starting to revolt.
Speaking of that, you’ve done triathlons.
I know; that was like, my daughter calls it my midlife crisis. So she just said, All of a sudden, Mom decided to do triathlons, so—
Well, was it all of a sudden? I mean, were you ready?
Yeah. Yeah; no, I just thought, Oh, I can do that, that sounds like fun. And so I did it. And of course, now I have arthritis in my knees and tendonitis in my arms and—
And now you don’t do those three events anymore?
No; I—yeah, I had to give up running. So then I started swimming and biking, and then now I can’t swim anymore, so today I’m gonna try and do a spinning class. And I walk in the mornings, and I used to make fun of people that walked for the exercise, and now that’s what I’m doing.
Several times now, I think you’ve paddled to Kalalau along the Na Pali Coastline of Kauai, which is rough, there are no lifeguards around to save you if you get into trouble. It’s about a 27-mile paddle from the beginning to the end.
Well, we’ve done that now every year for, oh my goodness, maybe five, six years. And it’s my spiritual renewal. And it’s where we go and we sleep on the beach, and we have to pump our own water, and we look and you know, bathe in the waterfall. But we hike every day, and for me, that is just getting back to nature and realizing that in this world, you are very small. And then all of a sudden, it just doesn’t really matter that the color was slightly, you know, too yellow—or you know.
And the main fashion garment is the pareau, right? Because you can wear it, you can towel off on it.
Yes. You sleep on it. You can—yeah. You can do everything with it.
The wilderness trips, the camping; that doesn’t jive with your image as this fashion designer who’s just perfect at your shows.
I know. I remember when one year we came back from Kalalau; and this was after being a week on the beach, right? And we came direct from the beach to the airport. And as I was checking in, the guy looks at my ID and he starts to laugh, and he goes, Hey, you have the same name as the fashion designer. I went like, Oh, yeah. And another time, I was up at a waterfall, and I don’t know how it got out, but this guy there that works for advertising found out that I was there. And he goes, Oh, Anne, I always to meet you, and so I was a little embarrassed of the way I looked. So I thought, I’m just gonna be cool, like I’m cool, you know, I’m in nature, and so what if I look like this. So I was like, Oh, yeah, and I was doing my whole, you know, I’m nature too, and all that. And then all of a sudden, I’m talking to him, and one of the lenses from my sunglasses popped out and fell on the ground. And then I completely lost it. And I was like, Don’t tell anyone you saw me here.
Do you think your position number two in a family of four kids—you know, they always talk about birth number being important somehow.
Yes. I think I was ignored as the middle child. Because—
Well, we know about the hand-me-downs.
Yes, Leslie. And you know, my older sister, she got all the new stuff, and she got to do things first. And then my younger brother was the baby, so he got babied. And the middle child always gets ignored.
But it seems to have worked out for you.
Yeah. I just like to use it.
The middle child has done very well for herself. I’ve overheard women saying with pride ‘I’m wearing an Anne Namba.’ Anne’s clientele has grown to include Elizabeth Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Hillary Clinton, Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi and many women throughout Hawaii. It was fun sharing stories with this successful Hawaii entrepreneur, creative force, and good friend – Anne Namba. But, as always, we have to keep this long story short. Mahalo for joining me. I’m Leslie Wilcox with PBS Hawaii. A hui hou kakou!
We lived in Thailand and Iran, and then just—
You lived in Iran when you were a kid.
Yes. That’s right.
What was it like?
You know, it was really fun back then ‘cause it was the Shah, and you know, we rode horses, and we went to a private little school and it was great fun; international school. And it was great back then.
Your dad was a professor from the University on sabbatical.
Right; and you know, he was basically, you know, looking for different experiences to do, and we went as a family. And so we all sort of got the travel bug and just curiosity in other cultures. I think it was just sort of you know, you grow up around it.
Leslie Wilcox talks with fashion designer Ariyaphon Southiphong, formerly Andy South. In the first of two episodes, Ari talks about growing up in Waianae, Oahu, discovering fashion as a career choice and landing a spot on the fashion competition show, Project Runway. As Andy, he maintained keen focus on school projects and clothing design, with questions about gender identity lingering on the backburner. In 2012, Andy changed his name to Ari and now identifies as a transgendered female.
In the second of two episodes, fashion designer Ariyaphon Southiphong (formerly Andy South) talks about her transition to becoming a transgendered female through hormone replacement therapy. Ari elaborates on the challenges her transition has presented and the insight it has given her, both personally and professionally.
My name is Ariyaphon, Ari for short. And my mom renamed me. I asked her to, because it was very important for me to remain connected with my family, to remain connected with my mom. Ariyaphon means the blessing of radiant light, or the power of radiant light.
Which definition did you pick?
The meaning that she would have spelled it was, the blessing of radiant light. And the spelling that I chose translates Ariyaphon to the power of radiating light.
Honolulu fashion designer Ariyaphon Southipong, former the man known as Andy South, next on Long Story Short.
Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.
Aloha; I’m Leslie Wilcox. Ariyaphon Southiphong is one of Hawaii’s most recognized young fashion designers. Name doesn’t ring a bell? You may know her better as Andy South. In 2010, Andy South was a top-three finalist on Lifetime Television’s fashion reality show, Project Runway. In 2012, a year before our conversation, Andy changed his name to Ari and began his transition to becoming a female. A child of Laotian immigrants, Ari, then Andy, grew up far from the glamour of fashion and television. Born in Kailua on Oahu’s windward coast, Andy lived with his parents, his sister, half-sister, and two half-brothers. Andy’s parents had a tumultuous marriage. By the time Andy reached the third grade, his parents had split, his mother remarried, and the family moved to the other side of Oahu, to Waianae.
And what prompted the move to Waianae?
What kind of farming?
Catfish farming. Catfish, and sunfish which is —
It’s a fancy word for tilapia. But yeah, so freshwater sunfish, freshwater Chinese catfish. When we first started, we actually did an above-ground tank in our back yard in Kailua, and it leaked into the neighbor’s yard. It was a huge ordeal with us running into a lot of issues. It was also our test period, right, of trying to farm raise fish and see if it would be viable for us to actually do it as a business. We eventually moved out to Waianae, and I lived there most of my life, actually.
What brought your parents to Hawaii?
A better future, quintessential immigrant parents. But more so in my mom’s case, it was specifically … she had actually come here with her first husband, who is the father to my three eldest siblings, who are half siblings for me. But they came as college students, and it was also to escape Communism. My mother, youngest of five girls, daughter to a governor. So, when the whole government was overturned, they were actually warned to leave the country, or they would have eventually been killed if they were ever caught. So, that was their reason for leaving.
Is there an exciting escape story?
No. [CHUCKLE] College. [CHUCKLE] So, they didn’t have any —
Yeah; college visas. And at the time, they were actually coming back and forth to Hawaii for college at the University of Hawaii. And it just so happened that things with the government weren’t going well, and so, eventually, Mom based herself here and slowly, everybody was sent over, starting with the kids. So, all of my twenty-plus cousins have gone through my mom’s household, when they were in their teens going to high school, starting college. And then, their parents made their way over.
So, your mom was a privileged daughter of a governor, to struggling catfish farmer in Waianae.
Yeah; basically. My mom would talk a lot about her growing up in Laos, and a lot of things that she … I guess, throughout our lives, growing up as farmers, she would reminisce sometimes about the easier times when life wasn’t so hard, basically.
She had somebody tending to her all the time.
Exactly; yeah. But I love when people reminisce. I love old stories. I love speaking to older people. I just think that life is so interesting in the way that the stories are all different, and then you realize it’s how they have come out of situations, or how they turn situations o benefit from, and to turn them into blessings, as opposed to letting it kill them.
So, you’ve always kind of been attuned to coping skills?
Yes; I think so.
M-hm. And I learned that all from my mom. And my mom still is the hero that I have, which I think a lot of people can say that their mother is their hero, or their father is their hero. I think for every child, it’s very deep for different reasons. And for me, it’s because I’ve watched my mom be the strong woman that she is, and I’ve seen her in her weak moments. You know. But even in that, she had shown such great strength by not letting it show.
Growing up as the boy known then as Andy Southiphong, Andy found his mother’s lesson of resilience to be a valuable and recurring one, as childhood teasing led to bigger questions.
Do you remember some of the early things that you had to use resilience to overcome when you were a kid?
[CHUCKLE] A lot of teasing.
About what? What kind of teasing? Regular kind?
Yeah, well, a lot of regular teasing, which is kids being kids. I obviously wasn’t the popular kid growing up. I wasn’t athletic. I was actually a lot heavier when I was a child, so I was teased a lot for, one, my weight, for me being just naturally effeminate as a boy.
Did that bother you?
It did, but I never let it get me down. Because I think I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of mentors throughout my life, and they’ve been my teachers, a lot of my instructors.
What did the teachers say, or how did they let you know everything’s okay?
I guess it was the positive feedback that I was getting from them for my work, and for me being a good student. For them constantly telling me, You’re gonna go far. And even in elementary, that matters so much to the development of a child. Because had they not been that positive with me — and I don’t think they ever knew that I would get teased or that it bothered. I was never bullied, per se. I never was picked on, but you have other students in your class of how many really rowdy boys, and you don’t fit in with the boys. And then, if you play with the girls, that’s more reason for you to get teased, right?
Did you try to sound less effeminate?
Growing up, I did, throughout high school. It started to matter more as I grew older, and as I reached high school. Because that, I guess, is … you start to really decide who you are.
Or it’s decided for you?
Yeah; it’s decided for you based on the opinions of your peers. And I tried to; I took a weightlifting class as an elective. But I don’t think I’m the correct person to go to weightlifting.
And did you talk roughly? [CHUCKLE]
[CHUCKLE] I’m pretty sure. There were a lot of moments that I tried to. Locker room situations were awkward, because a lot of people just gathered and assumed that I was gay, and they would voice that. And so, from early on, that’s when I was like, Okay, maybe I am.
Did you know you were gay?
I did. Well, I knew that I wasn’t straight. That’s the thing. And the closest thing that I knew of to what I really am was being gay.
But you didn’t think that quite hit it?
No; never. And that’s the thing, and maybe that was the reason. That was probably the reason why I never fully accepted it. I didn’t come out to my mom ‘til I was twenty-one. Among my gay friends, my other gay male friends, I never felt like I … I still didn’t fit in. Something internally just wasn’t right. After high school, in college, I actually met more gay friends. Going out to the clubs more, meeting more of the community, that I started to meet transgender women and transgender men, drag queens or cross-dressers, that I started to realize that there’s much more to the community, than just being gay or straight, or bisexual or gay or straight. And it started to open my eyes, because then I started to get to know them. I started to get to know people for who they are. That’s never something that I allowed myself to do before, because I was so focused on school, focused on my career. And that’s how I am. When I was in college, everything was school-school-school. I was sewing all the time, I was doing extra projects, ‘cause that was my focus. And it could have been a distraction.
That’s what I was gonna ask you.
Do you think you did that as an escape from questions about identity, which are central to any young person. It’s who are you? What am I evolving into?
Who will I be, who am I now?
Well, ‘cause I knew that I had a talent that was received positively. So, I think that’s why I was always drawing, I was always creating. In high school, I always loved the big projects, the projects that every other kid hated. I loved building. We had to build these huge insects at one point, we had to make cell models. And I loved it. I spent all my money, all my allowance at craft supply stores. And on the weekends and on the school breaks, I would stay home and watch Home and Garden Television, and all these craft shows that I loved, and I started dabbling in quilting. And my mom taught me needlepoint when I was very young, so that’s where I got a lot of my initial sewing skills from. But that was my way of putting my best forward, because I knew that that was something that was very positive in me.
And were you consciously thinking, there’s other things I have to pursue, but I just can’t get to that right now?
I don’t know what it is, but something’s up with me.
Yeah; always. That’s always been in the back of my mind.
The former man known as Andy Southiphong set aside questions about identity and instead focused on finding a career that would play to his creative strength. During his senior year at Waianae High School, Andy fell in love with a career option he had not previously considered.
All those career days, and nobody mentioned fashion?
No; not at all, not in Waianae. And it wasn’t until I went to a State college fair at the Blaisdell that I found a connection with it being creative and seeing what you create being taken to a commercial sense, and being sold and being worn, and actually being utilized every day. For art to have a purpose; that was really, really interesting to me. To see something that you create become something functional in the real world. And so, after that college fair, I decided that I wanted to do fashion. That’s why I say it was serendipitous, because had I not gone to that career fair, I wouldn’t have realized that it was possible.
What were you looking for at the career fair? Did you have something in mind?
At the time, I was in culinary arts. And before that, it was architecture and mechanical drawing, and I had taken classes in both throughout high school as electives. And that’s because I loved being in the home, I loved to cook, I loved to do crafts with my mom. And so, I was trying to find something that was something that I loved. You’re told that you should do …
Build on what you know; right?
Yeah; build on what you know, choose to do something that you love, so that you’re happy.
Not long after that serendipitous discovery, Andy Southiphong branded himself as Andy South and enrolled in the fashion technology program at Honolulu Community College. He gained a reputation for designing edgy couture gowns. Several years after graduating, serendipity found Andy once more.
I think you were only twenty-three when you got yourself on Project Runway.
How did that happen?
I went through an audition process. I had gotten a call while I was at work, and it was the casting agent for Project Runway, who had gotten my number from someone else. And they said that, We called a few people locally in the area, and they all had you at the top of their list to contact to audition. So, they invited me to audition. And even then, it was maybe a week before the deadline, and I was like, I don’t know. I had already looked into the audition process, I looked at the deadlines.
Was it a lot to do? Did you have to make something?
[SIGH] It was a lot of prep. Because you have to submit a portfolio, a digital portfolio, and you have to do a three to five-minute audition video, fill out the application, which I believe was twenty-some-odd pages. A lot. And that was like, written pages. And then, there was another forty of what you had to read for the contract. So, it was a very daunting process that I was just kind of like, Ah — I kinda wrote it off as like, Oh, I’ll try next year. But by them calling me I said, You know, what’s the worst that can happen? I’ll just continue doing what I’m doing.
I’ll stay up late a few nights and get it done.
Yeah. So, a lot of things happened just in that instant, because I knew that I listened to what I was supposed to do. I could tell that God was telling me, You need to do this because you’re getting too comfortable. ‘Cause at the time, I was working for another company locally, another fashion brand, but she was more focused on manufacturing and selling. So, not as creative, I was doing a lot of office administration stuff and shipping orders, taking orders, but really learning the business. And that’s really where I learned a lot of what I need to put into practice now.
And by this time, you were out of Honolulu Community College’s fashion program.
M-hm. I was already talking to the owner of the company about taking over. Taking over the company so she can retire, and I would have been set. I would be running another company, but it wouldn’t be the company I’m running now. And so, the fact that I acted on that gut instinct that told me, Okay, you need to do this, you don’t know what’s gonna happen but you need to do it and just be open to the possibilities. And that was me listening what I was supposed to do. The things playing out the way that they did that told me, Okay, you’re about to embark on a really crazy ride and you better free yourself up, and be open to what’s gonna come.
And you acquitted yourself in the way your mom said you should, with strength of character.
Was that hard to do? I mean, it must have been tempting sometimes not to make a snarky comment, as everyone else seemed to do.
Right. That would have been the easy thing to do. But I think I kept in mind that you’re always on camera, you’re always on a microphone, so even if you said something in private, they would ask you about it later.
And it’ll exist on tape forever, or digital records.
Exactly. So, I always kept that in mind, which kept me from overreacting. But I think after I grew out of my childhood tantrums and as I matured, I grew calmer in my thoughts. My friends always told me that I have a really calm demeanor about myself, that even in the thick of stress, in the thick of chaotic situations, I’m able to think logically and to be levelheaded about my reactions. And there are times when I’m running around the studio, crazy, and I’m telling people to do ten things at one time and I’m yelling at people, but most times, I’m actually much more thoughtful about my actions, and that helped me. That and also making sure that I had … many people don’t know this, about how important my faith is to me. And the more I talk about it, I think you hear it, that it plays a huge role in my day-to-day, even though I don’t talk about it and I don’t make it an Evangelistical thing. But I kept my Bible with me, and I prayed every night, and I just wanted to keep myself centered, keep myself grounded, ‘cause I knew that I was entering a place that I wasn’t familiar with. And I didn’t want to be just caught off guard and lose myself, I didn’t want to lose myself in it.
Rather, Andy Southiphong aka Andy South, was finding himself. At the brink of his fashion design success in Hawaii and on Project Runway, Andy was beginning to resolve those questions about his identity, that he had long kept in the back of his mind.
When did you discover transgender living?
Well, my first time doing drag was probably years into going out in the gay scene. And it’s not one of those things that had tormented me my whole life. I just knew that something wasn’t completely there, but it was never pressing on my mind all the time. So, I decided to do drag one year in Portland.
Was that because you’re a fashion-conscious person, or because you thought maybe you’d like to be a woman?
I thought that that was actually my opportunity to see if that was something inside of me that needed to come out. And along the lines of being a drag queen and being a performer, you’ve got a huge gray area of being a transvestite or a cross-dresser, which is a man who dresses up in women’s clothing, and then, transsexuals and transgender people.
And there are some people who really don’t know. They’re somewhere in between.
And there’s every different level in between being a cross-dresser and a transgender individual. So, I think that’s why a lot of the confusion comes up with people in the public just not knowing a lot, or not knowing enough. So, a lot of times, being transgender gets mixed with being a cross-dresser, and you know, you’re gay.
It’s a big category.
Right; yeah. Because a cross-dresser technically usually consider himself gay, because they still like men, they like being a man, but they like dressing up as women just to perform for fun. So, I’ve been asked many times, So are you gay? And I don’t consider myself gay. But it kinda just opens up the topic of conversation for all this gray area that can get very exhausting. And there’s a lot of different levels, but I don’t think that we shouldn’t talk about it, because every person is different. And it really should be as the person identifies himself is what they are. Because gender, sexual orientation are completely different; completely different things.
Talk about that, ‘cause I don’t understand that.
Gender and sexual orientation are different. And I think it gets mixed up, because your gender is often called your birth sex or your sex. Right?
Meaning physically, what you have. And sexual orientation is whether you are homosexual and you like being a male who likes other men, or a female who likes other women. But gender identity has nothing to do with sex.
I see what you mean.
It has nothing to do with sexual lust, it has nothing to do with the taboo of a man having sex with what most people will call a tranny, which I find very offensive. I’ll joke around with my other sisters about it. When I talk to my sisters and referring to myself, I like to keep things light. And so, sometimes I’ll refer to myself as Trandy. [CHUCKLE] ‘Cause I’m Andy, and I’m transsexual. But even my family has had to learn a lot about, I don’t consider myself gay, I consider myself a woman who was born a male. Because I’m not attracted to other gay men. I thought I was when I was trying to live as a gay male. But I see myself with a straight man, I see myself having a real family, living as a woman, being completely that female role in society.
And yet, you’ve chosen not to have surgery. You’re doing hormones, right?
Is there a longer term plan?
There’s a longer term plan, and the first steps are to get onto your hormone replacement therapy. Because it takes time, and you have to equal it to a girl going through puberty for the first time.
So, as you’re building a business, you’re going through this transition. And that affects even what your name is.
You could have kept your name.
What made you decide not to? It’s the Andy South brand
And your name is?
My name is Ariyaphon, Ari for short. And my mom renamed me. I asked her to, because it was very important for me to remain connected with my family, to remain connected with my mom. And throughout the initial steps of my transition, I just wanted to be very sensitive to the fact that I wanted my mom to be as much a part of my life as she wants to be. Every mother wants to be a part of their child’s life.
Why did she choose that name? Does it mean something?
Yeah. Ariyaphon has the meaning in Sanskrit, which is the Buddhist language. She went to the temple to ask for two names; one of them being Ariyaphon. And the meaning of it, depending on the spelling, either means the blessing of radiant light, or the power of radiant light.
Which definition did you pick?
The meaning that she would have spelled it was, the blessing of radiant light. And the spelling that I chose translates Ariyaphon to the power of radiating light.
And so, this is a personal brand. So, you have to make that distinction between, this is me, and this is me. So, essentially, your transgenderism becomes a conversation in your business.
It’s the first thing out there, if you’re the spokesperson.
M-hm. It does. The true test was, I had done this after we had started working with Neiman Marcus, which is really great for a brand, being associated with a high end retailer like that.
Was that a factor for them, the fact that you’d chosen to go transgender?
No. I actually met with them about my second collection that they were purchasing, and I had gone as female. And at the time, I wearing a wig, and I was dressing in women’s clothing. But of course, in the beginning, I was very androgynous and maybe a little bit more detectable as not being a genetic female. And I conducted the first part of the meeting with just them, just their buyer and me, that’s it. And then, midway through, we got to catch up a little bit more, and then I told them, and I said also, I mean, I’m sure you guys know this by now by coming here, that I am now living my life as a woman and I have chosen to transition and act upon what makes me happy. I just wanted to make sure that the lines of communication were open. The main thing that I told them was, If you have any questions or concerns, or anything about what I’m going through, ask me. Don’t feel that you can’t ask me because we’re professional or we have a professional relationship. I want you folks to be open with me, and I want you to know that me doing this is not gonna affect my business. But this is my personal journey that I’m deciding to take.
What was the reaction?
They were supportive. And along with everybody, everybody was supportive. Because it goes back to what my mom first told me when I had come out to her as gay. It makes so much sense, because when you allow your professionalism, when you allow your character to speak before you do, there’s no denying that you’re one that should be respected. I think that was the main thing, that was my mom’s main concern with me living the living the life that I choose to live.
What a groundbreaking conversation you had with Neiman Marcus. How often do those conversations take place?
Probably not often, because you don’t hear a lot about transgender business owners or transgender women who are in the process of making that transition as they conduct business.
Usually, it’s before or after.
A lot of people would handle it a lot differently than you did. Because, you chose to just say, Here’s the deal.
Yeah. And I decided that because quite honestly, I knew that I wasn’t happy internally. And I guess what I always value above everything else is that I’m living a life that I feel fulfilled, and that I feel happy. Because if I’m not happy with the life that I’m living, there’s no way that I can do good for other people.
Ariyaphon Southiphong currently operates her clothing line, still branded Andy South, out of her workshop in Honolulu’s Chinatown. In a future episode of Long Story Short, we’ll talk more with Ari about her life as a transgender woman. For PBS Hawaii, and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.
For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.
I love fashion very much, but it’s not the only thing that I love. What I love most is actually creating opportunity. Seeing something good being done for the world, thinking that I’m gonna leave the world a better place that what it was is why I live every day. And I’m given the opportunity by having a company, by forming my company, by having the drive that I have, having the courage that I have to do it, make the choices that I’ve made, and to continue living my life, as well as living my life in a good way, and creating a lot of great things for the community and for society, and specifically with creating jobs, creating opportunity for young talent that’s coming out of Hawaii.
Part 2: A Life Redesigned
I’m hoping that me living my life in a public manner gives the opportunity for discussion and opens up the floor for people to realize that being transgender isn’t being a freak of nature.
Honolulu fashion designer Ariyaphon Southiphong, formerly the man known as Andy South, next on Long Story Short.
Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.
Aloha; I’m Leslie Wilcox. Honolulu fashion designer Andy South first gained national recognition in Season 8 of Lifetime Television’s reality competition show, Project Runway. In 2012, Andy announced that he was now a she, a transgendered female. Her mother renamed her Ariyaphon Southiphong, or Ari for short. Her clothing line continues to operate under the Andy South name. As of our conversation in 2013, Ari has not yet undergone gender reassignment surgery. Ari has been on hormone replacement therapy, biweekly injections of testosterone blockers and estrogen, which she plans to take for the rest of her life. When Ari, who had already built the Andy South brand, first told her mother about wanting to start hormone therapy, her mother had her concerns, based on a previous transition attempt.
Her first question was like, Why would you want to do this? Because she had gone through my first transition, which was right before Project Runway, and I stopped right before.
Were you not sure you wanted to?
I wasn’t sure.
Yeah. I wasn’t sure about my first transition, because it was so quick. My body took to the hormones so quickly, the changes were coming on too fast. And I felt like I had made the decision based on pressure, or encouragement from people who didn’t really know me as well as I, thought that that person or that influence should be coming from. And so, I took a step back and I actually had a lot of resentment toward being transgender. I didn’t go out anymore, I had stopped talking to a lot of people. Because had to deal with my own internal conflict of, What did you just do to your body? A lot of things caused me to hate myself.
That’s what you were feeling like right before you went on the TV show?
‘Cause you were still centered.
Yeah. That’s what I was feeling right before going on the TV show. But that first transition and then off of it, I took it as, well, it was probably a lesson learned. And then, when it came up again, this was after I came back from Project Runway, and a lot of great things were happening, again that same feeling of something is missing. I had already gotten a glimpse of who Ari was. Who I was as a female.
Did it come to you as a visual? ‘Cause you’re a visual person.
M-hm; it did.
You saw yourself as a woman?
Yeah, I started to see her more often. I saw myself as a woman much more often, because I had that first glimpse of my first, few months on transition. In the beginning, I used to always talk about the Andy South woman, and she was always on the show. A lot of people will recall and they all became fans of that warrior woman that I was designing for. I guess what I realized was that the imaginary person I was designing for was me.
So, that imaginary Andy South woman who was a warrior. Because I felt like I had to fight for whatever it is that I wanted to do. And especially at that stage, it was such a breaking moment of my career that I think a lot of the reason why my designs came out as very hard and very defensive was because I felt like I was constantly fighting. I was constantly competing to remain in the game. And then when I came home after that initial collection — I mean, the back story to my collections are always very extensive. Because it’s about the woman and what she’s going through. And after that first collection, at the end of my first fashion show actually, the last model came out with this huge costume that was ripped away. It was about a girl going through the seasons, transitioning through winter, and then at the end breaking into the first glimmer of spring with the ice melting away and her hard exterior melting away. The next collection was extremely feminine. But I think that they made sense with the Andy South brand completely, because even though it looked like light and dark, the story was like a next chapter to this girl, where a lot of it was silk hand-dyed ombre, beautiful colors, like the water. Because I imagined this girl now coming out of this melted snow, out of this debris, like everything was frozen over and that she was coming out of this muddy, murky water, renewed and was finding a new femininity in herself. And that was in the same collection that I decided to make my transition.
This time, Ariyaphon Southiphong was confident about transitioning to a female body. But that didn’t make the journey an easy one.
Do you spend any time saying, Why me?
Many times. Yeah; many times. I constantly ask, Why was I born this way? And after college, I actually transitioned from Buddhist, ‘cause I grew up Buddhist with my parents, and I became a Christian. But I understand a lot of the Buddhist teachings that my mom taught us. I constantly pray, and I constantly have conversations with God on a regular basis. And then, when I was dealing with the reality of my transition, and quite often the struggles. And a lot of people see me now, and they see me received very well in the general public. There’s a lot of things that I deal with internally that aren’t so … glamorous, they’re not positive, a lot of things that I question about myself.
Self doubts, you mean?
Self doubts; yeah. All the time. Because society is always telling you one thing, even though in your gut that you need to do the other. And especially in the beginning, I constantly prayed about, Is this right? That was my main prayer.
Did you have a mentor or counselor?
I mean, I did talk to my doctor about it, who diagnosed me with gender dysphoria, which allowed me to start my transition.
So, you have to say you’re mentally ill in order to begin something that you say is going to heal you.
Yeah. Because in the medical world, that’s the way it’s treated. You treat gender dysphoria by allowing yourself to live in the form, and attain that physical being that you identify with for your mental sake. Which when you think about it, it’s so … [SIGH] … it’s almost pitiful, when you think about it, of someone having to succumb to admitting to that, and admitting to them suffering from mental illness in order to be happy. Because I don’t think it’s a mental illness. I think that it’s just the life that I was born into. This is life. And my main conflict with God in the beginning was, like the main question was, Is this right?
Did you say, God, you know, You know I’m not your son, I’m your daughter?
Right. Yeah; exactly. I used to always ask, actually; I don’t ask anymore, because I know that for whatever the circumstances and whatever He has in front of me and before me, this is the path that He’s determined for me, and the journey that He’s already laid out, because He knows that I can handle it.
There are a lot of segments of the Christian church, and there are some elements which would say, Come on, that’s not right.
I know you’ve heard it, and what do you do say?
I think that everyone’s walk with God is different. And especially with being a Christian, there are so many different variations, I would say. Some being a little bit more by the Bible, being closer to Catholicism. But for me, religion has always been kind of not a big question, but I’ve always been one to ask questions. And the reason why I think I’m such a strong Christian is because I found Christianity and I found God on my own. I wasn’t brought up forced to go to church. I wasn’t brought up forced to do anything religious. But I knew He was calling me. A lot of thing that happened in my childhood and my life, just aside from me being transgender, have already told me that He has been calling me back to Him, to know Him, to live my life in a way that will affect the world in a really great way. In the beginning, I used to always ask, like, Well, am I really supposed to live this life? My fear was that I was doing something wrong. My fear was that I was being selfish and acting upon my own want to be a woman. Going back to people telling me it’s a choice. People telling me that this is a decision you make, you’re not born this way. But for me to live as a straight male does not make sense. For me, it doesn’t make sense.
And for you to live as a gay male doesn’t make sense.
It doesn’t. It doesn’t anymore. Because I mean, the first thing people ask with the hormone replacement therapy is, Well, how do you change, how do your thoughts change? And for me, I just make more sense internally. My thoughts make sense, things seem more balanced.
With balanced thoughts and a decidedly female perspective, Ari Southiphong says she has a greater understanding of how to design clothes for women.
My idea of designing for women has changed, because now I’m wearing the clothing. Of course, my body is different from, your genetic female body that you have to fit, but the same things apply as far as you know, wanting to cover certain things, or wanting to wear a bra, which in college, I never really cared about. Well, the girl can go bra-less, I don’t care. Being a man designing for a woman, I didn’t have that innate sense of fashion being completely functional. You know, I always wanted, the really fashion-forward pieces, and I always designed for the very fashion-forward woman.
This should expand your market, shouldn’t it?
M-hm; exactly. I mean, as the business grows, in our first two collections, I learned a lot about our clientele, real women who bought our clothing. And I think it’s very common for students and for young designers to design for a very petite frame, for a very thin model. But the majority of my clients and my customers are older women who are not, size zero to a four. And so my design sensibility has changed according to, one, my personal transition and now being so connected with the brand, that I am the brand, but also, on the business side, designing to maintain my customer and give my customers what they want.
Would you do men’s clothes?
I have started. And that’s something I started to do before my transition for myself to wear. But I recently started to do some menswear pieces, and starting with the basics. Because I think with the women’s wear, I’ve gotten a very good grasp on the fit and the styles that I love to design and my customers love, but with the menswear, I guess I’m more focused on the fit. So, I’m doing a lot of basics, a lot of basic button-downs, cargo shorts, just to get the fit right. Because for a brand, that’s the most important thing, is that the product fits the customer.
I always look at, say, Vogue, and there’s some hideous looking dress on the runway, and they say, Metallics are in. And you think, Who would ever wear that? So then, your job is to convert that into something people would want to wear, using the theme or the color, or the something.
Exactly. The magazines will list the trends. So that’s why I always say the magazines really the ones who run the show. Because whatever they say, whatever magazines say are the trends are what the consumer will look for.
And then, you adapt that sense of a trend. Because you know, so many things aren’t wearable.
Right. Well, ‘cause fashion is a creative industry. You run the gamut from being commercial, commercially and retail-conscious of running a company, and making sales, and making things affordable. And then, there’s the extreme creative side of it, with haute couture, and handmade garments that are much more like art pieces.
Where do you see yourself?
When I first started, I saw myself doing a lot more couture, because I love the creativity of it. And I still do. And I would love to do couture gowns all day, every day, and I would love to go to France and study under a real couture house. But the reality is, to run a business, that’s not gonna be possible. I have to form a brand that’s much more wearable. And actually, I prefer to design things and manufacture them, and create them for people who love them and actually wear them. There’s nothing more exciting than seeing one of your pieces in the street.
So, is your ideal customer somebody like you, or is it somebody else?
I think my ideal customer is someone who’s like me in the sense that they’re risk takers, that they know who they are. And that’s what I base the Andy South brand off of. ‘Cause my logo is —
And that’s your life struggle.
Being who you are.
Ari Southiphong, the former Andy South, is self-assured about who she is. But she’s also well aware of the challenges that transgender dating presents, especially someone who’s in the public eye.
If the future is a husband and a family, how does that get accomplished?
Finding the right person. It’s gonna take a really, really amazing man to be that person, to know himself well enough to know that falling in love with me, or being attracted to me isn’t being attracted to a man. And I’ve met some really great couples with some of my sisters who are who are now sex-changed. They’re post-op. But a lot of times, the ones that have a really strong relationship are the ones that first started dating not knowing that she was born a man, and they built a relationship just exactly like a straight couple. And then later down the line, she has to tell them, because she can’t hold the secret in. When they meet the family, then it gets complicated, so it has to come out.
Yeah; but I would think that that would put you at risk for a blown-up relationship, or even violence.
Because you didn’t tell.
Yeah; exactly. So, you never know how someone’s gonna react. And not that it’s a matter of deceit and trying to trick someone into thinking you’re a genetic female, and tricking them into fall in love with you. I see it more as because of the society we live in, to have it at the forefront complicates a lot of things with people. And letting it come out over time, I think allows the person to get to know the person for the real reasons. Get to know their character. And whether they fall in love, they fall in love with that person’s personality, their strengths, their humor their beauty from within, before they completely shut the door on the fact that this person is transgender, even post-op sex change.
So, a lot of it is context.
A lot of it is context. And the reason why girls are working the streets, and they’re becoming creatures of the night is what I would say —
Which really puts them in position for violence.
Yeah. The girls who have to work the streets at night, they put themselves in a lot of danger.
Now, why do they have to work the streets at night?
Employment opportunities for transgender individuals, especially mid-transition or very early on when they’re still very androgynous, they’re very difficult to find, and it’s very difficult with the current laws. One thing that I hear from many young girls is when they get a job, if they show them their ID card with their gender on it, then they’re required to use the male restroom, or the gender marker that’s on, say, their driver’s license.
Because they’ve basically told them, I’m male. But for someone who’s living their life as a woman, that’s difficult. And that’s like kicking them when they’re down making them go into use the male restroom, for people to see that they are male. You know, that they are transgender. No matter how passable they may be on the outside with their features, the fact that it’s lingering, that’s the risk we take for living this life. And a lot of transgender deaths and murders go unaccounted or unspoken about, uninvestigated. They get swept under the rug, because it’s … sad to say that it’s just not a priority. Being transgender heightens that risk of someone trying to pick a fight with you, especially men who see you as a man and see you as a freak. So, the danger level of living a public life as transgender, it’s very high especially if you’re in the wrong place. But thankfully, I’m in Hawaii.
Have you ruled in or ruled out surgery?
I haven’t ruled out surgery at all. And ideally, if I could get everything done and be perfectly healthy, and live a full, great life, long …
Surgery is a risk, I guess. I mean surgery is a risk, and that’s a big one.
Surgery is a huge risk, and I know that my life purpose is more than just making the complete transition to being completely physically female. Because like I said, gender is internal before it is physical. When I first transitioned, it was very young of me to think that I wanted to do everything as soon as possible. I wanted to do everything quickly, so I can get on with my life and I can live my life. But as I transition, I learned to really, really love myself for the first time. And even before that, loving myself as gay male and accepting myself, it’s not the same when you finally accept yourself for who you are. And whether or not the surgery and the final—you know, ‘cause that’s like a final step to achieving the closest possible likeness of living as a genetic woman, right now, it’s not that important to me, because what’s important is my career.
Ari Southiphong, formerly Andy South, is also passionate about advocating for the transgendered community. Her openness about her transition comes from a strong desire to educate.
So, the T in LGBT stands for, what?
So, not transsexual, it’s transgender.
Transgender and transsexual are pretty much the same.
But I’ve read, speaking of looking things up. I read that you don’t have to have hormonal treatment or surgery to identify as transgender.
You don’t. You don’t have to have any procedures done, you don’t have to be on hormones to identify yourself as transgender. Like I said, gender is internal before it is physical.
And you know, there all these categories where you could get stuck on side streets, instead of seeing the big street picture. Like, transvestite.
Where does that fit in?
Transvestite is a gay male — or not even, it doesn’t have to be a gay male. It could be a straight male, as well, that cross-dresses.
So, people have to learn what transgender is, because we have all these labels. We use names we don’t even know what we’re talking about.
Exactly. That’s what I always encourage people to learn. Not only for the sake of me being able to share with them, but also for them to be knowledgeable, and for them to not look a fool either. That’s probably really embarrassing when you’re talking to somebody who does know what they’re talking about, and you’re using terms in the wrong context and in the wrong form. And it’s disrespectful as well.
I think there are very few people having conversations like this. You know, you’re open, you’re explaining something to me that I don’t know very much about. What would you say to people who really don’t have a clue about what being transgender means, and they’d like to know, and they don’t know how to talk to people about it?
You can research. A lot of what I did before my transition was actually research online, mainly because I needed to find out for myself, kind of unclouded by the opinion of the person sharing with me what being transgender is. But then also talking to people who are. Talk to them, because chances are, you might even know somebody who is, and you may just not know. Like, talk to them regularly now.
But how do you bring it up? I mean, what if they’re not?
Well, I mean, don’t just go and ask any random person, like, Oh, so are you transgender? You’ve gotta be really sensitive about it.
Good way to start a conversation.
Yeah. You’ve got to be sensitive about the form that you speak about it. But I think if you know somebody who is, I think asking about it is much more of a welcome thing than people might think.
Than tiptoeing around it.
Than tiptoeing; yeah. It’s much easier. I have a much greater sense of relief when people ask me about it, because I like that people are interested in knowing what it is that I’m going through. And the fact that they’re open to learning, that’s the first step to educating more people, and it’s the first step to transgender individuals becoming more a part of society. I mean, we’re steps behind the gay community, because there are a lot of things that don’t protect us, because a lot of our issues aren’t brought up and aren’t dealt with. They’re just not discussed enough to determine things and laws to be in place that are appropriate for us, but also appropriate for the rest of the community as well.
But on the other hand, I think people are reticent, because it’s so personal. And yet, it’s central to you.
Right. And I think in my case, I’m very open about it, because I realize that my life is in the public eye, that I can’t disappear and come back as a woman and expect to have the same life. So, that’s kind of the cross I bear. Alongside of the business purpose that I serve and the career that I’m building and the opportunities it offers, I’m hoping that me living my life in a public manner gives the opportunity for discussion and opens up the floor for people to realize that being transgender isn’t being a freak of nature. And I really want people to realize that, yeah, I am transgender, and I run a business. Because you don’t see that often. This life can seem difficult, being transgender, and it is. This isn’t a life that I would wish on anyone, because it’s not easy.
Because that’s front and center, everybody reacts to that first; right?
And even among very well-meaning people, and I think so many people are well-meaning, you hear all the pronoun confusion.
He, she, he she.
And my mom does that too. She still sometimes slips and calls me, he. But I understand that she raised me as a son for twenty-five years, and so for me to expect her and my family and friends to automatically change overnight, that’s selfish on my part. Me allowing myself to live my life is not selfish. It’s the right thing for me.
With confidence, Ari Southiphong is looking ahead, and her Andy South business is the priority. Her high end clothing brand is seeing growth. She’s forging ahead in the challenging fashion industry, while navigating new dimensions in her personal life. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.
For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.
It’s much greater than just tolerating. You tolerate your crappy neighbor, you tolerate your husband’s snoring. But to really be accepted in a community, I think, is just such an uplifting feeling that probably I’m most thankful for, is for the support that I’ve been getting from fans and from community members who have thanked me for taking a stand, and for honestly just being me.