When Native Hawaiian fashion designer Micah Kamohoali‘i was first asked to participate in New York Fashion Week in 2021, he had one question: Could he bring his own models? While most designers tend to use the models and makeup provided by Fashion Week staff, Kamohoali‘i—the first Native Hawaiian to ever be invited to Runway 7 at New York Fashion Week—ruled out that option from the get-go. In a testament to his deep love for his culture, he believed it was imperative that his models be Hawaiian, because Kamohoali‘i's clothes are more than just clothes—they’re a reflection of his roots at large. And he knew that showing them to a global audience was a rare opportunity to correct harmful plastic-lei-and-coconut-bra stereotypes by introducing the fashion world to the beauty of the Hawaiian story.
“When I got invited to Fashion Week, I immediately knew it wasn’t about me—it was about my whole community,” he says. “I knew I had to bring my own models because it was important to me that there were Native Hawaiians on that runway.”
Never mind that it was prohibitively expensive to fly out a team of Hawaiian models, let alone pay for their accommodation. Kamohoali‘i knew he had to find a way. “It may mean nothing to the rest of the world, but for my people in the middle of the Pacific, that would be the biggest achievement," he says. "I knew it would be so empowering for my people to see themselves on that runway, the same runway that everyone else is on. It would move mountains.”
Led by the aloha in his heart, Kamohoali‘i, who was born and raised in Waimea on the island of Hawai‘i and runs the fashion company Dezigns by Kamohoali‘i, found a way to make sure his culture was honored in the best way possible: He enlisted the support of his community. Together, they raised $100,000 in four weeks to fly 35 Hawaiians out to New York.
There, Kamohoali‘i and his team put on an incredible show, one that was not just about the clothes but the cultural story behind them. Kamohoali‘i started the performance with a traditional Hawaiian chant and played the sound of kapa (fabric made by Native Hawaiians) being pounded as his models walked down the runway. The show led to a well-deserved standing ovation, and put Kamohoali‘i—and Hawaiian culture at large—on the global fashion map.
“Everyone was in tears, and what I found extra amazing was that it kind of changed the way people are thinking about fashion,” Kamohoali‘i reflects. “People have now started saying, ‘Come and share your story,’ versus, ‘Come and share your clothes.’ And that’s what our clothes are all about—it’s the story of the Hawaiian designs that makes them powerful.”
Since the New York show, Kamohoali‘i and his team have participated in three more iconic Fashion Weeks: London, Paris, and Milan. They earned rave reviews at all three, not to mention attention from global brands and standing invitations to return. Hawai‘i News Now even made a documentary about Kamohoali‘i’s journey “from the Big Island to the Big Apple” that was ultimately nominated for an Emmy. But to Kamohoali'i, the praise is not the point. What truly matters is that he introduced his culture and cultural values to the fashion stage—and paved the way for other Hawaiians to follow in his footsteps. Five other Native Hawaiian designers have since been invited to various Fashion Weeks around the globe, and he has no doubt that more will soon follow.
“I told everybody before the show, ‘It’s not just about us. We’re the ones that got invited, but let’s do a really good job so that we open the door for others’—because that’s the Hawaiian style,” he says. “In Hawai‘i, you include everybody. You remember that this is not just for you, but for all the people at home. Wherever you go, you take everybody with you, whether that’s literally or in spirit.”
Annie Daly and Kainoa Daines' book Island Wisdom: Hawaiian Traditions and Practices for a Meaningful Life features Kamohoali‘i and other inspirational Hawaiians.
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