Call it pre-consumer recycling: Maui-based designer Maggie Coulombe takes vivid gossamer-silk pareus from Bali and transmogrifies them into ingenious garments that could go directly from the seashore to an awards-show red carpet—and sometimes do. A classically trained designer who sews with dervish speed, Coulombe can single-handedly crank out fifty impeccably finished garments in a day. (She earned a virtual Ph.D. in Decon/ Recon by doing alterations on Maui’s haute-est couture: Prada, Gucci, Chanel.) “Hard work isn’t work if you’re passionate about what you’re doing,” says Coulombe, who moved to Maui from Toronto in 1995 after marrying Canadian expat restaurateur Louis Coulombe. Her business partner, Arid Chappell (a Virginia-born filmmaker and jewelry designer), seconds that emotion: “We love what we do,”
They love where they are, too: in an oceanfront boutique in Lahaina that has become a magnet for celebrities—Halle Berry, Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Love Hewitt and more—who are often photographed wearing Coulombe’s floaty, flattering, exuberant creations. The designer also has an atelier (by appointment) on O‘ahu, adding her verve to the arty mix in Chinatown. She and Chappell are outspoken partisans of the “keep it local” cause (“Made in Maui, all the way!”). They use only natural fibers and recyclable paper and are thinking of adding bamboo fabric to their repertoire. A compassionate conservationist at heart, Coulombe expresses concern about the talent drain. “We want to inspire people to stay here in the Islands,” she says. If aspiring designers want to see a real live made-in-Maui success story, they need look no further than 505 Front St. in Lahaina.
It’s tempting to look into a crystal ball and imagine the local scene ten years from now: Chinatown’s a spiffy, bustling fashion district; there’s a line around the block for the Aloha Wear Museum; design studios and local-flavor boutiques are as ubiquitous as the big juice-and-java chains. The way things are going, that isn’t a far-fetched scenario.
Whatever surprises the future might hold, this is a heady—and challenging—time for Hawai‘i’s new wave of fashion designers. As a frog once sang, “It’s not easy being green.” True, but any eco-goddess will tell you that it’s gratifying and necessary. Mu‘umu‘u Heaven’s Deb Mascia hits the recycled nail on the head: “Every little gesture helps the planet,” she says. “I really believe we can save the world, one dress at a time.” HH