story by Liza Simon
photos by Olivier Koning
It’s Saturday afternoon, and I’m pulling into a parking space at Honolulu’s Manoa Shopping Center, here to meet Sig Zane and talk about his eminence in the Native Hawaiian fashion world. As I turn off my engine, I look over at the driver pulling up next to me and just know that it’s his Sig-ness.
He’s laughing that I’ve recognized him. Sure, the label Sig Zane Designs is famous in Hawai‘i, with that unforgettably atypical name. But the 50-ish, surfer-tanned and Fu Manchu-bearded guy who stands before me looks like your typical Neighbor Island local (likes to fish, never beeps his horn, Mr. Low-Key). So what tipped me off that this was Sig? His eyes exude the same mirth that burst through my cell phone yesterday, when I suggested that he bring along only a little of his latest line lest someone break into his car. “Hah!” said the designer, whose whole life is built around the low-key town of Hilo. “You have been living in the big city for a looong time.” His voice was so devoid of worry that mine vanished. And so goes the power of Sig Zane to create clothing that makes you feel protected, connected and utterly too cool for any bad vibes to graze your skin. It’s as if you don a Sig Zane shirt or dress, and you are suddenly rooted in Island soil. Faithful customers don’t so much shop at his store as make a pilgrimage there—in Hilo, Sig presides over the only retail space in the world that sells Sig Zane designs. His is one of Hawai‘i’s top-grossing, locally owned small businesses, worth an estimated $2 million.
Like his name and his success, Sig himself is atypical: 100 percent Chinese by birth, pure Native Hawaiian by choice and wholly a wizard of the sartorial arts. Ostensibly, his trademark is very simple, defined by emphatically outlined, silk-screened imagery of ‘ilima, kalo, palapalai, ‘ulu, puhala, lehua and countless other Hawaiian plants. Sig’s relationships with these plants began in earnest twenty-six years ago when he met his wife, noted kumu hula Nalani Kanaka‘ole, and her mother, revered Hawaiian cultural authority Edith Kanaka‘ole.
“The center of my story is really a love affair,” Sig explains, a big grin spreading across his face. After a carefree youth in Honolulu, “misspent on surf, surf and more surf,” he was swept up in the magic of the Hawaiian Renaissance and suddenly enamored with the idea of dancing hula. The first time he saw Nalani perform with her troupe on a Big Island beach
in 1976, he was “bowled over” by her provocative and ultra-earthy dancing. Sig became a member of Nalani’s hula troupe, Halau o Kekuhi, and immersed himself in the study of Hawaiian chants. In them he found plant knowledge, plant metaphor, plant worship—and the seeds of his inspiration.
Sig also began wooing Nalani that very evening and began making her silk-screen garments he calls “love tokens.” So he knew how to sew? “Well enough that as surfer I used to make board shorts that actually stayed on in the water,” he chuckles. It wasn’t very long before others fell in love with Sig’s tokens of love for Nalani. He made gifts for friends who asked, initially amazed that people wanted to pay him. From there it was a short step to selling at local craft fairs. The leap to manufacturing an actual clothing line seemed born of necessity—it coincided with the arrival of his son and a slowdown in the real estate business Sig ran with his father. But he swears there was never a business plan when he started official operations in an old Hilo taro warehouse: “I just had this guidance from my mother-in-law. She said, ‘Go, use your talent to share the knowledge of the Hawaiian culture, otherwise it will die … and give it freely as much as you can, and it will come back to you fully.’ This is the guiding advice for my life.”
One way to see how fully it has come back is to be in Sig’s store during the week of the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival in Hilo. It’s like a Christmas retail rush in March, with hula dancers mingling with tütü and shoppers from Japan and the US mainland. Visitors are drawn mostly by word of mouth since Sig does minimal advertising—though in a way the festival is one big ad for Sig, who creates garments that celebrate the human body in much the same way that hula does. You say you adore the way that the voluptuousness of women’s shoulders is accentuated in the languid ‘auana dance? Then you’ll swoon for the Kanileihua dress, a strapless and bosom-boosting style from Sig’s 2008 collection. You love the sway that comes with hula’s most basic step, the kahea? Then you’ll be drawn to the Kihene Lehua dress, with its flares out from the hip. “When you wear your Sig,” says one fan, “it’s like wearing your Sunday best. When there’s a special occasion in Hilo, women ask each other, ‘Which Sig are you going to wear?’”
The basic pattern of the aloha shirt can’t withstand too much tampering before it loses its mission of comfort, but Zane has given this year’s models new prints. These he eloquently describes, whipping out samples as we sit in Manoa sipping our lattes. One is the Kai Palaoa. In the kaona, or poetic form of the Hawaiian language, kai palaoa means the place where two currents meet; a portion of shirt sales will go to agencies involved with the 2008 International Year of the Reef. “Do you know about coral?” Sig asks rhetorically, revealing his ever-present penchant for educating. “It grows where waves gather and nurture new life.” For this reason he has also stamped the shirt with the text of the Kumulipo, the epic Hawaiian creation chant.
Sig generally leaves the customers to decide which styles they want, but sometimes he offers advice on the choice of the all-important plant or flower print. For instance, as dramatic as the sharp bends of the hala are, this is a plant that signifies the end of a cycle. “So no matter if you like the dress, don’t choose a hala pattern for a wedding,” he counsels. “Go for ‘ulu, which is about the growth of love, or maile, which means binding.”