How One Fashion Designer Is Embracing Native Hawaiian Culture – Fodor's Travel

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From her home on the sleepy island of Molokai, the fifth largest in the Hawaiian Islands chain, Kanoelani Davis brings stunning creations to life through fabrics, patterns, motifs, and the stories of her ancestors and her Island.
ōMahina Designs is described as a wearable art company imbued in essence and culture, steeped in reviving elemental ancient names and stories of old through geometry and line art. Each piece is filled with mythology and history.
PōMahina in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi means night moon, which Davis describes as a clear and bright moon. Whether seen or unseen, she encompasses the night sky from horizon to horizon, bringing an energy that is shared with the world.
But the “designs” part of PōMahina Designs weren’t always meant to be wearable–their job was to tell stories, rich as the vibrant colors and patterns that help bring those stories to life.
“I wasn’t trying to get into fashion. Fashion was a label placed upon me by those who were still trying to understand me and had the need to identify me,” Kanoelani reflects.
“The foundation of PōMahina Designs was to preserve the historical names of elements to continue to breathe life into our culture and for it to be retained by the next generation,” Davis explains. “PōMahina’s purpose was to connect self to the ʻāina, the kai, and the elements. For this purpose, I did a full line in 2019 at London Fashion Week called Elemental Consciousness. We are here to strengthen cultural identity for Kānaka Maoli and to connect the world to our clothing and designs to educate others of who we deeply are.”
Whether intentional or accidental, the fashion world has allowed Davis to bring the stories and beauty of Hawaiʻi, particularly the culture and history of its people and the islands’ natural environment, to the world. Davis has been able to tell these stories on the runways of New York, Paris, and London in a way that is authentic, without a coconut shell bra or grass skirt in sight.
But–and here’s the big but–she makes it all FUN. Kanoelani Davis does everything with style, humor, and joy, but always with a no-BS attitude that she never apologizes for.
Davis’ designs are all about the ‘āina, the ocean, the beautiful, peaceful place she calls home. And it’s not just about the beauty of the place but the deep-rooted connections that have been formed there for hundreds of years. Her kūpuna (ancestors) are buried in the land and at sea, and their mana is everywhere.
“I speak to the wind, and I ask for rain. As Indigenous people, the elements and natural resources are first and foremost. We are the land, and we are the sky. If we take care of those things, they take care of us,” Davis says.
A visit to the PōMahina Designs website draws visitors in with beautiful colors and patterns that make shoppers want to learn more about them. There’s something for everyone there—women, men, kids—featuring everything from streetwear to business casual clothes, umbrellas, yoga mats, and head-to-toe accessories, including jewelry and motif-bearing canvas shoes.
Most items are customizable and very size-inclusive, allowing shoppers to choose patterns to create their own perfect garment. There are nearly 50 patterns to choose from, including motifs like the vibrant ʻōhiʻa lehua flower that tells a tragic love story involving the Hawaiian goddess Pele or the striking symmetrical niho (tooth) patterns represent shark’s teeth.
“I offer a lot of options on my website because I want you to feel very special when you wear my clothes. I don’t want you to worry about being at an event and wearing something someone else has on. That’s why there are so many pattern choices in a variety of styles,” Davis explains.
While the garments and accessories on the PōMahina website are size and style inclusive, it’s only natural for potential customers to wonder whether or not it’s ok to purchase this #modernmaoli wear if they are not Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians). To that, Kanoelani answers with a resounding “ʻAe” (Yes).
“PōMahina Designs was created for everyone. We hope that people who wear these designs can share our story with the world,” Davis says. “I am conscious and aware that anyone can wear my clothes because I know they appreciate and love who we are as Kānaka Maoli.”
Naturally, the continuum that exists between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation comes into play when purchasing and, more importantly, wearing designs and motifs from cultures other than your own. Figuring out just where something sits on that continuum isn’t always easy, but taking the time to learn, to truly understand the meanings of the patterns, colors, and designs that you put on your body, takes you out of the exploitative, disrespectful, or stereotypical manner that defines appropriation.
Yes, dressing up as a Native American for Halloween is cultural appropriation.
For her part, Kanoelani wants to be a part of that educational process, and she tries to meet people where they are. She’s got a huge presence on social media, which she credits to her global exposure, where she shares her mana‘o (beliefs) in fun and entertaining ways. She goes deeper with her Mana Bombs podcast, digging into her ‘ike Hawaiʻi (knowledge of Hawaiʻi) and sharing her unapologetic Native Hawaiian intelligence.
But it’s not a one-way street.
“I am here to tell our people’s story and continue this universal understanding of appreciation and aloha through fashion, design, and clothing. I want you to engage and ask me the questions. I want you to ask me how I came up with something and what it means. The more we have these conversations worldwide, the easier it is to get this feeling of confidence to support and appreciate.”
She reflects that it’s also very important to do your homework before you start asking questions.
“Under Western philosophy, you’d probably turn to a book. But in Native spaces, we learn in different ways. First, is to observe. Just shut your mouth and just observe. Pay attention. And then, when you ask questions, think before you ask. Taking the time to observe will allow us to develop the questions we need to ask. The right questions. That takes time. Also, experience–get out there, and fail a couple of times. You’ll pick up lessons really quickly when you fail. You have to have that personal experience to truly and deeply understand what it means. You cannot get that from a book, you cannot Google that.”
Another of Davis’ biggest reflections on the topic is why we even have to make these designations in the first place.
“We can’t move forward without addressing the healing process,” says Davis. “We are still healing. This issue of appreciation and appropriation wouldn’t even be an issue had there not been something wrong in the first place. I am personally working through some of those triggers and traumas through my work.”
In her case, and the case of Kānaka Maoli, that trauma comes at the hands of colonialism and the subsequent near-elimination of ancient Hawaiian customs, language, and way of life. And, let’s face it, some of the modern-day ramifications of colonialism are still evident today, thanks to the tourism industry.
This conversation of what is and isn’t culturally appropriate can and should also carry over to what is and isn’t appropriate as a traveler to a culture outside one’s own. Those principles of doing your homework, learning more than what’s just on the surface, observing, and then asking smart questions are all applicable to travel.
At 32 miles long and 10 miles wide, with no stop signs or franchises—that’s how Kanoelani describes her Island in an effort to help people understand the unique way of life that is lived on Molokai. It’s an island flanked by sprawling fringe reefs and some of the tallest sea cliffs in the world. The perfect sense of stillness and reverence permeates the island. It’s a place of timeless beauty that its residents fiercely defend.
Although the PōMahina Designs tagline is: “Molokai Made. Molokai Inspired.” Kanoelani doesn’t want everyone to rush out and buy a ticket to visit Molokai.
“We are asking for a moratorium on visitors for a few years,” explains Davis. “We still need some time for our island to rest because visitors are coming, but they aren’t leaving. We want folks to come, spend money, and go home. A big issue that we are having is people wanting to retire on Molokai, but they don’t anticipate just how different it is from living anywhere else. Everyone wants to come here for the peace, but if everyone moves here, then it will end up no different than the place they left.”
Davis doesn’t just talk the talk; she is highly active in helping to determine the future of tourism on her island, both at the local and state level. While residents might be discouraging visitors to the island, for now, Kanoelani utilizes PōMahina—along with some of her other ventures like her MANA Bombs podcast—to tell the stories of Molokai and Hawai‘i and the people and places that make it special. While Kanoelani doesn’t speak for all Indigenous people or even for all Kānaka Maoli (Indigenous Native Hawaiians), her experiences are deeply rooted in local traditions and culture.
But PōMahina Designs is for everyone, and, as with both fashion and travel, Davis encourages folks to be courageous.
“You’re going to make mistakes and you’re going to offend,” she says. “It’s what you do with that information that makes all the difference in whether you appreciate or appropriate.”