On an early summer’s morning, Kuha‘o Zane sits before his computer in his office at Sig Zane Designs in a nondescript building located just outside of Hilo. The company he works for, the company his father started 30 years ago, has grown into one of the most revered lines of aloha wear in Hawai‘i today. At first glance, Kuha‘o looks to be the pinnacle of style, as if he’d mesh seamlessly into the New York, Portland or San Francisco downtown scene. His skin is browned and his hair is lightly dusted with streaks of gray. His desk is littered with mockups, deadlines and to-do lists and there’s a bloated list of emails that he’s yet to respond to. For a young professional in his late 20s, all of this seems, well, normal. But if you were to take a closer look at Kuha‘o, and pull back the veneer of stylish clothes, remove the limited edition Vans and Fitted cap, you’d see that there are many more layers to this man than meets the eye. Where so many of his contemporaries hold a keen focus solely based on what is now, what is modern, what is current, Kuha‘o can’t shake the past. And all for good reason. For Kuha‘o, it’s what’s behind him – his history, his lineage – that’s shaping what’s ahead.
Not long after Calvinist missionaries first arrived in Hawai‘i in the 19th century, a strict Western set of moral laws took over the islands. Some of the most pivotal components of Hawaiian culture were struck down, hula being at the top of that list. To preserve hula, to keep the Hawaiian art of storytelling through dance alive, the knowledge was forced to go underground. Hula kapu, or the forbidden hula, was born.
“A lot of Hawaiian culture almost died in the 1800s. To preserve hula, it had to be taught in secret,” reflects Kuha‘o. “My great grandma, Tutu Fuji, was one of the few women fortunate enough to be able to learn hula at such an important time. At a really young age, she was taken to a very rural area of Puna on the Big Island to learn a form of hula called ‘ai ha‘a.”
According to Kuha‘o, learning a forbidden style of hula at that time was no walk in the park. “When my great grandma was learning hula, there were only four people in the class, and it was very strict. They had to do a lot of things to take care of themselves that most young kids couldn’t dream of today,” says Kuha‘o. “But it was a real honor to be selected to hold on to the knowledge at such a crucial time. At one point, I think there were only five people who held on to the ‘ai ha‘a knowledge. I know this might sound a little crazy to some people, but the way she was taught was very spiritual. When their kumu would leave town, he was said to have taught the class through their dreams. The next morning, the class would all wake up and know a new dance.
“You don’t just learn the moves when you learn hula,” adds Kuha‘o, “you learn the history. You learn the background. You learn what flowers to pick when you’re making certain lei. You learn about the song. … some of these songs we learn date back 300 years.”
Zane stands in front of an image of a portrait of his grandmother Edith Kanaka‘ole.
When Kuha‘o’s great-grandmother turned 13, she returned to Hilo and passed her knowledge onto her family. In essence, the lineage of hula followed the family’s bloodline. The knowledge was passed down the family, falling next on Edith Kanaka‘ole, Kuha‘o’s grandmother, who became one of the most revered figures of Hawaiian knowledge and hula. On the Big Island, the stadium that hosts the annual Merrie Monarch Festival, an event in which the Zane family is firmly involved, is named after her. Edith Kanaka‘ole’s wealth of knowledge was then passed down to her daughter, Nalani, a woman who would marry a man named Sig.
In the 1970s, long before his name became synonymous with aloha wear, Sig Zane, Kuha‘o‘s father, made a living flipping houses in Honolulu. But soon, the call of the Big Island and some potentially big payoff opportunities in underdeveloped real estate called out to him. If he was able to tie together a living in the congested city of Honolulu, imagine what he could do with new home developments on the Big Island. With big visions of continuing his business in real estate, Sig jumped ship and moved to the Big Island. But not long after relocating, a new chapter in Sig’s life arose that would completely alter him forever. Like so many other life-changing events that befell so many men, Sig’s came in the form of a woman.
When Sig first met his future wife Nalani, there was no way he could have fathomed the curve his life was about to take. As a Hawaiian woman with a family tree that could easily be the story of a Hollywood film, Nalani’s views of the world would speak to Sig and he would come to embrace all avenues of Hawaiiana, including hula. His days flipping houses were over and he was about to embark on a new venture that paid testament to the days of old while still hitting a modern tone.
“To impress my mom, my dad made some screen-printed pareos. This was back in the early ’80s and my mom told my dad that he should start looking into aloha shirts,” says Kuha‘o. “None of the aloha shirts made at the time celebrated true Hawai‘i. So that’s how Sig Zane Designs were basically born.”
Two-and-a-half decades later, the Sig Zane label has become an iconic aloha-wear brand recognized throughout the world for its authentic aesthetic and contemporary style. Having grown up around the business and with a passion for design, it was no surprise that Kuha‘o would follow in his father’s footsteps and work for the family business.
After graduating from high school, Kuha‘o traded the sleepy lifestyle on the Big Island for the glowing lights and hustle of Los Angeles where he attended the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, an esteemed art and design college in Los Angeles. After graduating, Kuha‘o returned to the Big Island and began working as the lead graphic designer at Sig Zane Designs where he and his father began to weave touches of more contemporary style into the traditional lines.
“My dad’s aesthetic is very modern,” says Kuha‘o. “He has a great eye for flow and spacing. His designs are simple and very clean but also very thought out. I think it speaks to people in a much different way than other lines. Every piece has a story.”
Zane sits in front a tree (of which, the leaves are used as design inspirations) his umbilical cord was buried under as a family tradition. He wears a Sig Zane Designs x Chuck Taylor collaborative shoe.
Recently, with the help of Kuha‘o, Sig Zane Designs has worked on a slew of collaborations with a host of highly established companies ranging from Shwood Eyewear to Converse to Tiffany & Co. This past April, in a collaboration between Vans Shoes and Kicks/HI, they produced one of the more memorable run of shoes of the spring. At the Kicks/HI store in Honolulu, the collaboration nearly sold out in the debut weekend. At the Sig Zane store in Hilo, the shoes were gone within 48 hours of hitting the showroom floor.
All of the success of Sig Zane keeps Kuha‘o and the rest of the family moving at breakneck speeds. Always on the hustle, forever traveling, the family recently returned from a trip to Japan, where they met with an adoring Japanese audience bubbling over with passion for their brand. Moving forward, Kuha‘o envisions continued success as the creative director for Sig Zane as well as more collaborations and freelance design work. Currently, the company has been contracted to provide cultural design direction to the Sheraton Keauhou in Kona. For Kuha‘o, it’s been one of the more intense projects he’s worked on, but also one of the most fulfilling.
“Working with the resort has been a really great experience for us,” says Kuha‘o. “We’ve all worked very hard to not only help with the redesign, but also to help them understand the significance of it. Every piece we’ve worked on in the hotel has a story, has a meaning. When tourists stay at this hotel, they’ll be surrounded by pieces that are true to Hawai‘i. We’re very proud of it.”
When asked what his next move will be, Kuha‘o is adamant that his future will always have a reverence for the past. “The past is something very special to me. I’ve got some big shoes to fill, that’s for sure. I guess that’s the story of my life. But I love it. I really do love what I do and I truly hope I can do it forever.”
For more information and to keep up with Sig Zane Designs, visit sigzane.com.