How to Accessorize with Pua

a close up of a flower

The beauty and brio on display in a Kaua‘i aunty’s floral headpieces captivate social media.

Images by Hiroko Letman

We never see her face, not really. The portraits are taken at elevated angles so we glimpse a corner of tanned forehead, the crinkle of under eye smile lines, an ear graced with a delicate hoop or pearl earring. If anything we see her profile at most, from the left side with its strong cheekbones. What’s always on view are the flowers, arranged artfully in her pulled back, silvering hair.

This is the Instagram account of @hirokolele. The woman in the photographs is known simply as Aunty Nani. We, the 14,300+ followers, understand this because the captions always follow the same convention: “Aunty Nani with…” insert whichever florals (with a hashtag) she happens to be peacocking that day, and there have been many since the first post of her in 2016. 

Though we never see her face, Aunty Nani feels familiar, as if she could be your own tūtū or aunty or kumu or woman you see daily at the grocery store.

The flowers themselves range from minimalist — a single-stem white lily as large as an open palm; a solo sherbet-colored hybrid hibiscus with ruffled petals tucked into a neat bun — to maximalist: tusk-like blue jade with tī leaves are pinned to stand upright, like a toothy crown; a Turks cap lei is folded over and flanked by a phalanx of carnations, chrysanthemums and ferns, like a blooming bonnet. Some arrangements aren’t even flowers. Scroll back to 2018. There’s a cluster of orange eggplant and fern dangling in her hair, a clutch of handmade coconut palm frond roses speared to touch edges so they look like a shield, or kauna‘oa, the stringy, yellow-orange endemic vine, coiled around her bun.

From anthuriums and lilies to blue jade and hibiscuses, Aunty Nani delights tens of thousands online with her bold and beautiful adornments.

How did I find the account? A repost, probably, some time in 2022. Yet scrolling it from bed felt more like strolling through a botanical garden or national park: calming because the beauty of nature awes you at every turn. Her flowers, their design, were so beautiful. The feeling I had was distinctly different from most emotions the social media app inspires — covetousness, jealousy, insecurity, inattention — probably because it lacks the pretense and perfection that runs rampant across people’s grids. 

“I just take the photo in the setting where I happen to run into Nani, even if it is in front of a parked car, outside of the restroom, next to a rubbish bin or by an old truck,” says Hiroko Letman, the woman behind the account, in an email. As a landscape architect on Kaua‘i, Letman was drawn to Aunty Nani for the same reasons tens of thousands on the internet are enamored with her now: for her bold, beautiful flowers. The two work together at a plant nursery on the island, and everyday, she would spot Aunty Nani sporting a new hairdo, ergo the impulse to document it.

a person with flowers in her hair -- one of aunty's floral headpieces
The woman in the snapshots is known simply as Aunty Nani. Since 2016, a social media account broadcasts whichever flora her hair is adorned with that day.

Even more striking to Letman though was the confidence with which Aunty Nani, in her late eighties, styled herself. Originally from Japan, “we don’t have this custom to wear flowers in our hair every day. At first I thought this was something that young women do,” explains Letman. “But I saw Nani wearing these very large, gorgeous flowers so beautifully, it changed my impressions about beauty and age. I realized it’s okay for older women to be very bold and expressive just like young women.”

Letman’s instinct was prescient given the “lei-naissance” of late. From lei and tastemaker Meleana Estes’ Lei Aloha recent book to Island Boy shop owner Andrew Mao’s statement necklace-like creations, lei are no longer viewed as celebratory tokens but everyday expressions of personal style and design sensibilities. Aunty Nani, with her singular styling, is the ultimate ambassador for taking the ancient tradition of adorning yourself with flowers — hers come from many places: her garden, the nursery, the sale section of the supermarket — and making it wholly your own.

Though we never see her face, Aunty Nani feels familiar, as if she could be your own tūtū or aunty or kumu or woman you see daily at the grocery store. She’s a grounding, assured presence, reminding us that beauty is ubiquitous and adornment available to everyone, if only we go outside and look.

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