Ascending the refurbished spiral steps of a modernized red brick building off of King Street in Honolulu’s downtown, I come upon Ari in her swanky atelier doing what she is always doing: working. She sits near the center of three rows of unmanned workstations. “Sorry, I’ll be right with you. This machine is giving me trouble,” she says as she lines up thread with the overhead spool pin of a vintage sewing machine. The atelier, the French term for “artists’ workshop,” radiates spacious glamour. A third of the space is dedicated to industrial sewing machines, from an era prior to their plastic modern counterparts, which Ari has collected, refurbished and maintained over the past decade. In the center, near sorting tables and bolts of fine linene, are racks of garments for sale. At the entrance is a fainting couch, with a table graced with vegan cookies baked by Ari’s mother alongside it.
A moment later, Ari gently runs the hem of an off-white racerback tank top through her machine’s steel feeder. “There we go, it’s going again.” But she’s not ready to stop working. “Give me five minutes. Please speak to Alex.” As I wait for Ari’s attention, Alex Propios, one of the atelier’s current interns, is working out the placement of a cascade of delicate chains placed across the bust of a dress. The chains, and the couture work required to place them, will be reviewed by Ari. The dress, held together perilously with bobby pins on a mannequin, is for Ashley Layfield, former Miss Hawai‘i 2007, as she competes for the 2013 Miss Universe contest. “I love being here,” Alex tells me, as he places miniature tabs where chain, lace and stitching will meet. Alex is receiving credits for this work through the Fashion Technology Program at Honolulu Community College, where Ari once attended and, time permitting, now teaches a course on fashion show production.
Much labor has been invested in being so glamorous. “We’re not in New York, where machines, fabrics and people who know how to use them are readily available. We make do with what we got,” she tells me. At the age of 27, Ari now has quite a lot to make do with: a brand recognized in high fashion, several contracts to produce garments for fellow Hawai‘i-based designers, a staff of 10 full-time employees, several interns, dozens of friends who assist her during shows, and countless fans and customers who support her work and her identity, and eagerly purchase her product. “OK, ready to talk?”
A New York Minute
Andrew “Andy” Southiphong was born in Kailua and raised on O‘ahu’s rural west side, attending to his mother’s fish farm with his four older siblings. “Wai‘anae was good to our family,” Ari remembers. “I was the youngest, so I suppose I came out bouncing with glitter,” she jokes. “But growing up, I never really enjoyed spending the weekends doing chores like cleaning out fish tanks. There was always so much to do for the Chinese freshwater catfish and sunfish, or ahem, tilapia.” After graduating from Wai‘anae High School in 2004, Andy attended the Fashion Technology Program at Honolulu Community College. Like so many young, aspiring individuals, he ended up in retail. By 2009, Andy was working for local fashion designer Mahchid Mottale at her store Baik Baik in Kaimukī and constantly sketching out new ideas for designs. Nothing seemed to be happening.
Then suddenly, for a few weeks in 2010, Andy South was a household name on prime time television. One of a rash of reality shows that swept up western culture, Project Runway differs from other reality-based entertainment by focusing on the skill of its contestants. If one follows such trends, it’s a model that has been copied in countless other programs: a group of young, (mostly) talented professionals are pitted against each other in weekly tasks that mirror what they might face in their actual careers, with the addition of colorful commentary and HD cameras. Each week challenges the contestants with a new task: repurposing old garments, creating a dance costume, using specified fabrics, not being evil; the whole time, celebrity judges Michael Kors and Nina Garcia offer biting dissections of the work and Heidi Klum dismisses the losers with European panache.
Andy shone in the national spotlight. With a local following, he emerged as one of the standouts of the show’s eighth season, making it to the finale, for which contestants produce a full collection to show during New York Fashion Week, and placing third. What is more important in the story are the lessons that a national spotlight can teach: that the world, particularly the fashion world, still has room for hardworking, ambitious individuals. “When I got word that I was going to New York to film, I let go of everything, and tried to tie things up at home in case the opportunity arose. I was ready. I put everything in storage just in case I stayed and never came back,” she says of the experience.
For Ari and her business, the work has been nonstop since returning from television reality to literal reality. “I guess I could have easily stayed in New York and not be so stressed out,” she says. “When I came back, it felt like a clean slate. I was pretty much homeless, couch-hopping and working out of a tiny shared space in Chinatown with Reise.” The Reise that she speaks of is Reise Kochi, an O‘ahu designer who handcrafts leather accessories. “People read about the opening of the show, or the Neiman Marcus pieces, but they don’t see the amount of work that goes into getting there. After a few years, I realized we needed to take a step back and build the business.” Playing on the English pronunciation of her last name, the Andy South brand’s first 25-piece collection for Neiman Marcus in 2011 was a nearly all-black affair, with gowns and blouses adorned with leather and silk downward chevrons, accentuating the female form. “It just worked. South is going the wrong way, I wanted to do my own thing,” she says of the motif that has become something of a trademark.
Andy South’s first show at Ala Moana was an explosion of local fashion. “After we filled that first Neiman Marcus order, I realized that I needed to produce on a larger scale,” she explains. In the winter of 2010, Andy visited China. “It was a tough experience,” she remembers. “I saw piles of denim on the sidewalk next to an open factory. I saw these old ladies sewing in the cold. It was 40 degrees in this freezing warehouse, so we felt bad and bought all these cheap heaters for the ladies. Everybody looked miserable. Deciding to produce here in Hawai‘i, and to stay here, ended up being an ethical thing. That experience alone made me realize that, at least in business, I’m alone.”
For the brand Andy South, the last year has been focused on being a viable company for the next decade. In the summer of 2012, the business moved into its present location at the King’s Court building downtown, a gorgeous red brick studio space built in 1896 that was once the site of the Yat Loy Dry Goods Company, where local workers purchased their clothing throughout the first half of the 20th century. The decision to create locally was as much externally motivated as it was internally; it has less to do with Marxist conceptions regarding the alienation of labor and more to do with the realities of what it means to be a contributing citizen in the push for community sustainability. It also means wearing something quite nice. “We can’t really compete with the lower-end stuff,” Ari tells me. “Sometimes I walk into Forever 21 and wonder ‘How the hell did they get this on the rack for 20 bucks?’ But in the higher-end markets, there’s no reason we can’t compete. There’s no reason we can’t produce.”
The Andy South atelier is now producing. With a full-time staff, Ari’s workshop is handling the manufacturing of aloha shirts for Hawai’i Island-based designer Sig Zane and several other smaller local creators, along with the Andy South line for Neiman Marcus and other local boutiques. “Sig’s work is similar, so the partnership is working wonderfully. We took a season off to move into the new place. We’ve established ourselves now. We’re working hard to get the staff up to speed, because if I don’t train people to help, this is just a hamster wheel on fire.” As we speak, Ari points to a small label on the interior collar of a blouse I’m playing with, which says “Made In Hawai‘i.” “It was tough at first, training the local ladies how to do complex construction, the kind of stuff that I taught myself over the years. The bread and butter of local fashion has been the aloha shirt for years now, but even that has moved off to China. If there’s anything I want people to know, it’s what that little tag means.”
A Hat With A Crooked Crown
Hawai‘i fashion has always been influenced by the hot trends abroad. In the territorial era, when a trip to the mainland was a month-long affair, new clothes were on the minds of the young women in Honolulu’s emerging urbanity. Danced at countless keiki hula recitals, this song written in the 1930s by Bina Mossman, Hele Au I Kaleponi, captured the spirit:
Hele au i Kaleponi I’m going to California
Ho‘i mai, male kāua When I come back, well be married.
He aha kou makemake What do you want me to bring you?
A pane mai la ‘oia ala She answered:
Pāpale ipu kapakahi A hat with a crooked crown,
Kāma‘a hila ‘auli‘i A pair of high-heeled shoes,
Kīhei ku‘u weluwelu A shawl with a fringe,
Palekoko hap nihoniho A petticoat with half scallops
Ame ka lolo mū‘ekeke‘i And a very tight skirt.
A few decades later, in the post-war boom of Hawai‘i’s tourism, the clothing of Alfred Shaheen re-imagined and recreated Hawaiian fashion design. Shaheen’s designs remain bold amalgams of Polynesian and Hawaiian motifs and patterns with the cuts and silhouettes of the era. The dresses and aloha-print shirts that were produced by the nearly 400 artisans in Shaheen’s employ throughout the 1950s and 1960s have been described as timeless. In 2012, when the Bishop Museum debuted their retrospective of Shaheen’s work titled HI Fashion: The Legacy of Alfred Shaheen in the museum’s modern Castle Building, they hosted a fashion show to launch the display, and Ari was tapped to show pieces that bridged the ideological and productive gap between then and the now.
“What I loved was that he was based here,” says Ari. “When I was getting ready for the show, I liked every single one of those looks, and I just thought, ‘I wanna be that girl.’ For him, it was all about the silhouette. But the idea of quality has changed. It’s not as connected to production. So many folks don’t know the meaning of quality. What’s worse is not knowing the difference.”
Shaheen, and the best of local designers, have picked up on what Hawai’i residents figure out fairly quickly when they make their foray into adult fashion: This place is unique. We are in the tropics, but not thoroughly outdoors. We appreciate color, but the average consumer cannot saunter downtown dressed as Carmen Miranda or a hula dancer in a hapa haole routine. Fashion must contend with the tradewinds that do not always blow and a winter season that provides the island population approximately four months, from November to March, to comfortably wear more than a single layer in a non-air conditioned room. Ari has gotten it, and the sales have matched. “My first collection looked straight out of New York, because it was. But then I saw what my customers in Hawai‘i wanted. With the Shaheen work, I got to wrap my head around what it’s like to be on resort and experimented with patterns.” At the opening of the show, museum patrons were offered a chance to purchase vintage dresses and shirts, as well as the looks on Ari’s models. Ari sold nearly every piece.
A Dappled Identity
Much of the discussion about Ari has been less focused on the work, its quality, and its uniqueness to Hawai’i, and more on the identity of its creator. Beginning in the fall of 2011, Andrew Khansanith Southiphong began living life as a woman. Not just any woman, mind you, but an attractive, headstrong, formal-dress-wearing woman about town. This news was reported on the celebrity gossip show TMZ and the blog for E! Entertainment. If you know Andy, this was not a very big deal.
Ari sews as we speak. When I loosely raise the concept of identity, and question how that identity has influenced the work, she speaks of fish. “In Wai‘anae, the ponds out there don’t need to be lined because the soil is compact enough to just fill them and get to work. It’s why we moved there when I was so young. I appreciate my country raising. It taught me a lot about values, and now I know how to work hard,” she tells me. “The last few years, my mom’s been able to help me and not do all that hard work back at home. She only has one fishpond now.”
The last several years have been intense for the young fashion designer, and I get the sense that she is only now allowing herself moments to reflect. “I feel like part of my purpose, of going through what I’m going through publicly, is meaningful. Who decides to change genders in the middle of starting a new business? Who does that?” she asks. “So many people I meet don’t listen to themselves. My sister just quit her job in a shiny office building to become a baker, and it turns out she’s really good at it. I’m getting emails all the time from people I’ve never met that are just so kind. This was something that I had to do. I knew that if I didn’t do this now, I would never be able to truly move forward.
“I’m going by Ari now, it’s time I asked that people call me that,” she continues, looking up from her work. “My mother prayed on it at the Buddhist temple, and she came up with Ariyaphon, which means ‘radiant light.’” An Instagram photo she took a few weeks later shows the official name change published in the newspaper. “People have been very supportive. I thank God I’m based in Hawai’i. It wasn’t a part of staying, but going through this experience and not having a backlash has let me know that I’ve made the right decisions.”
As she speaks, I see one of the remaining patterned dresses from the Shaheen show a few months previous. “It’s meant to move,” Ari says of the fabric. The dress is a western silhouette, the pattern a vibrant mix of multiple colors, like a golden-hour rainbow, reflecting on a dappled pond. For Ari, success has something, but not everything, to do with being the youngest child of immigrants, changing genders, and being a little bit lucky. It has far more to do with being young and free in a place that allows it, and the constant labor of growing something, reaching into the liquid unknown, and bringing it to market.