Hawai‘i fashion designers Robert Ikeda and Bliss Lau gives some advice on how to become successful in the fashion industry. 

By Don Wallace

Photo: Eli Schmidt 

HONOLULU Fashion Week is all about celebrating the ways Hawai‘i is making its mark on the world of fashion. Many of our designers have built their careers right here in the Islands. Others have made the leap to the Mainland. We spoke with a couple of them to learn what it’s like to leave home to chase their dreams.

Los Angeles-based Robert Ikeda of Circle Group Inc. and Cameron Hawai‘i knows clothes. Bi-coastal thanks to an upbringing divided between Hawai‘i and Los Angeles after his parents’ early divorce, Cameron says, “I was born into fashion. I come from a factory background, my parents had factories.”

Yet he understands the push-and-pull that Islanders feel about leaving. In fact, he’s named his sportswear line Cameron Hawai‘i after the invented character of Cameron, “a girl who explores the world after moving to the Mainland from the Islands.” The company’s tagline—“Hawaiian Soul, California Love”—could sum up Ikeda’s life.

Still, it’s tough love when it comes to the business of fashion, where he excels, consulting and advising clients on branding and production. (A recent launch collaboration was with Malia Jones Swim for the surfer/model’s fashion foray.) His advice for the up-and-coming designer isn’t about line and color, but production lines and the long green.

“What a lot of young designers don’t think about is, while they might make a beautiful product and suddenly it’s ‘OMG, I got my first show!’ and ‘We’ve got $250,000 worth of orders,’ they can’t just hand over a pattern to a factory and say ‘See you in two months.’” Finding and choosing a factory is key, but manufacturing will require constant supervision. “You go there every step of the way, check it out as you go. You can’t trust a lot of factories,” he says. “If you feel kind of weird about it going in, that’s a warning. And build a relationship. If you start fighting it’s not good.

“My relationships with factories go back 15 years. If you can keep a good relationship, they are going to respect that.”

The second thing to know about factories and retailers going in: “It turns into an accounting game,” he explains. If you’re not prepared and don’t have good advisers, “they do weird math with discount money, markdown money, insurance, where you might ship $650,000 of stuff and at the end of the day you owe them $15,000.

“Those are the real-life issues.” Yet he is essentially an optimist: “Never give up, keep moving, dream big. Capture what you’re going to do. Experience all of it. If you’re a real go-getter and you can figure it out, you can do it—if you can meet the right people, find the right factories.”

When we asked designer Bliss Lau what every local should know about New York her response was almost instantaneous: “It’s FAST!” she blasted back on her phone, using downtime between flights home to pound out emails. “So fast you forget time even exists.” But: “A great benefit is you perpetually live in the present and sometimes the future...” 

In Lau’s case, she arrived in New York 10 days after graduation from Punahou in 1999 to attend the Parsons School of Design, where she began manipulating leather and metals in ways that caught the eye of the fashion world. Influential at an early age, she’s moved into body jewelry and slinky, bracelet-linked chains, like the one worn by Hawai‘i-born Keke Lindgard at last year’s HONOLULU Fashion Week and these at blisslau.com.

Of course, such a summary makes it sound easy and inevitable, when it’s anything but. As Lau says: “The true question I would ask you is, ‘Are you willing to make the sacrifice?’”

If you do, you’ll find plenty of company. “New York was populated by the ambitious. It was often the only thing that everyone here had in common,” writes Hawai‘i’s own New York chronicler, novelist Hanya Yanigahara (Punahou ’92) in this year’s much-lauded A Little Life.

Even with that, Lau’s got good news for the newbie: “I give NYC an A+ on friendly. You will be surprised how willing any stranger on the street is to help you. We love our city and always want to share it.”

Don’t be shy about seeking advice or an explanation on the job, either. “I always lean towards asking [questions]. Or you might miss out!”

On practical matters, you’ll save yourself some real grief by taking care of your feet. “Always carry two pair of shoes, one cute pair and one lightweight to switch out when walking far distances.” And keep the Locals by the door at home. “One rule is never wear slippers outdoors—NYC is dirty!”

Ultimately, meeting the right people is one big reason why you’re making the move, says Lau—and why you should make it now. “In a world where contacts are everything, it is harder to come here”—NYC—“later in life than earlier, when you have time to build them.” So don’t be shy.

And do put your phone away when you’re walking. “Most importantly,” Lau concludes, “remember to look up; the city is most beautiful when looked at from the street. Stop in the middle of a crosswalk and look down an avenue to see an endless, narrow path of buildings. I love that.” 

Tags:2015 Bliss Lau Robert Ikeda

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