Looking back to when he was starting his apparel company, David Shepard cringes. He thought nothing of asking established aloha shirt makers where they had their wares made.
Now Shepard says he’d never ask such a question – or share details of his supply chain.
“Never go to anyone and ask, ‘Who do you go to?’” he says. “It’s basically like going to a restaurant and asking, ‘What is your recipe?’”
Shepard’s comment highlights an often overlooked aspect of the start-up, made-in-Hawaii apparel business: there’s a substantial amount of manufacturing going on here. The small firms making things like aloha shirts, tote bags and pareos support an ecosystem of sewers, cutters and suppliers, some working out of fabrication facilities, others working out of their homes.
Tapping into this network is an art, Shepard says.
“I’m not going to share exactly how I did it,” he says. “People are very guarded about how to find the right people and who to go to because there’s not enough of them.”
Officially, the U.S. Department of Labor reports this labor market as miniscule. According to the department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics there were 190 sewing machine operators in the state earning an average of $15 per hour in 2021, plus another 40 tailors, dressmakers and custom sewers earning about $20 per hour. The bureau counts another 50 textile cutting machine setters, operators and tenders making just less than $15 hourly.
The universe of outfits doing high end work for small companies like Shepard’s is even smaller, he says.
“There can’t be more than 12,” he said.
The challenge is that such workers are vital for start-up apparel makers, says Meli James, co-founder of Mana Up, a business accelerator that helps grow Hawaii-based firms.
Many Mana Up entrepreneurs start sewing their goods themselves, then need to scale up slowly, James said, noting that hiring out or building a big facility is impossible for these fledgling firms.
There’s also value in keeping and creating jobs here, says James, who is also president of the Hawaii Venture Capital Association.
Perhaps most important, she says, the money can be good. While the idea of home clothing fabrication might conjure Dickensian images of truant children hand-cuffed to sewing machines while their parents eke out an existence, James says the reality is much different. She knows of people making $80,000 a year helping sew things like swimsuits.
“They’re putting their kids through college,” she said of the stay-at-home garment workers. “And there’s upward mobility.”
Embodying James’ point is Chucly Vu, the owner of Pho Que Huong Vietnamese Restaurant in Chinatown. At 10 a.m. on a recent weekday morning, Pho Que Huong was already filling with customers dining amidst the aromas of lemongrass, lime, basil and mint. Many of the customers were speaking Vietnamese, as did Vu, who shared her story through an interpreter.
When Vu arrived in Honolulu from Vietnam in the mid-1990s, she didn’t speak English and had three children, ages 1, 2 and 4, she said.
But Vu could sew. And she says she quickly connected with Lee Dunning, a businesswoman well-known in the Vietnamese community.
Dunning had made a life for herself and her sons making clothes. After moving to Honolulu as a refugee, married to a U.S. military officer, Dunning’s world fell apart when her husband abandoned the family, she says.
Dunning started an aloha shirt company she called Silver Needles. And, with no business skills and nothing to lose, she started cold-calling retailers. Her break came when Walmart placed an order for 360 shirts.
“They sold out that weekend,” she says.
Soon she was making aloha shirts and board shorts for retailers like Walmart, ABC Stores and major hotels. By 1995, Dunning had sales of $1.5 million, she said.
Connecting with Dunning around this time was a boon for Vu, Vu says.
Before long, Vu and four other family members had a small hui and were earning $30,000 per month making aloha shirts for Silver Needles. Equally important,Vu could work from home and take care of her kids, who were too young for school.
Fast forward two decades, and Vu had made and saved enough to start her restaurant, a dream since childhood. Her husband owns a company making granite countertops. One of her children is a teacher, one a lawyer and one studying to be an engineer, she said. Vu and her husband have two more school-age kids, she said.
For her part, Dunning says she is grateful to Vu and glad to have been able to help Vu and Vu’s family.
“I’m happy with what I did,” says Dunning, who is now retired. “I helped other people, too.”
While Dunning is winding down, Shepard is just getting started: applying his training as a botanist and his love of art and storytelling. After studying biology and art at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Shepard returned home and earned a master’s degree in tropical agriculture from the University of Hawaii.
His first job out of school was with the National Park Service on Molokai, which was followed by jobs with the National Botanical Garden on Kauai and Lyon Arboretum in Manoa.
From the start, Shepard says, he was asking himself how he could use aloha shirts to tell the stories of native Hawaiian plants and animals in a way that could reach people.
By 2016, while working at the arboretum, he started taking sewing classes on weekends. He designed his own prints and learned the best method for making fabrics bearing the intricate images of Hawaiian birds, plants and flowers that are his trademark.
He incorporated in 2019. By 2021, Shepard had grown to a point where he was selected by Mana Up as a member of its seventh cohort of start-up companies vetted as ready to scale up.
Shepard declined to share numbers to quantify where his business is now. He did say about half his sales come from his website, the other half from small boutiques like Na Mea and MORI by Art+Flea in Ward Village. His shirts retail for $120.
Trading Sewing Machines For Nail Salons
One question facing Shepard and others like him is whether it’s possible to grow significantly while continuing to make clothes in Hawaii.
Even if he wanted to invest in a fabrication facility, Shepard said, large spaces are hard to find at all, much less at affordable rents. And there’s the ever-present fear that Kalihi, where many sewing and light manufacturing places now are located, is poised for gentrification into the next Kakaako – where light industry and warehouses have been replaced by luxury condo towers and hip eateries.
“The cost of living here – the cost of doing business — it’s pushing out the middle class,” he said.
There’s also the issue of labor. Seamstresses are leaving the business, and no one is replacing them, Shepard said.
Dunning agreed. Many Vietnamese people who might have done contract sewing work in the past now start nail salons, she said. It’s a good time to be retiring.
“You can make pretty good money doing it,” Shepard said of sewing. “But the people doing it are pretty old.”
Against this backdrop, the big question for Shepard is this: If his company grows into a major apparel maker, will he be able to stay in Hawaii?
“I would love to be able to manufacture in Hawaii when I get to that scale,” he said. “But there’s no infrastructure for it. Am I going to be able to continue here, or do I go somewhere else?”
“Hawaii’s Changing Economy” is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.
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