MAMo Wearable Art

Hawai‘i Theatre, May 17, 2012

Kapalai‘ula de Silva (Hanalei Marzan)

Moses Goods, Kahikina de Silva, and Marcus Quiniones (Hanalei Marzan)

Puakenamu Leong, Mahinakauahiahi Gamayo, Lilinoe Sterling (Nita Pilago / Wahine Toa)

Lili‘u Tomasello, Miala Leong, Pualani Steele (Nita Pilago / Wahine Toa)

breathtaking, sometimes disturbing, and sometimes innocuous. Breathtaking when the native A and the western B are synthesized into a new but decidedly native C (feather net-capes and pig-gut gowns modeled by po‘e na‘au hula). Disturbing when the native is subjugated by the commercial (heavy metal jewelry modeled by pouty professionals to the accompaniment of hula pahu). And innocuous when A and B simply accommodate each other with no greater impact than the tropical print page of an Old Navy catalog (splashy beach wear modeled by jaunty hapa-Hawai‘i strutting to da reggae beat).

This year’s MAMo Wearable Art Show, though more consistent in quality and presentation than its four quite excellent predecessors, gives evidence of a growing separation between the synthesizers and the rest of the field. Marques Hanalei Marzan and Bubba Carrington Yap, in particular, are geniuses of design and display, each presents his work in a manner that challenges our thinking about what is Hawaiian, what works and what doesn’t, what defines our identity and what eats away at it. Marzan is all about old materials, new uses, and displaced settings. Yap is all about ceremony, motion, and myth. Marzan’s models are mostly HMI dancers trained in engagement and story-telling; they connect with their audience in a decidedly non-ramp-model manner. Yap’s models, on the other hand, are kupua beings (bird women, lizard men) in mid-transformation; in this context, their ramp-model disengagement is equally enthralling. Marzan tells us that we will still be who we are no matter how distant the time and foreign the place. Yap reminds us that our everyday lives are still infused by an older mystery and beauty. 

Here is hoping that the bar set by these men will inspire the other designers to treat the MAMo event as something more than a venue for products and sales. I am reminded of Nalani Kanaka‘ole’s response, at a Merrie Monarch meeting, to the question: “What do you look for when we dance?”

“I want to see how you advance our culture,” she said. 

W hen native culture and haute couture collide on the catwalk, the results are sometimes