Local Business, International Success
Molokai local Suzette Kahana has collected vintage fabrics, buttons and jewelry for decades. She never dreamed it would evolve into an international venture through the business she created with her daughter Amber Andrade nine months ago.
Kahana said she has always sewed for her family — from Halloween and dance costumes, to prom dresses, wedding and beauty pageant gowns. After 30 years of collecting and cramming storage rooms of vintage material, one of her dresses, made for Andrade, caught the eyes of passersby in Oahu.
“So many people stopped her that day saying, ‘Beautiful dress, where did you get that,’” said Kahana.
Andrade encouraged Kahana to make more of her dresses and take them to the Mililani Uke Elementary School Craft Fair last December, and Kalapaki Girls Dezigns (KGD) was born.
“It’s spread like wildfire,” said Andrade. Today, KGD dresses are worn in New York, Chicago, Texas, Virginia, Pittsburg, Brazil and Japan.
KGD specializes in transforming vintage fabrics and embellishments into modern dresses, hats, and now clutches, which are produced from Kahana’s Kawela home.
“We’re lucky because we have a network of family and friends that just call us and say, ‘Hey my grandma is cleaning out her closet. Do you want her material?’” said Kahana. “The fabrics back then were colorful, bright, they wore well, and they didn’t fade. They stay perfect.”
Lively prints and colors are the store’s only theme, as each piece is one-of-a-kind, according to Andrade.
“This dress that I’m wearing, no one is going to have this dress again and I like that,” Andrade said, referring to the floral, coral and blue strapless KGD dress she was sporting. “Especially here in Hawaii on the small outer islands, you’ll go to a party and see 10 people wearing the same print and same style.”
Though the dresses are designed to fit every frame and figure, Kahana said they have started to custom design for family reunions, weddings, hula halau, as well as for individual customers.
Oahu customer Kim Watanabe said she has about 20 KGD dresses in her closet because they’re comfortable, easy to wear and appropriate for many occasions.
“They’re going to do a custom dress for me out of my old skirt that’s too big,” said Watanabe. “I’ve been getting a lot of compliments at work [on the dresses] and one of my co-workers…might even be placing a custom order too.”
Showcasing at Larger Venues
Since KGD began in December, they have appeared in two fashion shows and two other state craft fairs including the Merrie Monarch in Hilo and the Made in Hawaii Festival on Oahu, where they were one of three Molokai small businesses that received grants to attend.
This year, the Maui County Office of Economic Development and INNOVATE Hawaii partnered to provide assistance for new businesses that needed help to hit bigger markets.
“Two hundred investors were brought in to the festival to look at the wears so besides the general public, there were also buyers to take small businesses to that next level,” said Jennifer Hawkins, Molokai’s small business advocate for the Kuha`o Business Center.
Hawkins said that out of 34 applicants, 16 businesses in Maui County received a stipend of $1,000 and/or free booth space at the festival. The three winners from Molokai included, KGD, Kupu A`e hand-dyed scarves and women’s wear, and Art Beads Maui.
Through the Made in Hawaii Festival, Kahana said KGD is now going to be sold in three boutiques in Oahu.
Andrade said while she occasionally opens her home to private dress parties, much of their sales come from their online Etsy store, Facebook, and Instagram. Because of the power of the Internet, KGD products have been sent across the U.S.
“Someone so far away can see what we have…and the process is actually very simple.”
Their Internet presence has also caught international attention in Brazil and Japan.
“The lady who wholesales from us in Japan works at an Olympic development center,” said Andrade. “She said [her halau hula] just loves them and it’s so cute because she’ll take pictures of the group and send them to me.”
According to Kahana, Andrade is working with a second business this week in Japan to also sell KGD products in the near future.
Developing Business Sense
Today, the business is divided into two parts — Kahana sews from Molokai and receives help from her friend on Oahu, Eliza Biven, while Andrade sells and markets them from her home on Oahu.
Andrade said that because they haven’t had experience running a retail business, they are continuously learning about how to run it effectively.
Kahana said she’s thankful for the help she received from Hawkins, Kim Haueisen at the Maui County Office of Economic Development as well as the Maui Economic Opportunity (MEO) business classes taught by Kuulei Arce.
In the future, Andrade said opening up a storefront might be a possibility, however they’re in no hurry for the extra responsibility a store would entail. She feels blessed that KGD has been so successful in a short period of time and sees this as a good bonding experience for her and her mom.
“I’ve told my mom that for me, I want us to do the company as long as it’s something that we enjoy to do,” said Andrade. “Let’s say tomorrow it is over and done with, I think my mom and I would still look back 10 years from now and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, remember when we were doing this?’”