The Dynamic Designer

Whether he’s creating aloha shirts or performing hula on the Island of Hawaii, nature is Kūha‘o Zane’s muse.

What really makes Hawaii the destination of a lifetime is its spirit: the warmth of the people, and their reverence for the land and its history. In The Hawaii Issue, out now, we’ve profiled four locals who embody that spirit in their respective fields—food, surfing, agriculture, and the arts—and asked each of them to tell us what they love about the island they call home.

For Kūha‘o Zane, the beauty of the island of Hawaii is all around, from the ‘ōhi‘a lehua trees to the black-sand beaches. So it’s only natural that beauty flows through everything he does. Hilo born and raised, the 36-year-old knew at a young age that he carried a responsibility to continue his family’s traditions and business—his father, Sig Zane, is the founder of Sig Zane Designs, a clothing shop that has helped define the style of the aloha shirt for more than three decades. 

Zane discovered his love of art in high school, and then left for Los Angeles to study at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. When he returned home in 2003, he joined his father at Sig Zane Designs. Now Zane designs the collections, which focus on honoring the land and native culture. He helped open a second location (Sig on Smith in Honolulu in 2016), and has extended the Sig Zane brand beyond aloha shirts. Through SigZaneKaiao, a spinoff design studio, he’s made his mark on things like hotel uniforms and airplane exteriors.

When he’s not working, Zane devotes himself to hula dancing, practicing weekly and carrying on the tradition of his mom, Nalani Kanaka‘ole, a renowned kumu hula, or hula master. 

Whether designing or dancing, it all comes back to nature: Movement and ritual, plant and culture are intertwined. In addition to the physicality of hula, Zane says, there are many other things dancers must learn, such as how to create and dye costumes and source plants for lei. And those plants feed his fashion. “A lot of inspiration for our graphic design for our aloha shirts has to do with the significant plants of hula, and then a lot of our inspiration for the artwork comes from the chants,” he says, referring to the phrases in hula that describe histories and legends and then are interpreted into movements. For Zane, design and hula make an unbeatable combination. “I love that I can do this for the rest of my life,” he says.

Hawaii Insider

Kūha‘o Zane’s artistic eye informs his Hawaii Island favorites, from small boutiques to large cultural events.

Hana Hou An island boutique like no other, Hana Hou has a selection of authentic gifts, including vintage and handcrafted items by master artisans, Tahitian pearl and Ni‘ihau shell jewelry, and several local clothing lines. “They have some of the most beautiful lauhala [pandanus leaf] woven hats,” Zane says. 

Palikū Surf Located just a few doors down from the flagship store, the surf shop is one of Sig Zane Designs’ newest storefronts. Zane and his dad, Sig, who’s an avid surfer, offer a collection of hats, flip-flops, T-shirts, board shorts, surfboards, and fins. Many items are collaborations with surf companies, such as Hurley and Firewire Surfboards. 

Merrie Monarch Festival Held every spring, this weeklong event includes three nights of competition among hālau hula (hula schools). “Merrie Monarch is that time when Hilo is literally brimming with excitement,” Zane says. Though tickets to the competition are required and sell out months in advance, other events are free, including a hula exhibition, which is opened by Zane and his family’s hālau.

Hā‘ena Beach The Puna district is known for its rocky coastlines, but Hā‘ena Beach, also called Shipman Beach, is an exception. Park at the end of Beach Road and it’s an easy 2.5-mile hike to the sandy shores. Zane says it’s believed to be the site of the first ever hula. 

Kahilu Theatre A community theater and educational center for the arts, Kahilu Theatre is a cultural hub for the entire island. “I really like the curation of their gallery space,” Zane says of the facility’s rotating roster of exhibits. The theater’s gallery has featured everything from landscape photographs to contemporary creations of kapa, a fabric made from tree and plant fibers. 

Photography by Dino Morrow

Originally Published June 2019