All In Da Ohana

Remember those beautiful aloha shirts that used to be sold at Nikkei Traditions San Francisco? Those shirts were produced by Iolani Sportswear, now simply known as Iolani, and one of the oldest Hawai’i companies still being operated by the original owners.

Photo (from left): Manoa DNA’s Nick, Alex and Lloyd Kawakami.

Company founder Keiji Kawakami had served with U.S. Senator Daniel K. Inouye as a member of the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the two have remained close friends since. After leaving the Army, Kawakami attended New York University, where he received a degree in merchandising.

With a keen business sense, Keiji Kawakami recognized an opportunity in the aloha shirt manufacturing business upon his return to Hawai’i, and established Iolani in 1953 along with his wife, Edith. The Kawakamis started with four sewing machines, a cutting table and seven employees in a dirt-floor room, located behind a service station. While Keiji provided the business vision, Edith is credited with building and running the factory.

In the beginning, Iolani’s aloha shirts were made of kabe silks imported from Japan. This was during the “Golden Age” of aloha shirts. However, Keiji Kawakami soon realized that to survive into the future, Iolani would need to evolve and identify new opportunities. This innovative spirit has always differentiated Iolani, and allowed it to thrive in an industry where many others have long since disappeared.

One of Iolani’s innovations was a style that was extremely popular in the 1960s through the ’70s. Departing from the traditional floral print, these men’s shirts, designed by Jackson Morisawa, featured solid colored fabrics, generally white, baby blue or tan, often accented with a silk-screened design on the front, and included distinctive details such as covered buttons, buckle-tab fronts and welt pockets. Da shirts stay mo’ hip today den wuz in 1970. There were numerous print and style variations, with names such as “Beau Tiki” and “Don Ho,” but the most well known design, which Iolani still sells today, is affectionately known as the “Wedding Shirt.”

The Kawakami’s son, Lloyd, literally grew up in the family business, helping out at the factory and making deliveries in a Volkswagen van. Nearly 20 years ago, Lloyd Kawakami became President of Iolani, successfully piloting the company through an increasingly competitive global market

And, in keeping with the Kawakami family tradition, Lloyd’s older son Nick, is now fully in charge in of Iolani’s new IO-Sport men’s line. Utilizing exclusive high-tech fabrics with wicking and anti-bacterial properties, Nick Kawakami has introduced a contemporary line of shirts with a retro nod to the Jackson Morisawa designs of the past.

Unfortunately, Iolani shirts are not widely available on the Mainland, although the company hopes to open an online store soon. In Honolulu, the Ala Moana Liberty House (okay, okay, Macy’s) carries a good range of Iolani women’s wear, while you’ll find the best selection of Iolani men’s shirts at the other end of Ala Moana, at Sears.

For many years, Lloyd had dabbled in music, playing backup guitar for the iconic contemporary Hawai’i group Cecilio & Kapono. He passed his love of music on to his sons, Nick and Alex, and the three often performed together informally at parties for family and close friends. The requests increased, and eventually, the band was formalized and Manoa DNA was born, in the summer of 2005.

But wot is one Manoa DNA anyways? Lloyd explained that his wife, Carla, came up with the trio’s name. The family lives in Manoa Valley, and DNA represents the initials of the three band members, Dad (Lloyd), Nick and Alex. Clever, no?

Whether performing a contemporary pop or traditional Hawaiian song, it’s their perfect harmonies that distinguish Manoa DNA. Da kine harmony dat goin’ geev you chicken skin! Lloyd explained that because of their shared DNA (pun intended), he and his sons have a similar vocal timbre, or sound characteristic, allowing for tighter harmonies. Eh, jus’ like da Jackson Five o’ da Partridge Family. Okay, okay, da Partridge Family wuzn’t one fo’ real kine family.

Further separating Manoa DNA from other bands, Alex Kawakami has proven to be an extremely talented composer, having penned nine of the 13 songs on the group’s debut CD, “Follow Me.”

With the demands of his day job, running a successful clothing company, Lloyd never imagined Manoa DNA as much more than a “family bonding” hobby, something fun to do with his sons. However, after the release of their CD, the group’s popularity has skyrocketed.

The band is in great demand, not only in the Islands, but in Japan, as well. In fact, the Manoa DNA had just returned from performing at the Yokohama Hawai’i Festival, their fourth concert tour of Japan in just the past year.

Lloyd noted that he had just very recently learned that his mother’s family was originally from Hiroshima, not Fukuoka, as he had mistakenly believed all his life. When the emcee for their Hiroshima concert announced this fact, the audience erupted and immediately embraced the group, as if welcoming home their long lost sons.

Their initial CD was recognized by the Hawai’i Music Foundation as the Contemporary Adult Album of 2006. The group also received two 2007 Na Hoku Hanohano Award nominations for Most Promising Artist and for top Contemporary Album. A second CD is expected to be released in September.

If you’re in Honolulu, you can catch Manoa DNA every Wednesday night (unless dey stay go Japan) at Gordon Biersch in the Aloha Tower Marketplace, and on Fridays at Lulu’s Surf Club (2586 Kalakaua Avenue, at Kapahulu Avenue). Nearer to the Bay Area, they will also be performing, along with Cecilio & Kapono, at Sam’s Town in Las Vegas on September 14th, as part of the University of Hawai’i/UNLV football game festivities that weekend. Eh, if you stay go Vegas, tell Lloyd da Two Japanee Bruddahs wen say “howzit!”
Keith Kamisugi and Kyle Tatsumoto are da Two Japanee Bruddahs.

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