Common Threads

Threading people and plants together through storied clothing

By Kapiʻolani Ching, Communications Coordinator

In Hawaiʻi where aloha shirts are a familiar sight, one cannot help but notice the abundance of prints depicting tropical plants. At NTBG, our commitment to understanding and celebrating the inherent relationships between humanity and nature inspired me to explore the aloha shirt on a deeper level. What plants are depicted on aloha shirts? What stories and connections do these plants hold? And perhaps most importantly, what’s the significance of wearing plant-inspired prints?

To gain some insight, I spoke with Ane Bakutis, co-owner of Kealopiko. On the surface, Kealopiko is a clothing and lifestyle brand, but they represent so much more. Ane, along with friends Hina Kneubuhl and Jamie Makasobe, founded Kealopiko in 2006 with a desire to bring Hawaiʻi’s stories and connections into focus through clothing. Prior to creating Kealopiko each of them has had various experiences in conservation-related work in Hawaiʻi. Ane, for instance, brings a wealth of knowledge from her years with the Plant Extinction Prevention Program (PEPP), one of NTBG’s valued partners in plant conservation. Through the lens of their experiences they’ve designed numerous prints that showcase that which makes Hawaiʻi truly unique: its plants and animals, Hawaiian language and practices, Hawaiʻi’s aliʻi (royalty), kūpuna (elders and ancestors), and the moʻolelo (stories and history) that thread these elements together.

Ane Bakutis doing field work. Photo by Ed Misaki

Kealopiko’s “All Aloha” collection — their signature line of aloha wear crafted entirely in Hawaiʻi — features hand-dyed fabric adorned with intricate designs that breathe life into the relationships shared between plants and people. For example, a piece printed with their olonā (Touchardia latifolia) design not only illustrates the beauty and craftsmanship of olonā cordage, but includes a moʻolelo (story) tag that explains how Hawaiians learned to cultivate and extract olonā fibers to create one of the strongest cords known to man. The tag details how olonā was used as lashing and binding for a wide range of tools and items as well as an ʻōlelo noʻeau (proverbial saying) that metaphorically describes olonā’s sheer strength.

For Ane, Hina, and Jamie, aloha wear is a platform for sharing the stories and relationships that have sustained Hawaiʻi for countless generations. Woven into the essence of each piece is a clear call to action: In wearing plant-inspired prints, we have the opportunity to help keep their stories alive.

Kealopiko’s ʻulu (breadfruit) design photographed at Kahanu Garden. Photo by Kealopiko

Kapiʻolani Ching: Each of you have had various experiences in conservation-related work. How did those experiences influence the creation of Kealopiko?

Ane Bakutis: Hina and I worked together while I was completing my master’s thesis in botany and then again at PEPP on Oʻahu. During that time, we would carry the puke wehewehe (Hawaiian language dictionary) into the forest with us and look up different terms for phenomena we were seeing and experiencing. For example, a lehua flower saturated with dew or mist. We thought it would be great to share these experiences and knowledge of our kūpuna with the public, who at the time was not as aware as they are now about native plant and animal species and Hawaiian language. We thought we should start a magazine, or blog, but then we thought about using clothing as our platform for sharing this knowledge and moʻolelo. Our other business partner Jamie was working at a Hawaiian fishpond and was more focused on marine conservation. Through all these experiences, Kealopiko was born.

The moʻolelo behind Kealopiko’s designs beautifully illustrate the relationships between people, plants, places, and lifeforms. Why is this focus on moʻolelo and relationships important for Kealopiko?

Through the colonization of the Hawaiian islands and people, we have lost so much of our connection and understanding of the relationships between Hawaiian organisms, environments, ourselves, and our kūpuna. Our ancestral stories provide that direct connection and understanding. They tell us that we should mālama (care for) these organisms and connections because that is what perpetuates our culture. That is what makes us Hawaiian. It is the essence of the Hawaiian world view.

Screen printing fabric by hand. Photos by Kealopiko

Can you describe your process for creating new designs and bringing those moʻolelo into focus?

It is a collaboration between the three of us. Sometimes a new design idea just comes to us in our thoughts, dreams, experiences; like our kūpuna are reaching out to us saying, “draw me, showcase me.” For seventeen years we have kept a running list of organisms or concepts we want to design. Some things have never come off that list, some are never on the list because we design them right away. We often review the list and pick designs that jump out at us. We have designed for pairings as seen in the Kumulipo[1]. We have designed an entire year for an akua (deity) based on her kinolau[2]. We are currently creating a new design inspired by an old Hawaiian epic.

Based on your own experiences, what does successful conservation look like? What are the key elements of a successful long-term project?

Long term success needs commitment, a strong poʻo (head), clear morals, standards, and goals. I have been with PEPP on Molokaʻi for 15 years, conserving 32 endangered plant species. Some species we have had great success in outplanting and years later watched as those very same outplantings died due to drought. But we continue and don’t give up hope. We create back up plans to our back up plans.

What are your hopes for the future of Hawaiʻi’s native plants?

I hope that more of Hawaiʻi’s population will understand that our native plants will only survive if each one of us care, if each one of us makes a concerted effort to mālama ʻāina (care for the land), keep out the invasive species and continue to protect the native habitats we have left. I hope the state legislature will give as much money to conservation as they do to tourism, and that more local people will pursue careers in conservation and aloha ʻāina. Also, every business and organization can do their part to mālama ʻāina in their daily practices.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

[1] A Hawaiian chant of creation. Comprising 2,102 lines, the Kumulipo articulates the connections across various realms through pairings. For example, the ʻēkaha kū moana, or black coral, is paired with ʻēkahakaha, or bird’s nest fern on land. Such pairings illustrate the importance of balance and interconnectedness.

[2] Hawaiian deities are believed to have the ability to take on multiple forms known as kinolau. For example, hau (Hibiscus tiliaceus) is a kinolau of the deity Haumea.

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