Heels & Picks: High fashion from Maui

Sep. 10, 2013 | 0 Comments


BY ERIN SMITH / Special to the Star-Advertiser

Hawai’i has a high fashion secret. Tucked away on the beautiful valley isle of Maui, designer Koa Johnson has spent years creating intricate, imaginative, one-of-a-kind pieces.

Designer Koa Johnson. (Courtesy photo)

Designer Koa Johnson. (Courtesy photo)

With a keen eye for shape and form, a punk flair and an eye for the theatrical, Johnson’s designs add high drama to any girl’s dress needs.

In a sense, his work is wearable art.

I first met Johnson before the 2012 Na Hoku Hanohano Awards. At the time, I was living on Maui and the band I sing in, The Throwdowns, was nominated for Rock Album of the Year. We were also scheduled to perform our single, “Automatic,” live on the televised broadcast. I needed a killer dress.

After seeing some of Johnson’s designs online, I scheduled a meeting to discuss dress ideas. When I walked into the sewing studio on the Maui campus of the University of Hawai’i, he met me and my gay-boy bestie with a huge smile, a bright laugh, thick-framed black glasses and his black hair standing straight up.

I knew I was going to like this man.

We considered two of his designs: a ruffle-heavy dress – we’re talking ruffles from bust to hem — and a black leather corset dress with a ruffle-heavy skirt and metal spikes on the bodice. After careful consideration, I decided the spikes and leather was perhaps a bit more hardcore than the look I was going for; I wanted something romantic.

We decided to take the ruffle dress and flip its original, all-white design to electric blue satin.

Johnson is not solely a dress designer, either. My friend and one of Maui’s top DJs, Charles Oreve (aka DJ CIA), relies on him to design pants. Born in France, Oreve is no slouch when it comes to fashion, so he needs his pants to be well-tailored, unique, impeccable and effortlessly stylish. Johnson comes through for him time and time again.

Among his more recent designs is a gorgeous, short, strapless gown made with ti leaves. Innovation is a big part of his distinctive style.

The author in her custom Koa Johnson dress at the 2012 Na Hoku Hanohano Awards. (Courtesy photo)

The author in her custom Koa Johnson dress at the 2012 Na Hoku Hanohano Awards. (Courtesy photo)

I can be a hard sell when it comes to wearing strapless items onstage, especially when it comes to The Throwdowns performances, because the music is rock oriented and we tend to jump around. The idea of wearing a strapless dress on stage puts the fear of Gaga in me. I’m afraid I’ll have a “nipple-gate” scandal, a la Janet Jackson.

With the dress design we chose, it seemed with all the ruffles that strapless was the way to go to best compliment its quirky cut. I’d have to take my chances with the dress staying in place.

When wearing a dress entirely covered in ruffles, if it’s not cut well there is also a danger of looking like a big puffball with no waist. Big Bird comes to mind, but in my case, it was more like an electric blue version of the famous Muppets character.

Johnson is no stranger to the idea of keeping his designs feminine while exploring his quirky side. He stitched the ruffles on the top of my dress upward and on the bottom downward to emphasize the waist, and we made sure we got our hands on a stellar wide belt to make sure that area popped in the sea of ruffles.

After the final fitting, Johnson brought his high energy and enthusiastic personality to my apartment on Maui — which my friends and I referred to as “The Dressing Room” — to drop off the dress before I left for Oahu. It was a pleasure to see him and the final version of my gown. I took the dress as my carry-on to Honolulu (nobody checks couture, right?), and was carrying it through the airport like it was made of eggshells. The dress was so gorgeous, I wanted to make sure I got it to Oahu in one piece.

On the night of the Hokus, I headed to the Hawai’i Convention Center and felt fabulous in my custom gown all night. I was proud to wear my favorite Maui designer on the television broadcast.

Oh, and my Janet Jackson moment? Averted. The dress stayed up. Thanks, Koa.
Erin Smith is a singer and guitarist who performs as a solo artist and with Maui-based Na Hoku Hanohano Award-nominated band The Throwdowns. Born in Canada, she moved to Hawaii in 2004 and now resides in Kailua. Contact her via e-mail or follow her on Twitter.

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