Learn how this New York-based designer and educator found her essence in Honolulu
Although a pop star helped Bliss Lau break into fashion, her Hawaiian roots have helped her stay grounded.
When designer Bliss Lau was 11 years old, she moved from Los Angeles to Honolulu, where much of her family had emigrated from China. One of her earliest memories of that time is sitting with her aunts learning to make leis. Together, they softened ti leaves, wound them around their toes and then twisted them into their final, braided-like appearance. This process not only offered her an opportunity to spend time with her elders but also introduced her to the Hawaiian understanding of time, community and communication.
Although making leis might seem counterintuitive — one cuts beautiful flowers at their stems and strings them, “condemning beauty to a short life” — at the same time, you’re honoring the flowers’ existence, “taking a minute and wearing the flower on your body, celebrating something temporary and remembering there is beauty in the temporary and in the experience,” Lau added.
This sense of duality and appreciation of time runs throughout Lau’s life in New York, where she has lived for more than 20 years, having initially moved there at age 18 to attend Parsons School of Design. After graduating with a BFA in fashion design, she launched her eponymous company Bliss Lau, first producing handbags, working internationally with a manufacturer in Costa Rica and selling her pieces at stores like Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom. But when she began feeling anxious about rushed fashion seasons and designer turnover rates in high fashion, she started experimenting with draping extra chains and leather straps over figures. From this, her signature body chains were born and since then, icons like Beyoncé have appeared in Lau’s creations.
Although her body chains are still available, Lau recently shifted her focus to fine jewelry, often creating one-of-a-kind pieces in collaboration with clients, with each collection released according to her own schedule, beholden to a deeper significance.
“I realized working with the seasons and designing for retail wasn’t satisfying for me,” she said.
In Hawaii, fashion movements tend to follow a different timeline.
Such is the case for clothes designed by Honolulu-based fashion designer Manaola Yap of Manaola Hawaii, who has presented collections during New York Fashion Week and yet follows the rhythm of the islands rather than the seasons of the mainstream industry. After starting off making ornate hula costumes for his mother’s performances, Yap eventually found luck away from the island but still prioritizes his direct relationship with his homeland.
“[Most of the world has] fashion seasons because they have seasons,” Yap said. “In Hawaii, we only have the rainy season and the hot season. I base my fashion schedule off of the seasons of Mauna Kea because our fashion goddess is also one of the water goddesses of the mountain. Our fashion culture is based on that Hawaiian mythology.”
Much like Yap, Lau also noted how her work has changed in recent years to move away from the type of fashion related to the four seasons.
“With the onset of Instagram and the direct-to-consumer marketplace,” Lau said, “I realized I could stop force-feeding creativity and take the time to design when I was ready. At this point, I only want to make designs that have a meaning, and that means it takes time to create.”
Using a process that stems from Lau’s own engagement — her now-husband proposed to her with a sketchbook and asked her to design her own ring — couples can commission custom rings from the designer. She listens to their love story, their interests and passions and uses the information as inspiration. For full collections, Lau said she often finds inspiration in her own life and in the duality between organic patterns and geometry found within New York City’s skyline. Her most recent collection, entitled Life, was launched the day she gave birth to her daughter and was dedicated to her newborn and her father, who had recently died.
Lau’s ability to appreciate each of her creations and the smaller moments in life is something many New Yorkers may either forget or overlook.
“Being stressed out is a mindset,” Lau said. “If you unlearn that in New York, you can live here comfortably. Having a perspective on what time means can keep you alive or make you drown in this city. That is something I carry with me from Hawaii.”
This same comfortability is essential to Yap, who said that while considering designs, he tries to be “sensitive to time and space, which is a concept we, hula dancers especially, value.” Lau also explained how this type of sensitivity tends to diminish in a big city. “Your life is largely defined in Hawaii by when the sun is shining,” she added. “In New York, you can choose to ignore that. Now, especially with my baby, I think a lot about how we’re going to manage living in New York and retain a little bit of that free-flowing, relaxed perspective.”
One of the ways Lau maintains this perspective is by listening to her kuleana, a Hawaiian word she explains most simply as one’s essence — and something Yap maintains includes a responsibility to others.
“For us as artists, kuleana is a transference of knowledge to the next generation,” he said. Yap’s kuleana with Manaola Hawaii is to “inspire, to perpetuate, cultivate and sustain our indigenous culture,” while part of Lau’s kuleana is teaching and helping others discover their own creativity. To do this, she and Jasmine Takanikos co-teach a course at Parsons called “Centering Your Brand.”
In one class, they perform a group exercise in which students sit in a circle and share their kuleana — in other words, they answer questions like: “What is the gift you want to give to the world?” and “What is the thing inside that you have to express?”
“Creativity is something inside everyone, but maybe it’s something you still need to learn how to express, and that’s where the class is,” Lau said. “It is about self-discovery.” Much like Yap, Lau believes the concept of kuleana has an altruistic aspect; it is not only about your personal mission but also what you can offer to the world.
Lau and Yap offer the world a perspective of time and space that is often lost within the fast-paced fashion industries of New York, London and Paris. The two designers grew up outdoors, spending time hiking and surfing and connecting with surrounding landscapes. Although activities like these might seem disconnected from art and design, both Lau and Yap were quick to explain how everything goes hand-in-hand.
Hiking through bamboo forests, Lau would collect bamboo and later make a sculpture; saving a palm frond from the base of a palm tree would later result in a basket. After school, she went to thrift stores and collected muumuus —traditional, oversized fabric dresses — and turned them into miniskirts.
“My mom would always yell at me that they were too short,” Lau said with a laugh.
Yap also reinvented muumuus during his childhood. Together, he and his mother would design and sew contemporary costumes for hula performances, using self-made dyebaths. Instead of balancing pH levels in colored chemicals, they used natural materials such as coral. The performers eventually became so excited about the well-fitting — yet still traditional — clothing that they began asking for their own designs to keep.
“Indigenous culture is at the root of design because it comes from the environment and the land, from the cultural aspects of connecting with our surroundings and wearing what we do as part of rituals,” Yap said. “People don’t look at fashion like that anymore — they forget. They’re so stuck thinking, ‘What’s the next thing?’ that they don’t remember the roots.”
In each of Lau and Yap’s creative processes, a lot of time is spent ensuring their Hawaiian cultures are reflected, that nature and its resources are respected. Materials are ethically sourced and final designs hold meaning far beyond pure aesthetics. In their designs, they remember the roots of their culture — the culture of Native Hawaiians — and their creations are richer because of it.