Maui fashion designers weave a network of support, belonging in wake of devastating wildfires

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) – Walking through Wailuku, it’s hard to miss Caramiya.

The clothing boutique’s storefront is framed with bright pink paint and these words are displayed prominently on the main window, “Fashion – Art – Made on Maui.”

It’s a simple message, but Caramiya is anything but — especially in the wake of the catastrophic wildfires that destroyed Lahaina town in August, claimed at least 101 lives and threw Maui’s economy into chaos. Despite economic hardship, Caramiya is still going strong.

And so are other Maui-grown fashion brands — all buoyed by the support of their community.

“I’ve seen what Maui does. Maui supports itself,” said Caramiya Davies-Reid, on a recent day in her namesake store, which features lovingly-made dresses in a rainbow of colors. Her walls are full of life, too — painted in vibrant hues that reflect the joy, the love, and the resiliency of her island.

Walking through Wailuku, it’s hard to miss the fashion boutique Caramiya. The storefront...
Walking through Wailuku, it’s hard to miss the fashion boutique Caramiya. The storefront window is framed with bright pink paint, and on the window, it says “Fashion – Art – Made on Maui” in a simple white font, but this boutique and message is anything but simple.(No courtesy)

Right before the devastating wildfires, many Maui businesses were just beginning to recover from the impacts of the COVID pandemic. Immediately after the fires, those same companies — Caramiya included — threw their business goals to the wayside.

Their central effort: Working to help their community heal.

Eight months after the Lahaina disaster, three Maui fashion designers who spoke to HNN say they’re continuing to push through economic hardship — but see reason for hope ahead.

WATCH Reporter’s Notebook: Maui fashion designers weave network of support

LeRu Atelier, of Lahaina

Larissa Williams of LeRu Atelier, a Lahaina-based fashion brand, specializes in “boho chic” bridal wear and dresses. Her creations are unique and entirely one-of-a-kind. “It does make for a separate special niche to have from start to finish here on the island,” she said.

Williams was one of the 6,000 West Maui residents displaced in the wildfires.

She lost her home and business, which were located in the heart of Lahaina.

While a large portion of her work was custom-made couture, she was preparing to launch a ready-to-wear collection of dresses made from vintage hand-printed saris when the fires struck.

“I had been chugging away at creating this collection just about to launch, and then boom, that was the end of that … so I’m slowly rebuilding again,” she told Hawaii News Now.

These days, Williams says she’s still learning what it means to start over.

Her work is focused on sustainability, which meant embracing the value of the extensive collection of textiles, accessories, and supplies she had accrued over her career.

“So now when I went back to try to replenish some things, I was like $30 a yard!?’ You know, I’m like, this is crazy … my supply was priceless, is what I came to realize,” she said.

After the blaze, she relocated to a bedroom in a house her family rents in Wailuku. “I’m having a little hard time getting back into the flow of things, but I’m very grateful for my space,” she said.

But she’s keeping a positive perspective about rebuilding her life and art. She’s even found a new sustainable material and medium to work with in her creation process: She began playing around with coconut bark and has created a series of artistic works she calls ‘Art Nui Coconut Art.”

Picking up pieces by hand from her friends’ coconut farms, she’s found her spark in creating these one-of-a-kind art pieces, using the raw materials for inspiration.

“My newfound place is, is creating some newfound art for me … So I’m using what I have around me, which is fun sometimes to, to create new margins to work within,” she said.

Despite losing so much, she’s found comfort and community in other creatives on Maui, collaborating on styling photoshoots and creating together. “So much of my life and conversations have just been the fire, the devastation, all running through these details, fighting with insurance, all this stuff,” she said. “When your brain finally gets a chance to stop, it’s like you’re just exhausted, and so I’m slowly finding that a creative outlet is helping heal that.”

You can find her work on Instagram by clicking here.

Caramiya, of Wailuku

In Caramiya, you’ll find a huge mural — featuring handprints and brush strokes from different shoppers during a Wailuku community night. Before Caramiya opened up her shop a little over a year ago, she was worried about the retail business taking away from her work as a maker.

But she’s found the opposite to be true.

“It’s also like the wilder I am, the more everybody loves it,” she said. “It just feels like I’m seen.”

She said after the shock of the Lahaina wildfires wore off, there was an immediate rush to support — to help. She was touched at how residents made sure to stop by and support her when possible.

“Nobody was making money and everybody is still trying to show up,” she recalled.

“It feels just really like sweet to be a part of that community.”

Before the end of the year she look to Instagram to detail her situation — and express her gratitude and her fears about the future of her store.

Caramiya says one of the unique parts of Maui is that community support feels engrained into the maker community. People go out of their way to buy local, she said.

Harnessing that, Caramiya throws special community nights that have even given some former Lahaina residents a much-needed creative and fun outlet.

These nights include painting on the walls of her store.

“I’ve had people in from Lahaina, they’re just like, ‘I just wanna like paint on your walls and be happy for a minute,’ and it feels like if nothing else just being able to be open for that and then just like for myself staying out of my head about it and realizing it’s not a reflection of me,” she said.

In these events, Caramiya puts up fabric and allows the community to paint on those as well, which she then turns into clothing. “Those are my absolutely favorite pieces,” she said.

“There’s no way I can replicate it.”

Caramiya’s designs are now available for online purchase, but you can stop by the store when you’re in Wailuku and take a look.

She said visitors can also do their part.

“I think that one of the most important things when traveling to Maui is to be really like conscious about where you go and what you do,” she said. “We need the people that come here that care.”

Check Caramiya out on Instagram here.

Kūlua, of Makawao

Tucked away in Makawao, you’ll find Kūlua — a sustainable Maui-made clothing brand created by Anna Kahalekulu, deeply inspired by her Hawaiian culture and hula.

The brand emphasizes sustainability as they cut and sew all their items in-house.

“From the get-go, I knew that I wanted to keep it as local as possible,” Kahalekulu said. “I saw it as something that was bigger than me — that could have a bigger impact than just me.”

She also realized that she could create jobs and a community with more heart that would reflect her and Maui residents’ values.

“Serving the Maui community, it’s really the heart of what we do,” she said.

She describes the company’s customer base as primarily local.

And at Kulūa, they are very mindful about their waste. Instead of tossing fabric scraps into the landfill, they started selling fabric lei kits to their customers.

Kahalekulu said the Maui community really rallied together in the aftermath of the wildfires.

“One big takeaway from the wildfires and all of that is community; the Maui community stands strong and stands together as much as they can,” she said. “That’s why we do what we do and why it’s important for us to be a part of our community and to keep our work here.”

You can shop Kahelekulu’s clothing styles online on their website here, and check out their Instagram here.

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