Design Traditions

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Carrington Manaola Yap taps his cultural heritage and his romantic life for his successful Hawaiian clothing line.

Text by Rae Sojot
Images by Megan Spelman & Courtesy of Manaola

Carrington Manaola Yap sports a subtly patterned shirt—a piece from his coveted Manaola brand—while confessing a preference for his other signature look: a worn tank top, loose basketball shorts, and rubber slippers. “It’s a very Big Island, local boy kind of thing,” he says with a grin. As a designer of both ready-to-wear and haute couture lines, this unexpected flash of normalcy adds to Yap’s charm.

Lauded for his culture-conscious clothing, Yap shies away from any braggadocio. Instead, he considers his fashion brand a contemporary contribution to his family legacy, which is rich in artistry. “I come from a family of musicians, artists, hula dancers, and chanters,” Yap explains. “Not just generations’, but centuries’ worth.” Drawing inspiration from his Native Hawaiian heritage, he employs ‘ohe kapala, a stamping tradition that uses hand-carved bamboo laths to create patterns. The resulting geometric designs, which resonate with recursive beauty and reverence for culture and ‘aina (land), are digitally transformed into thematic elements for his collections. Since its inception in 2014, the Manaola brand has flourished both in popularity and in production. The designer attributes Manaola’s success to its intention and mana (power): “People are drawn to the integrity of the cultural essence,” Yap says.

Amid his bustling brick and mortar shop in Ala Moana Shopping Center, Yap sinks onto the retail floor’s comfortable couch for a well-deserved, if momentary respite. He and Zachary Pang, his partner in both business and life, are in Honolulu to oversee the delivery of the remaining inventory from a popular pop-up shop at the renowned Merrie Monarch Hula Festival. It has been a whirlwind few weeks—no, a whirlwind few years—for Yap, and his future shows no indication of slowing down.

Rather than dividing his professional and personal lives to be able to manage it all, integrating the two has allowed Yap to thrive. His mother helps steer his artistic direction, his culture influences his designs, and his better half has made the brand even better, according to Yap. “It’s crazy how closely my business and personal life are related,” he says. As a result, Yap’s life—and by extension, his brand—is a collection of myriad facets creating a brilliant, singular light.

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THE BEGINNING

As the adage goes, “Behind every great man, there’s a great woman.” For Yap, that great woman is his mother, Nani Lim Yap. “My mom is incredible,” the designer says. “She’s a kumu hula, an amazing singer, she’s creative and spiritual …” His voice trails off as he searches for words to convey his admiration. “I’ve still yet to meet a person that could even match her.” When he was growing up, the Lim Yap household hummed with cultural pursuits. A young Yap could be found making lei, gathering earth to create natural dyes, or researching Hawaiian chants. He toured with a hula ensemble, performing in cities around the world. He trained in Hung Gar kung fu. (His father is a martial artist.) He paddled with an outrigger canoe club and performed in a Chinese lion dance troupe. “I get my artistic eye from my mom,” says Yap, who considers his mother to be the fulcrum of his brand, and his creative compass.

In 2014, when Yap broached the idea of introducing a men’s underwear line at the upcoming Maoli Arts Month Wearable Art Show, his mother posed a simple yet significant question: “What is your intention?”

“My mom is not afraid to step out of the box, as long as the intention is good,” Yap says. His mother’s inquiry led him to define his motivation for the project. One, he wanted to create something that would mark his space in time (an underwear line hadn’t yet been done on the show’s runway). Two, underwear is an everyday necessity. Three, from a business standpoint, underwear is sexy, which sells—especially when Hawaiian men are the ones doing the modeling. Needless to say, the underwear collection was a hit.

Yap continues to follow his mother’s lead, refining and energetically tackling his projects. “Anything my mom had to do, she’d go above and beyond,” he says. “It’s probably why I’ve always been a little extra.”

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THE DANCE

If Hawaiian culture is the keystone to his collections, it is hula that hones Yap’s artistic ken. “I’ve been dancing as long as I can remember,” says Yap, who won the master keiki hula title at the renowned Queen Lili‘uokalani Keiki Hula Competition when he was 11 years old.

In the 1990s, Yap’s mother, along with other noted kumu hula (hula teachers), began reviving hula ala‘apapa, a class of sacred dances that features deity references, ancient chants, and legends. For Yap’s family, the dances carried special meaning. “These dances were found in our genealogy,” he says, describing hula ala‘apapa’s esoteric connotations and its emphasis on ritual. As Yap’s mother began weaving these mythological legends into theatrical productions for hotels and shopping centers, the content—exciting and dramatic—allowed for greater artistic license. The Hawaiian deities being represented on stage called for elaborate costuming. “I’d go with my mom to the shore and collect shells to wire into crowns for ocean goddesses,” Yap, who was a young teen then, says. “We’d burn skirts to create ash lines for a fire goddess.”

Years later, Yap has parlayed his experience as a hula practitioner, and his skills from his family’s theatrical productions, into success in the world of fashion. Hula beautifully combines movement and material. Hence, the fashion runway—with its emphasis on costuming and choreography—speaks a language in which he is already well-versed.

Today, telltale hints of those dramatic Hawaiian deities echo throughout Manaola’s lines. A gown from the 2016 Kolani Collection featured a billowing ebony train with a serpentine ‘ohe kapala pattern in gilded gold. It seemed as if the Hawaiian fire goddess Pele had descended from her volcano and walked onto the runway. “That volcanic train became a signature look I am known for,” Yap says.

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THE HAPPY ENDING

“We didn’t talk much about his work,” says Zachary Pang about his early days dating Yap. Instead, the pair bonded over their shared love of costumery. When asked how they met, Yap and Pang exchange a covert glance, then burst into laughter. “We joke that we need to have a better story,” Yap says. “Something a little more romantic.”

The couple’s introduction came at Fusion Waikiki, a gay club that was legendary for its revelry. From across the room, Pang caught Yap’s playfully rakish eye. “I could feel him looking at me,” Pang recalls. “And he never looked away.” Finding him impossible to resist, Pang, who says he is normally reserved, approached Yap. The designer was instantly smitten, and the two remained at each other’s side for the rest of the evening.

After their first date at the movies, Yap moved quickly to procure a second meeting by offering to accompany Pang on a supply run to Costco. Pang, a health and fitness buff, needed items for the coming week’s meal prep. “I do meal prep too!” Yap informed him.

“Only I didn’t,” Yap confesses with a sly grin. “But I was willing to say anything to hang out with him more.” Perusing the warehouse aisles together, Pang asked Yap what items he was looking for. “Oh, I get the same things [as you do],” Yap casually replied, mirroring Pang’s choices of egg whites and vegetables and tossing them into the cart. A week later, Yap’s gig was up when Pang arrived at Yap’s apartment only to discover the ingredients languishing in the fridge. But by that time, it was a moot point. The two had already fallen hard for each other.

Today, Pang is an integral part of the Manaola brand, serving as the company’s CEO. His keen business acumen dovetails with Yap’s creative vision, and his equable faith steadies the designer during any moments of self-doubt. With fashion and art, the creative demands are high, Yap explains. Pang’s presence has proven pivotal in providing critical balance. Having the person he loves as part of the work he loves has made the brand more powerful. Says Yap, “Zach was the part that was missing.”

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