When he's at home on the Big Island, designer Manaola Yap sets out before dawn for Kawaihae Harbor, a small port on the Kohala Coast. From there, he canoes to a secluded beach for a swim, then returns to see the sun rise over Mauna Kea, Hawaii's tallest peak. This routine, which allows him to connect with the outdoors, is vital to the creative process for Yap, whose namesake clothing line has bridged the divide between aloha wear and mainstream fashion. (Last September, he showed at New York Fashion Week for the first time.) "I learned to look to nature for designs, symmetry, and balance," says the 31-year-old, who grew up helping his mother, Nani Lim Yap, a hula instructor, create costumes.
At an early age, he also became skilled in the traditional Hawaiian technique of making ohe kapala, carved bamboo laths that are used to stamp patterns onto bark cloth. It's a process he still employs today, though he now digitizes the designs and prints them onto the shirts, scarves, pants, and dresses he sells in his Honolulu store, Manaola (manaolahawaii.com). His latest collection, inspired by native birds, will debut in April during Merrie Monarch (merriemonarch.com), Hawaii's largest hula competition. For years, Yap was both a coach and contestant in the festival. These days, he hosts pop-up shops and cultural exhibitions—but when his mom's team takes the stage, he'll be waiting in the wings, cheering on his biggest fan.