Celebrating the Richness of Hawaiian Culture through Fashion at Merrie Monarch

The Artistry of Hawaiian Fashion at Merrie Monarch

As soon as I heard that the Merrie Monarch Festival would be in person this year, I knew I had to go. The Merrie Monarch Festival is an annual week-long cultural festival held in Hilo, Hawaii, that celebrates Hawaiian dance, music, and arts. The festival is named after King David Kalākaua, who was known as the “Merrie Monarch” for his love of music and dance. The festival features a highly anticipated hula competition, as well as craft fairs, art exhibits, and other cultural events. It is a beloved and highly respected event in Hawaii and draws visitors from around the world. This year was its 60th annual celebration.

Yes to Native Hawaiian fashion!

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get a ticket to the actual event, so I decided to focus on the hype around all the shopping done at the arts and crafts fair prior to the opening of Merrie Monarch. I was commissioned to write an article for BBC Travel about the Merrie Monarch Festival so I figure why not make the trip since I never been to the festival before. Lucky for me, a friend had time to travel and we both arrived on the first flight out of Honolulu at 6:45 am, which was packed with other women flying over from Oahu to shop for the day. They all had empty suitcases and hoped to fill them up on their way back with the latest Hawaiian lifestyle fashion, “yes, Hawaiian fashion” from native Hawaiian designers (which I had no idea existed). The energy at the airport and in the plan was electric. You could tell everyone was excited to go to Hilo for this once a year event. Many people were decked out in their floral dresses and lauhala hats. I happily bumped into 2 friends who were also travelling to Hilo for the day. They were planning to do shop for jewelry and go to the different hotels to watch the shows. We were cracking up in the end as we noticed that several women in the airport waiting area had the same “Aloha” bag, I just had to get a photo.

Heading to Hilo for Merrie Monarch with Friends

Upon landing, our first stop was the official Merrie Monarch Arts and Crafts Fair, where over 150 of Hawaii’s finest artisans and creators are featured and supported. Admission is free, and we decided to start our day at the Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium and Butler Building in Hilo, which was conveniently located straight from the airport. Visiting various shopping locations throughout the day, we observed how local businesses benefit from increased visitors while artisans can showcase their crafts at different art fairs in downtown Hilo. Despite the large crowds and long lines at every booth, we enjoyed the live entertainment, including hula performances by local hālaus, music, and food. The enticing smells of food trucks and vendors filled the auditorium, offering a plethora of local grinds and other local favorites. We even managed to grab some delicious poi mochi for breakfast!

The Black Manaola Collection is a fashion collection by the Hawaiian fashion designer Manaola Yap. It was showcased at the New York Fashion Week in 2017

The Manaola fashion show was a highlight of the day. We were able to see the latest collection of the Hawai‘i lifestyle brand. The classic black and white silhouettes in iconic MANAOLA ʻohe kapala prints were breathtaking. Designer Manaola Yap translates Hawaiian storytelling, spirituality, and Hawaiʻi’s natural beauty into prints that embody repetitious patterns found in nature.

Kenneth “Aloha” Victor, the award-winning kumu hula, master lei maker, and designer behind Kauluae

During our shopping adventure, we had the pleasure of meeting Kenneth “Aloha” Victor, the acclaimed kumu hula, master lei maker, and designer behind Kauluae Hawaii. His clothing brand perfectly embodies the charm, warmth, and sincerity of Hawaii’s people, with designs that showcase generations of Hawaiian culture. What’s more, all of his creations are made in Hawaii, for Hawaii.

Meilin Vitale Vae, the founder and owner of Missing Polynesia

At the Missing Polynesia booth, we met Meilin Vitale Vae, the founder and owner of the family-run business. The Missing Polynesia booth showcased beautiful Polynesian-inspired clothing and accessories.

Owner & Designer Bergindy Kaopua – NAHE Wahine

We also stopped by N A H E Wahine, an Oahu-based small fashion business led by Owner & Designer Bergindy Kaopua. Her work is inspired by what she calls her Home. The beautiful Hawaiian islands & the Island lifestyle combined with a passion for fashion. Each N A H E piece is created with lots of Aloha & a touch of Hawaii, dressing wahine from all over the world & their entire Ohana. With one of a kind and limited creations, Nahe’s original designs represent the Polynesian culture with unique and vibrant prints and colors.

Aunty Ku and I after talking, laughing and enjoying our day at Merrie Monarch

After a day filled with shopping and entertainment, we ended the evening with a wonderful dinner and chit-chat with Kū Kahakalau. Dr. Ku Kahakalau is a renowned educator, cultural practitioner, and Hawaiian language expert. She is also a well-respected authority on the history of the Merrie Monarch Festival, a celebration of hula and Hawaiian culture that takes place annually in Hilo, Hawaii. In our interview with Dr. Kahakalau, we had the opportunity to delve into the rich history and significance of the festival, as well as its role in preserving and perpetuating Hawaiian culture.

The line into the first day of the hula exhibition, Kupuna waited in line since 8am.

If you’re unable to secure tickets to the Merrie Monarch competition, fear not – there are still plenty of ways to experience the festival’s magic. From shopping for authentic Hawaiian crafts to catching exhibition hula performances at local hotels, a visit to Hilo during the festival will surely be unforgettable.