Like any business just starting out, Brandon Souza has had to navigate things like marketing and finding a customer base since launching Mauka Man Brand Co. less than a year ago.
Featuring clothing and accessories stamped with Souza’s signature Mauka Man logo – a simple, clean mountain range – he created the brand as an alternative to all of the ocean-centric apparel, one that could appeal to ranchers, farmers or hikers.
Business, he says, has been going well.
Part of what has helped propel Mauka Man has been Souza’s monthly appearance at the new Pa’akai Marketplace.
“We’ve definitely had more brand recognition and brand awareness since we have been here,” says Souza.
That is, after all, a large part of Pa’akai’s goal.
Launched in October and held from 5 to 9 p.m. the third Friday of each month, Pa’akai Marketplace is the latest multi-vendor market to move into rotation at SALT at Our Kakaako. SALT regularly plays host to a number of marketplace events, but, like Mauka Man, many of the vendors at Pa’akai display Hawaii-centric design elements, and often Native Hawaiian influences.
Run by PA‘I Foundation – a Honolulu-based nonprofit founded by kumu hula Victoria Holt Takamine that works to preserve Native Hawaiian culture – in partnership with Kamehameha Schools, the market is designed to provide exposure and business opportunities for local vendors, a majority of which are Native Hawaiian.
“Our goal is to bring … economic opportunities to small business owners,” explains PA‘I Foundation folk arts coordinator Elizabeth Ka‘iulani Takamori.
“Local vendors don’t always get a chance in the regular stores. Some of them can only do the pop-ups every once in a while because they have another job,” Takamori continues. “This affords them the opportunity to actually put themselves out there and maybe work toward getting a storefront.”
Even after her stint as a graphic designer for various magazines, Kanoelani Davis always kept creating art on the side no matter what other day jobs she had. She ran PoMahina Designs, which now offers Davis’ signature artwork on a range of goods – notebooks, shoes, leggings, rugs – as a hobby.
But then she got laid off. Thinking about her family’s livelihood prompted her to get serious about her art.
“As a mother of four daughters, I had to figure out a way to make things work for me, and it was stepping up my game, starting to get really focused on my artwork … and make things happen for my family,” Davis says. “That is the mana or the power behind what I do.”
Similarly, Souza admits that a large part of the impetus for creating Mauka Man was because he had been working a couple part-time gigs as a substitute teacher and a musician, but needed something to supplement his income.
“I was like, you know what, I gotta try to be creative – I got to try to start my own thing and at least try and see where it goes,” Souza explains.
It’s stories like that, Takamori says, that exemplify the need to support small local businesses.
“If we support local and small businesses here, our money goes to good use instead of going to pay a billion-dollar (company) on the Mainland,” Takamori says. “It’s knowing where your hard-earned dollars are going to be spent – they’re going to be spent on your next-door neighbor who sells their wares and help them support their family.”
PA‘I Foundation is perhaps best known for running the popular Maoli Arts Movement (MAMo), which showcases Native Hawaiian arts and cultural practitioners. Many of the Pa‘akai vendors, in fact, come from MAMo. Pa‘akai Marketplace, Takamori explains, introduces their vendors to a different audience, and aims also to provide a boost to those who are just starting out, have other full-time ventures, or want to reach a new market.
Traditional lauhala maker Pi‘iali‘i Lawson, for example, has been running his lauhala jewelry and accessories company, Pi‘iali‘i, for several years, but until recently had been based in California. His first time at Pa’akai was for its January event last weekend, and he says it’s a way for him to break into the Hawaii market.
“That is kind of my introduction here,” Lawson says.
Iwa Why, who creates handmade swimwear, boho-style clothing and clutch bags through her company IwaWhy, is based on the Big Island, but she feels that a larger portion of her target market is in Honolulu. Pa‘akai has been a way for her to connect with Oahu customers.
“I am established in the market on the Big Island,” says Why, “but I am really trying to get into the market here.”
In the far corner of SALT during Pa‘akai’s January event, Tanya Uyehara stands be hind her Laha‘ole Designs booth creating a new piece – a small, silver necklace modeled after the half-flowers of the naupaka plant. As she does so, she explains the version of the naupaka origin story that her mother used to tell her growing up.
“A princess fell in love with a commoner, and back in the day, that was forbidden,” Uyehara says. “So she was banished to live in the mountains, and he was banished to live at the ocean.”
That’s why, she says, if you pick a naupaka near the ocean, it will die before it gets to the mountains. Uyehara explains that she tries to incorporate stories like that in all of Laha‘ole Designs’ jewelry and clothing.
Like any good vendor market, Pa‘akai has a wide variety of goods. There’s jewelry, purses and totes, water bottles, amazing swimwear, similar to the pieces you can find at online retailers like Hermoza (https://thehermoza.com/collections/swimwear) and accessories, not to mention a wide array of clothing – dresses, rompers, aloha shirts, T-shirts and more. But here, the common thread is that much of what you’ll find at Pa‘akai draws on Native Hawaiian culture; a theme of identity runs throughout the market.
“It’s an important space because it’s a space for Native Hawaiians to come and showcase,” says Uyehara. “It is giving life to something new based on old traditions and old values.”
“I think it is a really special thing to connect with other native and local artists, to create a community supporting the traditional arts,” Lawson echoes. “It supports not just me, but it supports all our other native artists. It’s about sharing and perpetuating our arts and our crafts, our traditions.”
Lawson’s lauhala pieces, for instance, reflect generations of pig hunting and lauhala weaving in his family. In her vibrant paintings, vendor Jackie Kahookele Burke draws upon stories of Hawaiian gods for inspiration. Davis incorporates traditional Hawaiian designs into her products. Pua Medina’s Ka Pua U‘I takes patterns like you might find on a muumuu and turns them into modern scarves and vests. And Maile Naehu, who lives off the grid on Molokai, creates everything for her clothing brand MyLei from the stream water that runs through her property and hand-dyes all of her cover-ups, ponchos, bodysuits and more.
“I think it is really neat because you can really see this undertone of identity in everything that we do,” says Naehu. “Like how everything I do is with no electricity, it is very sustainable, it is done with my hands. Everybody has that little bit of that element in everything that they do (at Pa‘akai) that really shows their identity, so I love that.”
The next Pa‘akai Marketplace will be held from 5 to 9 p.m. Feb. 17. The night also will feature entertainment by Danny Carvalho and Kapena. For more information, visit saltatkakaako.com or paifoundation.org.