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Laukeha “Keha” Helekahi-Kaiwi holds the Sig Zane aloha shirt with the design she created as an intern while a high school senior at Ke Kula ʻO Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu.

Scholar finds fashion design success while honoring ancestors, Nāwahī classmates

Jan. 29, 2018

Contributed by Crystal Kua

In seeking cultural inspiration for her senior project, Ke Kula ʻO Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu haumāna Laukeha “Keha” Helekahi-Kaiwi turned to four symbols that hold deep meaning for her – five mountains, a ti leaf braid, a barbed spear and the kukui nut.

But in the process of finishing this assignment, Keha soon discovered things she didn’t expect – retail success in fashion design and a potential career path.

“My senior project looked at how the knowledge of our ancestors will live in this new generation through designing clothes,” Helekahi-Kaiwi said. “I dedicated my design to my classmates – the Class of 2017 of Nāwahī.”

Now an 18-year-old freshman at Concordia University in Portland, Ore.,  and while completing her first semester,  the young designer spent weeks planning and coordinating an event in Kalapana showcasing the release of a new print she created as an intern at Sig Zane Designs before graduating from Nāwahī. Named “Panepo‘o Kehakeha,” the design was released during the winter break – aloha shirts and T-shirts printed with the design flew off the shelves in a matter of weeks.

“Almost everyone who walked in the store, walked out with one of my shirts. I cannot tell you how I felt. I was so stoked and happy that people actually like the design,” Keha said following a weekend of sales. “For me, to actually see people who liked it and bought it, I felt like I was on top of the world and am humbled.”

Helekahi-Kaiwi says the process began when her Nāwahī kumu, Kēhau ‘Aipia-Peters and Ha‘a Aiona, encouraged her to pick a senior project topic that she would enjoy which eventually led her to Sig Zane.

She credits the mentoring she received from Sig and Kūha‘o Zane and their designers Brandy Serikaku and Chanel Tsang with helping her create the design. They also showed her the ropes of running the production, online and customer service aspects of a retail business. Her uncle, Hiapo Perreira, an associate professor of Hawaiian language and literature at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, helped her develop the name of the design, which uses her name to promote the notion of striving to be the best you can be.

Developed in the ‘ohe kāpala or bamboo stamping style of kapa decoration, Helekahi-Kaiwi’s design has four main elements:

  • Nā Kuahiwi ‘Elima or the five mountains. “This symbolizes our piko, our home. It doesn’t matter how far away we are from each other, we’ll always be connected through the mountains and through our home,” she said.
  • Hilo braid. This lei lā‘ī weave represents not only the town of Hilo, she said, but also “everything we have learned from our teachers, elders and families, all woven together to use in the future.”
  • Ihe Laumeki. The barbed spear and triangles of this part of the design represent her school, Nāwahī, and her 18 classmates to show “how we should always give 100 percent in everything we do.”
  • Kukui nut. This represents knowledge and enlightenment.

Helekahi-Kaiwi has dedicated the design to her classmates. “We’re not just a school, we’re a family.”

Keha was born and raised in Hāna, Maui. Her mother moved her and her sister to Hilo so that they could be raised speaking Hawaiian. Keha attended Nāwahī from kindergarten grade 12.

A scholar-athlete in high school who exceled in the classroom and on the soccer field, she graduated with honors with a 3.8 cumulative GPA.

Even though she liked drawing and taking photographs as a youngster, her newfound artistic talent has prompted her to rethink what she wants to do with the rest of her life. She went to college thinking she wanted to eventually become a pediatrician and now will be exploring a degree in art.

For two years, Keha participated in Kamehameha Scholars, which serves students from public and private schools statewide, and allows them to match their skills and interests with colleges and career options for future planning.

“Keha is quite an impressive young lady. Articulate, bright and compassionate are just a few words I would use to describe (her). I’ve seen her confidence grow over the years and watched her excel in her endeavors,” said her Kamehameha Scholars counselor Jessica Waia‘u.

“Kamehameha Scholars was definitely a great foundation. They were so supportive, guiding me as I looked at what I wanted to be,” said Helekahi-Kaiwi, also a Nā Ho‘okama a Pauahi scholarship recipient. “My connection to Scholars made me feel that it was okay to head down this path.”

Helekahi-Kaiwi hopes someday to follow in the footsteps of her design mentors, encapsulating stories grounded in our culture in design.

My senior project looked at how the knowledge of our ancestors will live in this new generation through designing clothes.
Laukeha “Keha” Helekahi-Kaiwi, KS Kamehameha Scholars Graduate and Nā Ho‘okama a Pauahi Scholarship Recipient

The four elements of Keha's Panepo'o Kehakeha print design -- five mountains, Hilo braid, a barbed spear and kukui nuts.

From left to right, Keha's mother, Kealohanui Helekahi, her boyfriend, Rylen Kaniaupio, and sister, Perry-Lynn Helekahi-Kaiwi, join Keha in modeling clothing with her Panepo'o Kehakeha print design.

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