Kūlua | A Sustainable Maui-based Clothing Line

Pictured:  Kūlua  clothing. PC: Amanda Emmes Photography  @amandaemmesphoto

Pictured: Kūlua clothing. PC: Amanda Emmes Photography @amandaemmesphoto

 

Inspired by family tradition and a desire to give back to Maui, Anna Kahalekulu talks about creating Kūlua, an environmentally sustainable clothing brand that respects ‘āina and serves the community. Anna shares her business journey, the importance of staying true to your values, and work-life balance.

Tell us about your background and where you grew up.

I mostly grew up in Colorado and spent many summers on Maui visiting our family.  My time with them nurtured a deep love for my Hawaiian heritage. I’ve danced hula since I was young and went through ‘Ūniki (a traditional graduation) as an ‘ōlapa (dancer) with Kumu Hula Māpuana de Silva.  My family, hula journey and connection planted the seeds for the part that culture would play in Kūlua.

I graduated from CU Boulder with a degree in Business and later completed the Fashion Technology program on Maui after my husband and I started our family.  Our first born was eighteen months old when I began setting the foundation for the business.

What inspired you to start Kūlua?

My grandmother was a weaver and a sewer.  She wove, sewed, created and crafted until she passed away in the 90s, and I will always draw strength and inspiration from her.  She taught me how to weave lauhala bracelets, hand-stitch Hawaiian style quilts, and make lei when I was a little girl. In some ways I followed in her footsteps.   

As a young mom I was looking for something meaningful to devote my career to and had always been drawn to fashion. I’d always enjoyed sewing, had a knack for style and fashion growing up, and ultimately saw that there was room in the local market to do more with aloha wear.  I wanted to take fashion back a bit, to our kupuna’s, (grandparent’s) time - slow it down, incorporate sustainability, and give it a sense of place.

Pictured: Anna Kahalekulu. PC: Undressed Moments  @undressed_moments

Pictured: Anna Kahalekulu. PC: Undressed Moments @undressed_moments

Can you share with us the meaning behind Kūlua?

Like most Hawaiian words, Kūlua is layered with meaning. The word literally translates to “two standing.” It is an old reference for the island of Maui with our two mauna (mountains) Haleakalā and Mauna Kahalawai. Kūlua can also describe relationship with the visual of two standing together or camaraderie/working together. Another interpretation of the name is the Kūlua moon phase - a phase when the moon’s energy is good for building and balance. As the business has grown the name and it’s layers have evolved and revealed new understandings for us, too.

Getting your first customers can be tough. WHAT did that JOURNEY look like for you?

When I first started the business back in 2014, I did special orders and work for friends – mostly custom jobs and alterations. In the beginning my children were young so the business grew really slowly and organically. I was fortunate, and bold, enough to participate in the MAMo Wearable Art Shows from the beginning which gave me a platform to create.  

Eventually Kūlua, the brand, was born and the focus became ready to wear fashion and wholesale. The business grew by creating relationships with our clients and our first wholesale accounts. Many of those first clients still come and see us today.

Kūlua is nothing like a fast-fashion brand. How does it differ from other clothing lines?

We make all of our decisions around our values of heritage, aloha, ‘aina, and ‘ohana.  We’re focused on creating clothing for the Maui community, right here on Maui. And we draw on this special place to create an identity for it’s people through clothing.

What are some of the biggest barriers that you have faced in the fashion industry?

The biggest barrier we face is that we don’t really have a fashion industry, so we have a very limited pool of resources to draw on. Because we chose not to outsource our production, our process is labor intensive for our small team.  It’s a challenge to make sure both our team and myself get work-life balance. We want to create a sustainable product all while making a sustainable lifestyle for us.

Pictured: Kūlua clothing. PC: Amanda Emmes Photography  @amandaemmesphoto

Pictured: Kūlua clothing. PC: Amanda Emmes Photography @amandaemmesphoto

What is the most interesting insight you’ve gained from working in the fashion industry?

You have to know yourself, know your values and make decisions that align with those values. For example, I made a decision early on that we were going to be a worker-conscious and sustainable brand, so we chose to adopt industry best practices to accomplish our work. We’re mindful of the negative impacts that fast fashion can have on the environment, which is why we are extremely conscious of our impact. We make sure that our work respects our environment.

Do you have any advice for young business owners?

Life as a small business owner is all about relationships.  Remember it doesn’t have to be perfect you just have to start somewhere. You’ll never know everything. Where you start,  how you grow, and where you end up going, are all respective of your capacity in that moment and you always have room to learn, shift and adapt.

Follow Kūlua on Instagram @kulua.official

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Author

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Marushka Hirshon is a Tahitian-American nonprofit founder, community organizer and freelance journalist. She graduated from Stanford University with a B.S. in Science, Technology and Society with a focus in Environment and Sustainability. Follow