Thinking back to when he started his clothing business, David Shepard cringes. He didn’t hesitate to ask established aloha shirt makers where they got their products made.
Now Shepard says he would never ask such a question – or share details of his supply chain.
“Never go up to someone and say, ‘Who are you going to?’ he says. “It’s like going to a restaurant and asking, ‘What’s your recipe?'”
Shepard’s comment highlights an often overlooked aspect of the startup, made-in-Hawaii apparel business: there’s a significant amount of manufacturing going on here. Small businesses making things like aloha shirts, tote bags and sarongs support an ecosystem of sewers, cutters and suppliers, some working in manufacturing facilities, others working from home.
Tapping into that network is an art, Shepard says.
“I’m not going to share exactly how I did it,” he says. “People are very cautious about how to find the right people and who to go to, because there aren’t enough of them.”
Officially, the US Department of Labor reports that this labor market is tiny. According to the department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 190 sewing machine operators in the state earning an average of $15 an hour in 2021, plus another 40 tailors, dressmakers and bespoke sewers earning about $20 an hour. ‘hour. The office has 50 other textile cutting machine setters, operators and bidders who earn just under $15 an hour.
The universe of outfits that do high-end work for small companies like Shepard’s is even smaller, he says.
“There can’t be more than 12,” he said.
The challenge is that these workers are vital for startup apparel makers, says Meli James, co-founder of Mana Up, a business accelerator that helps grow Hawaii-based businesses.
Many Mana Up entrepreneurs start out sewing their own products and then have to scale slowly, James said, noting that renting or building a large facility is impossible for these fledgling businesses.
There’s also value in keeping and creating jobs here, says James, who is also president of the Hawaii Venture Capital Association.
Perhaps most important, she says, money can be good. While the idea of making clothes from home might conjure up Dickensian images of absentee children handcuffed to sewing machines while their parents survive, James says the reality is quite different. She knows people who make $80,000 a year helping to sew things like bathing suits.
“They send their kids to college,” she said of stay-at-home garment workers. “And there is upward mobility.”
Embodying James’ point is Chucly Vu, the owner of Vietnamese restaurant Pho Que Huong in Chinatown. At 10 a.m. on a recent weekday morning, Pho Que Huong was already packed with customers dining amid the aromas of lemongrass, lime, basil and mint. Many patrons spoke Vietnamese, as did Vu, who told his story through an interpreter.
When Vu came to Honolulu from Vietnam in the mid-1990s, she spoke no English and had three children, ages 1, 2 and 4, she said.
But Vu knew how to sew. And she says she quickly met Lee Dunning, a well-known businesswoman in the Vietnamese community.
Dunning had made his living and that of his sons by making clothes. After moving to Honolulu as a refugee, married to an American military officer, Dunning’s world fell apart when her husband abandoned the family, she says.
Dunning started an aloha shirt business she called Silver Needles. And, with no business skills and nothing to lose, she started going to cold retailers. His break came when Walmart placed an order for 360 shirts.
“They sold out this weekend,” she says.
Soon she was making aloha shirts and swim shorts for retailers like Walmart, ABC Stores and major hotels. By 1995, Dunning had sales of $1.5 million, she said.
Connecting with Dunning around this time was a boon to Vu, Vu says.
Before long, Vu and four other family members had a small hui and were making $30,000 a month making aloha shirts for Silver Needles. Equally important, Vu was able to work from home and care for her children, who were too young to go to school.
Fast forward two decades, and Vu had earned and saved enough to start his restaurant, a dream since childhood. Her husband owns a business that manufactures granite countertops. One of her children is a teacher, a lawyer and a student to become an engineer, she said. Vu and her husband have two other school-age children, she said.
For her part, Dunning says she is grateful to Vu and happy that she was able to help Vu and Vu’s family.
“I’m happy with what I did,” said Dunning, who is now retired. “I also helped other people.”
As Dunning wraps up, Shepard is just getting started: applying his training as a botanist and his love of art and storytelling. After studying biology and art at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Shepard returned home and earned a master’s degree in tropical agriculture from the University of Hawaii.
His first job out of school was with the National Park Service in Molokai, followed by jobs at the National Botanical Garden in Kauai and the Lyon Arboretum in Manoa.
From the start, Shepard says, he wondered how he could use aloha shirts to tell the stories of native Hawaiian plants and animals in a way that could reach people.
In 2016, while working at the arboretum, he started taking weekend sewing classes. He designed his own prints and learned the best method for making fabrics bearing the intricate images of Hawaiian birds, plants and flowers that are his trademark.
It incorporated in 2019. By 2021, Shepard had reached such a point that it was selected by Mana Up as a member of its seventh cohort of startups deemed ready to scale.
Shepard declined to share numbers to quantify where his business currently stands. He said about half of his sales came from his website, the other half from small shops like Na Mea and MORI by Art+Flea in Ward Village. His shirts sell for $120.
Swap sewing machines for nail salons
One question Shepard and others like him face is whether it’s possible to grow significantly while still making clothes in Hawaii.
Even if he wanted to invest in a manufacturing plant, Shepard said, large spaces are hard to come by, let alone at affordable rents. And there is the pervasive fear that Kalihi, where many sewing and light manufacturing sites are now located, is on the verge of gentrification in the next Kakaako – where light manufacturing and warehouses have been replaced by luxury condo towers and trendy restaurants.
“The cost of living here – the cost of doing business – drives the middle class out,” he said.
There is also the issue of manpower. Seamstresses are leaving the business and no one is replacing them, Shepard said.
Dunning agreed. Many Vietnamese who might have done contract tailoring in the past are now setting up nail salons, she said. This is the right time to retire.
“You can make a lot of money doing it,” Shepard said of sewing. “But the people who do it are quite old.”
In this context, the big question for Shepard is: if his company becomes a major clothing manufacturer, will he be able to stay in Hawaii?
“I would love to be able to manufacture in Hawaii when I get to this scale,” he said. “But there is no infrastructure for that. Will I be able to continue here or do I go somewhere else?
“Hawaii’s Changing Economy» is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.