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The Art of Textile Design, Revisited

GENTLEMEN ABOUT TOWN SHOULD FEEL HONORED (as opposed to violated) when Emma Jewell Howard whips out her camera and snaps a frame with them square in the middle. She’s no pesky paparazzi; she’s merely interested in your shirt. Well, sort of. It’s actually her shirt.

Having designed custom textiles for and partnered with prominent local and national brands, Howard’s work-collaborations with Island Traditions and Apparel Solutions-can be seen on retail racks (and employees) for companies such as Patagonia, Kendall Jackson, Anheuser Busch and Maui Jim. She has designed the uniforms for Hawaiian Airlines and the City and County of Honolulu’s bus drivers.

Yet even though she’s been designing textiles for decades, she’s still excited whenever she comes across someone wearing one of her “babies,” and snaps their photos for her blog.

While her work is certainly worthy of a gallery wall, Howard enjoys seeing it worn on the street.

“I like functional art,” she admits.

One of her designs, created for Kahala, will get prominent display when Alexander Payne’s feature film The Descendants premieres. Star George Clooney will be wearing the “Skills” design, which utilizes 22 hand-carved images of surfers, paddlers and fishermen. The design took six months to create.

“Now, so much artwork is generated by computer,” Howard says. “Designing by hand is considered ‘old school,’ but it’s what I like. It brings a different character to the work.”

Howard also likes the sense of history that goes into researching the images in her work, whether they are constellations in the sky or symbolism of cultural images. Even the woodblocks she uses contains a sense of history.

“I use reclaimed wood to create my woodblock prints. The last wood I used was from a Manoa Valley redwood home, and my son just gave me a piece from La Jolla from the 1940s. Different types of wood have different textures that show up in the finished work.”

Textile designer Sherry Holt Reese also takes a hands-on approach to her craft, sketching her designs before finishing them up on computer.

“If the client likes the layout, then I’ll hand-paint it for them,” Holt Reese says.

Holt Reese’s interest in textiles began as a 4-year-old, when she designed dresses for her dolls. At Punahou School, she excelled in art design, and was among the first textile students to emerge from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, going on to become head designer at Lauhala Sportswear.

“That company was the first to do textile printing in Hawai’i. They did the old Hawaiian prints of the ’40s and ’50s. I was so inspired by looking through their archives.”

After four years, Holt Reese started her own company- Sunshine Hawaii-in the 1970s, which was among companies like Tori Richard and Surf Line Hawaii that ignited a national wave of Hawai’i mania throughout the fashion world.

“Back then, nobody was doing prints. Everybody was wearing plain muslin, hippie clothes. The heads of places like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s, who wanted something different, latched onto it right away.”

These days, her clients include Quiksilver Edition, Patagonia and Martini Ranch. She also has been called on to create one-of-a-kind silkscreen or airbrush pieces for Beverly Hills clientele.

Recently, she’s adopted the Western and Hawaiian paniolo theme in her Desert Diva line, in a continuing attempt to bring back Hawai’i motifs, countering a trend of generic work geared toward Mainland buyers.

Holt Reese misses the creative energy of the 1970s. “There were a lot of young people doing great art. It was a fabulous time to be a designer. Now, most designs are copies of things people find in a book, or they buy an old shirt and copy that. There’s very little originality,” she adds. “People may think Hawai’i’s behind, but there are lots of firsts here in fashion, sports, sayings and music too. Just look at the shaka sign, which has gone global. People forget.”

If these two artists continue getting their work on the streets, we won’t have to worry about people forgetting Hawai’i.