Hawai’i’s culture and natural surroundings provide a wealth of inspiration for designer Sig Zane.

Sig Zane’s distinctive and bold designs tell a story. They are tangible print representations of hula, the unspoken, unwritten language of ancient Hawaiians. It’s his passion to perpetuate the traditions and culture of the kapuna and the ‘aina through storytelling that continues to inspire and guide his work today.

“Sig Zane Designs is based on a strong, simple love. Our designs are wedded to a place, nature and culture. Our values are simple: Honor the land and the native culture. Celebrate excellence and beauty. And share what we know,” Zane says.

This soft-spoken, gentle man, a native of O’ahu who is now based in Hilo on Hawai’i Island, may be 100 percent Chinese by birth, but in his heart and soul he is 100 percent Hawaiian. It was in the mid-’70s that Zane said goodbye to life in the fast lane on O’ahu to adopt an unhurried life in sleepy Hilo, devoting his time to the study of Hawaiian culture. To this day he defines himself first as a fisherman, surfer, dancer, cultural practitioner and, finally, an artist-despite his international acclaim and legion of collectors. All of these defining elements inevitably show up in his bold, graphic designs.

Long before his now iconic, luxurious and much in-demand aloha shirts, dresses, boardshorts and sophisticated home accessories emerged on the fashion scene, Zane was creating colorful designs for the pareos (fabric wraps) worn by his hula halau, Halau O Kekuhi, a troupe he joined in Hilo in 1981. It was his immersion in hula, he says, that ignited his interest in and knowledge of Hawaiian botanicals and their many uses in Hawaiian culture.

“Through my teachers, Edith Kanaka’ole and her daughters, Nalani Kanaka’ole and Pua Kanahele, I learned that hula and the natural world are inseparable,” Zane says.

Soon, Zane’s images of ‘ulu (breadfruit), kalo (a root that is pounded into a poi, a long-time staple in the Hawaiian diet) lauhala (the leaves of the hala or panadanus plant used for weaving everything from hats and baskets to sleeping mats and bags) kukui nuts (used to make oils), and other botanicals valued by Hawaiians became staples in his work. They joined various ancient symbols depicting canoe voyaging (wind, waves, currents and celestial navigation) and legends outlining the lives and travels of Hawaiian gods and goddesses, such as Maui and Pele.

“We take these symbols found in ancient tapa cloth renderings to the modern canvas-whatever form that ‘canvas’ takes-to preserve and perpetuate history and tradition,” Zane says.

From the very start, his work has been art in motion, printed primarily on fine, natural cotton and linen fabrics that are transformed into the popular shirts, dresses and shorts, among other things. For example, recently Zane’s designs have been spotted in jet-speed motion adorning the exteriors of Hawaiian Airlines’ new ‘Ohana fleet of aircraft.

Back on Earth, Zane’s broad range of men’s and women’s clothing, fabric bags, decorative pillow cases, coin purses and more are found at Sig Zane Design studio on the bay front in downtown Hilo. Opened in 1985, the ample ground floor space is set in one of the town’s ornate, historic buildings and appears to be more art gallery/museum than fashion boutique. Exquisite woodwork and precise lighting showcase the simple and clean layout, while color pops from the neatly hung display racks and tables. Fashionistas and art aficionados rub shoulders exploring the treasure-filled space. A second store opened in Wailuku, Maui in 1999, Zane says.

While today the staff numbers 13, including his son and graphic artist Kuha’o, Zane says the company is still a small family business.

“We cherish the one-to-one contact with our customers,” he says. “In this way, we are able to share information about the plants, the culture and what they mean to us.”

Sig Zane Design may be a small family business, but for more than 10 years it has been attracting the attention of major corporations and now an international fashion house-Louis Vuitton in Paris.

“We did our first corporate project in 2003 and that work really started picking up in 2011 and has continued to grow over the years, Zane says.

In addition to Hawaiian Airlines, projects completed for corporate clients over the past couple of years include rebranding HECO with a new logo that uses tapa-style symbols of waves, evoking a sense power and currents; and a complete refresh of the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows guest cottage suites and the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa.

“What’s becoming more and more important to these clients, is a desire to incorporate a definite sense of place in what is being presented to their customers and guests. The Sheraton and Mauna Lani were interested in artwork that is specific not only to Hawai’i Island but the exact ahupua’a (original land divisions) their properties reside in here,” Zane says.

From art on walls and murals in common spaces to bedding, upholstery and staff uniforms, Sig Zane Design’s graphic prints provide the stories tied to the unique location.

“Visitors are so savvy today. They want to be surrounded by authentic Hawai’i, to hear the stories of the place and its people, and to experience the arts and crafts of the island. This interest has certainly been a catalyst for corporate re-branding by many clients,” he says.

The most recent project, completed in April, was commissioned by Louis Vuitton for their Ala Moana Center location in Honolulu.

“What’s neat about working with international people is their desire to acknowledge their hosts, the place they are at and what was here before: The Ala Moana Path,” Zane says. “This is really a feather in the cap for all of Hawai’i-an iconic, international company investing in perpetuating the values, practices and traditions of the early Hawaiians.”

According to Zane, he considers Louis Vuitton (the company) his friend in Paris, and so to begin the project-which now appears in the elevator lobbies on both floors of the Ala Moana Louis Vuitton store-he composed a style of chant typically used to celebrate special events- events usually related to place and romance.

“The art evolving from this chant tells the story of my relationship with this friend, this new found infatuation with Paris. We chose the ‘ilima flower as the key design element, since it grew along the Ala Moana pathway in our ancestors’ time. It honors the spirits who were here before us and who are still around us. Through this, we invite them in to join us, to be with us as we express our gratitude for allowing a life in this island environment,” he says.

www.sigzane.com