I saw on my Facebook page that SigZane.com celebrated its 7th anniversary online earlier this week. The post read, “If we were counting in dog years, we’re just turning one.”
And, of course, that made me smile. Not only because I am a dog person, but the comment—that unique way of thinking—reminded me of a conversation I had with Sig last November during the annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival.
But who is Sig Zane some of you may be asking. As he puts it, he is a “fisherman, surfer, dancer, artist and cultural practitioner.” Sig is also a designer of handcrafted dresses, shirts, bags and accessories inspired by the plants of Hawaii. “Our designs are wedded to a place, nature and culture, and our values are simple,” reads the Hilo company’s website. “Honor the land and the native culture. Celebrate excellence and beauty. And share what we know.”
When I called Sig, I wanted to ask him about his participation in the coffee festival. I’d heard a bag design of his was the “gift with purchase” at the cupping competition. (As a self-admitted “bag lady,” I was instantly impaled with desire. “I want one,” I said out loud, though only my mixed-Hound dog heard me.)
Now, in Hawaii, you don’t dive into business right off. You chit-chat. Or “talk story,” as we say. So, when Sig started our conversation by saying he had just returned from a morning surf session, I asked, “How was the surf?”
“We l-l-l-l-love it,” Sig said. The surf doesn’t break often in Hilo Bay where Sig lives. “This is epic. It’s so beautiful, so perfect, so clean.”
And he asked me where I was. “Anahola, Kauai,” I said.
I first came to know Sig’s work when he designed employee uniforms for Outrigger’s beachfront properties—Outrigger Reef on the Beach, Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach and Keauhou Beach Resort.
We finally got off the topic of surf, but it took a while. (Later Sig would email me from his office, which overlooks the bay, writing, “It’s REAL hard to focus. I can do little things, but I can’t get into anything as the binoculars are stuck in my right hand…the surf is spectacular…!”)
I asked about Sig’s involvement in the Kona Coffee Festival, and he jumped in.
“Coffee is a part of our culture, kind of a late addition, actually,” Sig said. “People’s childhood stories in Kona involve coffee. My design is really about the flowers. The flowers I believe are part of that journey to the bean. The kehau breezes of Kona bring the scent down the mountain. During flowering season, you get that whiff in the air. That’s part of the story needs to be told. The whole area is filled with that. The flowers are so heavy that the branches are bent over, but one of the neat things is it looks like snow has just fallen. The trees are all white.”
Sig paused to catch his breath. “I tend to talk fast after a great surf session,” he says. “So I’ll try to slow down.” He didn’t—and I didn’t mind one bit. His energy is infectious—even today just thinking about our conversation two months ago, I am uplifted. I remember asking about the thinking behind his designs.
“One of the things that I really try to emphasize is the oral tradition of Hawaii—stories of place,” Sig said. “Hawaiians are so well known to talk story and share laughter and share an experience. We practice that. That’s our responsibility. But we have to be accurate.
“It’s the same thing with the Outrigger uniforms. When we accepted the task, my first thought was we must tell the story of the place. The art must reflect place. That’s why the first thing I asked you was, “Where are you now?”
“The art is created here, in Hilo. The hand-printing and sewing is done in Honolulu. In the very beginning, way back 20 or so years ago, that was the best way to get started, because I did not make minimums for overseas. I only wanted to create small numbers, because I wanted the designs to be a limited edition.
“I hand-cut all my art with an X-Acto knife and when I stand back and look at it, I go, ‘Oh, that’s not me.’ It’s just too incredible. I give credit to the Supreme Being or ancestor who is guiding me. That’s what ohana is all about—the ohana teachings. All the answers are right there. The ancestors will give you the answers, all you have to do is ask.”
And with that, my conversation with Sig shifted from surfing and designing clothing to a Hawaiian cultural practice. Like the bags at the Kona Coffee Festival, this was my own gift with purchase—a special lesson Sig was sharing with me.
“For us, the practice is that as soon as one leaves us physically, we can call on them anywhere. That calling is honoring them. You call, you ask and they deliver and so you’d be a fool not to listen. You’d be crazy. All the answers are right there.
When I was my son Kuhao’s age, I was totally irresponsible. But then I met my wife’s family. Her mother, Aunty Edith Kanaka’ole, turned me around. Through hula, her style of living and how she taught, I made a turnaround. Kuhao has had that exposure from birth. He knows that he can call on his ancestors. He knows he has that connection. If you say, “I feel it in my gut,” that is the ancestor knocking on your door and saying this is how.”
That’s Sig’s own story. And it’s a story that adds weight to his designs. It makes a shirt or a dress or a bag more than just a shirt or a dress or a bag. Sure, they’re made in limited numbers from good quality material and expert craftsmanship, but the dress also tells a story. It could be the reason why George Kahumoku, Jr. was photographed with his GRAMMY for Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar, Volume 2 this past Sunday night—wearing a Sig Zane shirt. No ordinary shirt would due for the GRAMMY Awards. Only a Sig Zane.
I remember asking Sig last November when we spoke about the give-away—the gift with purchase—the bags.
He said, “Well, I think that we all kind of think in green nowadays if we can offer something that people can use now in stead of plastic. The constant reuse is something we want to elaborate on. That’s the gift with purchase.”
And, now, as I ponder his comment, I realize the “constant reuse” could be more than just bags. It could also be wisdom in the form of words from a grandparent.
Happy birthday, SigZane.com.