Maui native Koa Johnson is known for his luxurious gowns created for pageants and weddings. But the former instructor at the University of Hawai‘i–Maui College’s Fashion Technology program (he got the job just a year after he completed his associate degree there) has also made a name for himself with creations that don’t use organza and silk. From ti leaves to Valentine’s Day disposable tablecloths, he has turned heads at events such as the MAMo Wearable Art Show.
For the three gowns he created for the museum’s exhibition Hawai‘i in Design, he continued his innovative use of unconventional materials such as tablecloths, feathers, and rubbish bags. Through the dresses—which are part of Johnson’s Royals series—the Maui-based designer references Hawaiian history. Pictured below from left to right are Viper (2016), Crow (2015), and Betta (2015), each named for Hawaiian female monarchs of the past.
“Johnson uses feathers, a material used to create garments associated with Hawaiian royalty, and ubiquitous black rubbish bags and white disposal tablecloths to create gowns that simultaneously resonate with historical pertinence and a strong urban impulse,” says arts of Hawai‘i curator Healoha Johnston. “His sensitivity to tonal qualities and textures in the materials he chooses, along with his knowledge of diverse construction methods, enable his unexpected design choices and situates him among the most dynamic young fashion designers working in Hawai’i.”
Johnson, who was recently profiled in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, is an example of the future of Hawai‘i fashion designers. We talked to him about his work, his influences, and the dresses on view in Hawai‘i in Design.
For your three gowns in the exhibition, you use unconventional materials like rubbish bags, feathers, and disposable tablecloths, what was your motivation in choosing those materials?
I really like how plastic has a very unique texture and sheen to it that reflects light and almost makes it look like leather or satin. Plastic was probably the best unconventional material I’ve worked with because it’s pliable and easy to manipulate.
Can you talk a little about the connection between these works and female monarchs of the past? Is that connected to why you chose to name the gowns after animals?
I have a lot of respect for women in history because of their roles in royalty and democracy. The gowns reflected how a woman back then would have to dress in an empowering role and I wanted to name them after animals that reflected that empowering role.
You recently worked on gowns for the Miss Hawai‘i pageant. Is there a big difference between creating dresses for an event like that and making pieces for a museum exhibition?
Pageant gowns have a glitz and glam factor to them, and they need to have stage presence for competition. My gowns in the museum are more avant-garde and artistic. I try to make my exhibition gowns more unconventional and seen more as art pieces rather than everyday wearable pieces.
The fashion world is ever changing, always looking for the next trend, but this exhibition is on view for a year. Did knowing that play any role in your approach to selecting/making these gowns?
I wanted to make my gowns for the museum timeless. I wanted the pieces to be fashion forward but also have an essence of the past.
What are the biggest influences in your work?
I want people to see that I’m influenced by a lot of European silhouettes and techniques but also see that I am a Hawai‘i designer.
What are you working on now?
I am currently working on a lot of bridal gowns and pageant gowns for various clients. I just finished featuring my collection “Royals by KoJo” for the MaMo Wearable Art Show that consisted of eight pieces for the collection also inspired by the Hawai‘i royal family.
Hawai‘i in Design is on view through March 17, 2017, and is the inspiration for the theme of this month’s ARTafterDARK. The exhibition is made possible with generous support from Hawaiian Airlines Foundation with additional support provided by HILuxury Magazine.