30 | www.KeOlaMagazine.com | SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2011
Punawai ‘Ulu print scarf – Photo by Punawai
ilo, Hawai‘i, might not be the first place that springs to mind when you think about cutting-edge clothing manufacturing, but one local company is changing that. Punawai, a digital textile printing company, is using state-of-the-art technology and eco-friendly inks to design, print, and sew women’s apparel. Their work features original Hawaiian plant designs on fine silks, including scarves, wraps, ladies’ tops and men’s neckties. Customers may not realize the technology that’s required to create the stylish pieces but they do appreciate the outcome. “When we started, people couldn’t believe the quality of the work,” says Punawai Rice who, along with his wife Hokulani Kaikaina, runs the company. “Their reaction was: ‘This is from Hilo? Really?’ People were surprised that so fine a fabric and design came out of Hilo.” It’s really not surprising though, given Punawai’s love of Hawaiian culture and passion for art. Born and raised on O’ahu, Punawai grew up spending school vacations on the Big Island with relatives. While pursuing a degree in Hawaiian Studies at UH Hilo, he took up hula, which led to meeting another Hilo designer, Sig Zane, a well-known clothing designer. Punawai wound up working for Sig for seven years, teaching himself how to use computers and computer design software along the way. He then pursued work in marketing, but discovered he missed the creativity of art.
“I wanted to get back into art,” explains Punawai. “My original business plan was to do an original line of Hawaiian wear and maybe even print for other people,” he says. But during the process of researching how to launch his own clothing line, Punawai came to recognize the limitations of the silk screening industry. “We found out that silk screening fabric is a dying art form. I knew we would need to do something else.” He discovered digital textile printing and was amazed by the new technology. “I saw this digital printer and what it could do: that it could print on fine fabrics and do short runs of material,” he said. “To do a short run on fine fabric was nearly unheard of even just a decade ago. That’s how new the technology is.” Punawai flew to California to check out the massive machine, which weighs two tons and is 10 feet long and eight feet wide. He was so impressed with the equipment he decided to take the plunge and become the first person in Hawai‘i to use digital textile printing. It was 2008. The economy was in a freefall, and it was, Punawai admits with a chuckle, the worst possible time to start a business. To make matters worse, the technology was so new that it took several months to learn how to master it. “It took us over a year to get the learning curve for the machine,” explains Punawai. “The learning curve was so steep that I decided I needed to figure out what I wanted to print first and