Most days, customers can find Anna Kahalekulu at her clothing store, Kūlua, located in Makawao, Maui, alternating between sewing, cutting, and working on fabric patterns.
“There’s usually always someone sewing because that’s the majority of the work,” said the 38-year-old owner and designer.
Kahalekulu opened the doors of her studio shop almost five years ago. She sells small-batch clothing, accessories, and home goods using sustainable fabrics and utilizing industry best-practices for eco-friendliness. She credits her career as an entrepreneur to her lifelong interest in fashion – and to her kūpuna.
Kahalekulu comes from a long line of Hawaiian weavers, sewers, and quilters. Her tūtū wahine on her father’s side introduced her to these art forms when she was still in elementary school.
Although she grew up in Highlands Ranch, Colo., Kahalekulu spent her summers on Maui. The youngest of five children she notes that, “out of all of my siblings, I was the one that was really drawn to our heritage and our culture.”
The summer after she finished fifth grade, Kahalekulu attended Kamehameha Schools’ Hoʻomākaʻikaʻi (Explorations) program. She returned to her tūtū’s house excited to share the traditional crafts she learned there.
During their summer visits, her grandmother taught her how to weave lauhala and to quilt as they talked story. Kahalekulu still remembers how fast her kupuna’s fingers could finish a project.
While on the continent, she stayed connected to her Hawaiian culture through hula as an ʻōlapa (dancer) studying under Kumu Hula Māpuana de Silva. “[This was] a big part of my identity.”
As Kahalekulu finished college at the University of Colorado Boulder, she felt the ʻāina call to her. After she met her future husband, Chris, who was from Upcountry Maui, she made the decision to return to Hawaiʻi.
She initially settled on Oʻahu in 2007, then moved to Maui three years later to start her family. Kahalekulu and her husband are raising their two children, Keanu and Amaya, in her late tūtū’s house in Waiehu.
When she was a new stay-at-home mom weighing her career choices, Kahalekulu filled much of her time with sewing, and eventually decided to enroll in UH Maui College’s fashion technology program. Kahalekulu launched her brand, Kūlua, in 2015 with a keiki collection, initially selling wholesale to a couple of boutiques before opening her own shop in Makawao.
Although the pace of life is slower in Upcountry, Kahalekulu hoped her studio shop would attract foot traffic. Attracted to the storefront’s “peaceful” energy, she foresaw the space accommodating both retail and in-house production.
“I didn’t want to outsource because it meant more to me to create something that helped our community, provided more jobs, and represented more than just me,” she said.
She characterizes that choice as the both the business’ strength and its “Achilles’ heel,” as she puts in lots of time and labor to create her wares.
Her team produces its women’s clothing at the store, and two additional local contractors handle the keiki clothing and home goods, respectively. Kahalekulu works with a manufacturer in Honolulu to create her aloha shirts, and her employees and relatives serve as models for the products.
“I’ve done my best to keep it local,” she said.
In-house production also means Kūlua can repurpose its fabric scraps and off-cuts to minimize its environmental impact as much as possible.
About a year after opening her storefront, Kahalekulu faced her greatest challenge to date: the COVID-19 pandemic. As a new entrepreneur, she was already fighting to strengthen her business’ foundation before the virus began to spread and lockdowns were enforced.
“Being a small business is not easy,” she said, pointing to a lack of resources and an abundance of sacrifices necessary to keep the store financially healthy.
Once the pandemic had run its course, Kahalekulu faced the added pressure of restructuring her team and trying to recruit new employees. She eventually fell into the flow of running the shop from Wednesday through Saturday.
Because her business isn’t tied to outside manufacturers, the Kūlua team took it week by week, cutting and sewing what they could. “In a way, it all happened how it needed to happen,” Kahalekulu said. “But I’ve never been that stressed out in my life.”
Today, she employs three workers who are regularly scheduled, one worker who is casually scheduled, and two contractors. “We’re small, but mighty,” she quipped.
The wildfires that devastated Lahaina “felt like COVID again,” Kahalekulu said. Her husband’s great-uncle passed away in the disaster, and several of Kahalekulu’s relatives were displaced.
“I just can’t imagine losing everything like that,” she said.
In response, Kūlua has committed to supporting the community over recent months through donations. Kahalekulu remains hopeful about efforts to rebuild Lahaina, although politics, land ownership and water rights complicate that vision.
Although her studio shop has been quiet lately, Kahalekulu has seen increased traction on her website. For now, she’s embracing Kūlua’s newfound stability and turning her attention to creating more products.
She is also working on building out the store’s wholesale business (which she paused at the end of the pandemic), and eyeing a second retail location on Oʻahu, which could come to fruition within the next two years.
Her ultimate goal for the future is to “elevate ourselves, as far as our creativity and craft goes.”
But one aspect of Kūlua that will never change is the source of Kahalekulu’s inspiration: “Always from ʻāina, always from nature, and always from culture.”
For more information and to shop go to: www.kuluamaui.com/. Or visit their storefront at 1156 Makawao Avenue, Ste. 1A in Makawao.