Kini Zamora Recreates an Iconic Ali‘i Gown

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When we envision how our ali‘i looked, words like regal, powerful, stoic, and beautiful are often used to describe their appearance. For Native Hawaiian fashion designer Kini Zamora, that vision became a hands-on reality in his Hālawa design studio.

In a partnership with the ‘Iolani Palace, Zamora is creating a modern interpretation of an iconic piece of Hawaiian history, Queen Kapi‘olani’s coronation gown. Now, after months of researching, sketching, planning and sewing by hand, the recreation of the Queen’s gown is now coming together to look like the original masterpiece.

“The reason why we started with Queen Kapi‘olani’s coronation gown is we wanted to go with something that is a little more lavish and see something more opulent.” said Zamora, often known for his experience as an alumni of Project Runway. “For me that is something that I kind of represent, a dramatic type of designer here in Hawai‘i. So it was very exciting to start with [the coronation gown].”

Painting of Queen KapiolaniThe gown was originally worn by the Queen Kapi‘olani on February 12, 1883 at the coronation ceremony, where both King Kalākaua and Kapi‘olani were crowned. The dress was designed by American designer Charles Ferneaux, who was renowned at the time for being a talented artist skilled in both design and painting. In addition to creating the luxurious coronation gown, Ferneaux also painted a portrait of the Queen wearing the finished piece, which now hangs in ‘Iolani Palace.

“It’s projects like these that create connections with the past and bring the monarchy-era to life today,” said Pomai Toledo, Director of Development and Communications at ‘Iolani Palace. “We hope this inspires our community to support our efforts to preserve, protect, and perpetuate the stories ‘Iolani Palace.”

Photo: Person sewing
The artist at work. – Photo: Kawena Lei Carvalho-Mattos

When Zamora first started the recreation project, all he had was the Ferneaux painting and a black and white haute couture image to use for reference. Because a photo or painting can be interpreted many ways, extensive and specific additional research was needed to learn more about the functional details of the dress. Zamora looked to nupepa entries where introductions were recorded of monarchy entering a room. The articles included details that one would typically see at a modern day red carpet entrance, including a description of what was worn. Zamora also referenced what was worn in England for the coronation of the royal family.

There is a lot of European and Victorian influence throughout the dress, but there is a heavy Hawaiian influence through out the embroidery work in the gown,” shared Zamora, when describing the meaning found in the piece. “I think Queen Kapi‘olani really wanted that to be part of what she wore while getting crowned. She wanted it to be about the people.”

Armed with his traditional training from Honolulu Community College’s fashion program and the New York Fashion Institute, Zamora’s final interpretation of the gown was made of two distinct pieces; a floor length silk white dress with a fitted bodice and a long red velvet cape with a train, lined with white and black ermine fur.

Both pieces were adorned with an abundance of palapalai fern leaves, embroidered in gold thread, representing the Queen’s connection to the Kingdom of Hawai‘i and its people. For the fern detailing, Zamora worked with a graphic design artist to recreate the exact ferns from the black and white photo and recreate each leaf digitally on lace. Paying homage to the meaning of the palapalai ferns on the original piece, Zamora asked volunteers from the community and the Friends of ‘Iolani Palace to be a part of the piece by helping to hand-stitch the golden palapalai embroidery detailing onto the cape and gown.

While in its final stages of completion, a preview of the full coronation gown was recently put on display at Bloomingdales in the Ala Moana Shopping Center. Juxstaposed against the modern day fashion sold in the department store, the reintrepretation of Queen Kapi‘olani’s coronation gown stood out as a beautiful and timeless piece of people to enjoy.

“We have been very fortunate to work with Kini on this project,” said Toledo. “He is such a talented and gifted designer who has paid homage to Queen Kapi‘olani with his interpretation of her coronation gown. We want people to not only gain an appreciation for this workmanship, but to also understand how our ali‘i were fashion-forward by incorporating Hawaiian culture into the fashions of the day.”

Zamora is now working on the finishing touches on the gown and a showing of the completed garment at ‘Iolani Palace is hoped to be seen the future.