Monday | September 25, 2017
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Na Makua closes downtown store


Tribune-Herald staff writer

Na Makua Original Hawaiian Designs, the casual wear clothing store on Waianuenue Avenue, left another vacant store front in downtown Hilo on Saturday, but the business will live on, said owner Nelson Makua.

After 10 years in the retail store, Makua and his son, Kainoa, are giving up the brick-and-mortar shop to focus on selling their originally designed clothing, posters and bags at arts and crafts shows, special events, and on their website.

Nelson, 63, said he’s been waiting to “see where the whole economy” was going before pulling out of the retail location the Makuas have occupied since 2002. Now he’s waited long enough.

The only two times a year the store has seen any “spike” in business is during the Merrie Monarch Festival and Christmas, he said. More often than not, it has been empty.

“Overhead is a killer. For three years we hung on,” he said. Closing is simply a matter of cutting losses and overhead.

The father-son design team will continue to operate their successful design studio in Puna, where both live and maintain their offices.

Nelson hopes to build on the success of the Christmas fair venture he’s recently developed. Other special events are in the planning stages, but he was mum about what they might be.

The Makuas also display their creations at shows and special events in Honolulu. They used to do the same thing on the mainland but stopped going when travel expenses became too much.

“Our whole goal is to be in business,” Nelson said, not necessarily to have a retail store in downtown Hilo. He also felt the retail business was “distracting” him from the design work. The website has been “very strong” this year, he said. “It’s easier with less expense.”

For years, Nelson has designed numerous official posters and T-shirts for the Merrie Monarch Festival and Downtown Improvement Association events under the company name Nelson Makua Design. His Pele series illustrates the legends often used in the chants, and over the years many of them have become valuable collectors’ items.

Nelson’s Merrie Monarch poster poster won a prestigious Pele Award for best illustration by the Hawaii Advertising Federation in 2008.

The Makuas take strong pride in being Hawaiian which is reflected in their designs, describing their work on the website as “personal reflections about who we are as Native Hawaiians, often inspired by ‘olelo no‘eau (Hawaiian sayings) that speak of our rich heritage, … and by the natural beauty of Puna.”

Kainoa’s sister, Megan Ha‘amauliola Makua Aiona, a Hawaiian language instructor at Nawahiokkalaniopu’u, also serves as a translator and adviser for Na Makua.

It was expected to be a quiet closing on Saturday, Nelson said. After a minor bout of depression over closing the retail store, he now feels good about his decision.

“I took a month to mourn,” he said.

However, Kainoa, 40, won’t miss the trek from Hawaiian Paradise Park into Hilo five days a week.

“I’ll save a lot on gas,” he laughed. And he’s eager to start devoting more of his energy to their participation in arts fairs. “Now we’ll have more time.”

“We’re losing our retail space, but we’re not closing,” Kainoa said. “We’re evolving into craft fairs and shows which, ironically, is where we started. The store was great for putting us on the map, but that’s the direction we’re heading. We had a lot of regular customers at the retail store but we have to go where the economy leads.”

And in many instances, as in this one, the retail storefront is giving way to the Internet and greater business mobility.

“We’re going to miss the customers. Downtown has been good to us,” said Kainoa, who left open the possibility of returning some day.

“We may come back to a retail location,” he said, and if they do, they’ll have the experience they would have liked to have had 10 years ago — things like knowing that location, ample parking and a back entrance are really important to the success of a retail store.

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