There’s such enthusiasm for Nita Pilago that you may think you’re at a 90-percent-off sale as women push and shove at a craft fair to grab one of her Wahine Toa designs.
Taught to sew by her grandmother, Pilago grew up making clothes for herself and then went on to make clothes for her children and grandchildren. She spent 15 years managing the photo lab at Costco’s Kona store, then quit to help her husband, North Kona County Councilman K. Angel Pilago, campaign for Hawaii Island mayor. When Angel lost to Billy Kenoi, Nita decided to focus on her fashion career.
“All through my life I had a dream I was going to run a clothing company,” says Pilago, who is part Hawaiian. Her brand, Wahine Toa, means “brave woman” or “woman warrior” among New Zealand’s Maori people. Her Polynesian-styled designs are often named after animals and plants, including hihimanu (manta ray), mano (shark), bamboo, lauhala or tiare (Tahitian gardenia). Each is drawn by Pilago, her husband or one of her sons.
And though most of her clothes are for women, she also makes men’s shirts.
Pilago periodically travels to Bali to arrange for the printing of her rayon and cotton fabrics. Pilago hopes to expand her business from selling mostly at craft fairs, to also wholesaling to retailers and selling online.
She calls her clothes wearable art, and affordable at about $40 a dress. “I think my whole business is about making it affordable and accessible to people.”