Hawaii Fashion Designer Gives Back While Working on Her Latest Collection

Rumi Robertson helps others heal from domestic violence while working on her latest fashion collection

Fashion designer Rumi Murakami Robertson says she is working on her latest collection: a return to her roots of business wear for women in a tropical climate who want a little edge.

Robertson says she is also supporting an organization that once helped her, Parents and Children Together. She says she is a survivor of domestic abuse and is volunteering with PACT as a shelter advocate, helping others to cope with their situations and sharing her experience so others may know that lives can be turned around.

Robertson says she was introduced to PACT by her lawyer after losing custody of her firstborn son.  She says she was being psychologically abused and felt she was to blame for everything.

“I realized after having the child that this was a really bad situation to put a child in. So I sought a divorce,” she says. “As soon as my ex-husband found out I was considering divorce, he actually was able to turn the system around a little bit – got the police and Child Protective Services involved, made all these allegations against me. I didn’t know you could get a restraining order against a new mom and take the baby away.”

She eventually regained custody of her child, she says, and her former husband has since died. But at the time, she says she felt like all of her bones had been removed – “like a pile of jelly.” Robertson needed to appear in court, so to get stronger and to gain confidence, she says, she went to counseling.

The new mother joined other women in crisis at the Family Peace Center, a PACT agency,  and met weekly to help empower and heal the women.  Robertson says the organization’s objective was “to allow these women to see that their futures are boundless. One of the things we talk about is we challenge each other to see beyond our immediate life.”

The group taught the women, over many weeks, about self-care and the dynamics of what happens in abusive relationships, says Robertson.

Two years later, Robertson became a counselor, helping victims of domestic violence; she says she eventually became a full-time supervisor of the adult women’s unit at the Family Peace Center. While there, she got involved in local politics, advocating for stricter laws. She describes the experience as life-changing, but after a lot of personal growth in the organization she thought to herself, “My roots really are in design. I miss it and still have a lot of really good ideas – so then I got serious.

“There came a point when I realized, ‘It’s now or never!’ I don’t know if I would have been able to do what I’m doing now without getting the help that I did.”

Robertson’s passion for fashion started as a child when she learned to sew and create clothing for fun. She graduated from the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, a technical school in Los Angeles, and immediately entered the industry. The budding designer gained experience working at a studio in San Francisco; she moved to Oahu in 1996.

“Twenty years ago, there was no fashion scene. It was still muumuu, aloha shirt and some surf-wear brands that were starting out, like T&C. I got some freelance work doing patternmaking at Local Motion and some of the other aloha-wear makers here. Always in the back of my head I thought, ‘How can I create a collection that makes sense for Hawaii?’ ”

Her brand, Rumi Murakami, has consistently sought to answer that question since its inception in 2013. Its most recent release, Hamakua – a collaboration with local artist Laurie Sumiye – was the largest yet with 24 pieces. The clothes are available at Fishcake, South Shore Market in Kakaako and Robertson’s online store, rumimurakami.com.

Robertson is also going back to what she knows best: six to eight pieces of womenswear made up of high-quality fabric. The theme (though not the fabric) is paper. Featured throughout the collection are sharp corners, hard lines, asymmetry and long pieces of fabric that wrap around the garments reminiscent of Cristóbal Balenciaga. The designs will debut at a  runway show in November at the Hawaii State Art Museum.

Scaling back the size of her collection has not only strengthened her focus but also allowed her to return as a shelter advocate at a PACT agency, Ohia Domestic Violence Shelter.

“I’m going in and facilitating support groups while the women are living in the shelter. It’s actually very different because women are coming and going from the shelter. Some are there for two nights and others are there for three months. It’s for women who are escaping abuse and in imminent danger or are afraid for their lives.”

Robertson’s desire to have personal interactions and relationships with people allow her to flourish at both Rumi Murakami and the shelter. She is amazed at how much growing people can do when they get a little encouragement, including herself. Although she believes in the brand and wants it to be her main focus, the shelter provides her with the balance she needs.

“I think it’s important to encourage people who are struggling to see that beyond struggling, there’s every possibility available to them. There’s nothing stopping any of us from pursuing whatever we can dream.”

Categories: Nonprofits, Small Business