Back in February, 22-year-old designer and musician Ryan Hawaii held a rogue brand presentation in the Off-White section of a Selfridges, drawing a large crowd before getting booted by security. In May, he stood alongside Virgil Abloh in that same Selfridges, this time as an invited speaker at a seminar hosted by Abloh. He courted Skepta, now a fan of the brand, in a similarly playful fashion: approaching him in a London club.
When I spoke with Hawaii over the phone, he had just returned from a family vacation. “It was a bit boring, to be honest,” he told me. It’s not surprising for a 22-year-old to be underwhelmed by a family trip, but it’s especially fitting for Hawaii: he has a cult micro-empire to run, after all. Here, he tells us how art, music, and fashion intersect in his world, and how not giving a fuck might be the most powerful business tool of all.
Do you think you inherited your creativity from your parents?
RYAN HAWAII: I think it's a mix. When my mom was younger she was really good at art and went to art school. My dad runs his own business and is really business-minded so I think I kind of got a combination of the two. And my brother used to play sports; he then went from that to have in interest in fashion and modeling.
And when did you start getting into music and design?
I've always had an interest in art and that kind of thing, but I started making t-shirts when I was about 15 years old. In secondary school I used to make t-shirts and that kind of thing, and when I was about 17 or 18 I started a music group with a close friend of mine, OMELET, who was a producer and we just started making music. It sort of evolved into what it is now, which is a group called Neverland Clan, which includes myself, OMELET, and a bunch of close friends. It’s all kind of family. It’s a natural thing. We just released our EP recently, so I've been focusing on the fashion. I don't have a 9-5 job, so all of my income is from the clothes I paint, so I do that everyday. We do some printed t-shirts and stuff, but mostly all of the Hawaii stuff is painted by hand.
Where do you want to take your line from here?
I want to take it to galleries and exhibitions, that kind of thing. I want to incorporate print into a lot of my designs, like taking prints made from hand-drawn art and paintings and reproducing them. For now I like it where it's quite limited because it's quite honest and true to what it is. It's all made in the bedroom in my parent’s house, where I live, and I kind of like it that way. Everyone who buys something knows there's a certain sentimentality attached to it, as opposed to a massive run of 1000 t-shirts that anyone could have. I'm also working on my next collection which, will be called "The Hawaii Metalworks Tour." It's like workwear with a lot of heavy metal and rock imagery. I feel like I see a lot of kids around nowadays, they live the life of a rockstar but are actually quite working class, which is quite a cool contrast.
What are you inspired by when you're designing?
I'm inspired a lot by heavy metal t-shirts. I'm inspired by my environment. I make stuff that I wish existed in the world. That’s kind of how the Neverland fashion t-shirts came about: I sat there and was thinking, imagine if there was a hot pink Thrasher flame tee, that would be so cool! A lot of the clothes are collaborations that I've made up in my head that I wish existed or I'll take different influences and just mash them together to make something new. When I was younger I was into skateboarding so I guess that's where a lot of the “I don't give a fuck” attitude came from. Like, if you can't really find something or afford something—just make it yourself.
Can you tell me a little bit about how that crazy Selfridges presentation came about?
Another London designer called Apex Jai and I did a pop up shop in February of this year, at a small store in Bethnal Green. The guy Karl who owns the store let us take it over for a day. It was really over subscribed, there was loads of hype built about it on social media, and we had MCs come and spit, that sort of thing. Skepta even came down. It was just really good vibes. Then after that, I sort of sat down, I came up with the idea: the pop up was cool, but let's do something that's a bit more of a statement. The idea was to run up with Selfridges and give a brand presentation in the [Virgil Abloh's label] Off-White section of the store.
How did it turn out?
So I got all my remaining designs from the pop up, made a few more, filled up a bag with them, promoted it all over social media, like a secret location kind of thing, and people had to RSVP to be able to come to it. Loads of people thought it was a party but they all RSVP'd to my email and I replied with the details telling them it was in Selfridges and not to approach any members of security because it was not an official thing, it was like some military kind of scheme. I gave each person a raffle number and the corresponding numbers were selected at random and gave them one of my pieces for free as like a thank you for coming.
And how did Virgil Abloh end up taking notice?
I didn't expect so many people to come. I was there at seven and gradually more and more people came and it eventually reached about 150, 200 kids. I Invited lots of photographers and videographers as well and told them to take a load of photos and bombard Instagram and Twitter with it and tag Virgil and everything. At the time, he was saying that he was for the youth. We eventually got kicked out by security because we were creating a crowd in the store and then afterwards we bombarded social media, bombarded Virgil. He liked the pictures and commented on them, followed me, and from there it went a bit quiet but then I saw him at a Boiler Room in London and sort of approached him and introduced myself. He was like "Oh yeah, I know who you are.” A matter of months after, he invited me to speak in his ideas workshop in Selfridges, which was quiet funny. It almost came full circle.
Do you want to be a role model for other kids to design their own stuff?
I just want to lead by example. I didn't have certain opportunities that other people had. I didn't have the money to be able to do large print runs so I just started painting on clothes. It just sort of happened, and I think it's important for a lot of kids to find their own style and get out there and start doing what they want to do rather than looking for someone to put them on or someone to help them. I think you should just get up and do it. It’s like some of the punk stuff that was going on in the ‘70s and ‘80s; those guys were just painting on jackets for their shows and making music in garages It’s the same with grime as well, with the packed radio stations and home studios.
12 Weeks Later, I'm In Selfridges Giving A Seminar Alongside Virgil Abloh.— RYAN HAWAII (@RYAN_HAWAII) May 29, 2015
Speaking of grime, Skepta has been wearing a lot of your pieces. How did that come about?
We actually met at a party that Virgil [Abloh] was throwing in London [a year and a half ago] and I sort of went up to him in the club. I was with a couple of people from Neverland Clan and we all went up to him and said, we grew up on your freestyles, it's good to meet you in person and that kind of thing. Later on I went back and spoke to him and I said I respected where he's going as an artist and I could see where he's trying to reach and I asked him, you know, if I had a way to contact him would he wear something of mine, and I sent him an instagram DM and he said he would and started wearing pieces and it sort of went from there. Whenever I make stuff I send pieces to him, or I’ll make special edition stuff for him. He's a very humble down-to-earth guy, as you guys probably know at The FADER. He deserves everything that comes his way. He's been a legend and a hero here for years and years, but now he's just taking it to a different level.
Do you feel like kids who want to design need to be able to do that? If they see someone they admire on the street they need to have the courage to just go up and be like "Hi, I do this"?
Obviously it's not going to work with everyone but, what have you really got to lose? I think that's the first thing that they need to realize. If Skepta turned round to me and said ‘No, I don't want to wear anything you make,’— I’d still go home and make it. That is an important step, but at the same time you need to be able to rely on yourself. You can't be relying on other people to bring you up, you just have to be working. There's no reason why you couldn't be the next Skepta, or the next anybody.