A lot of people think there’s a lot of magic in fashion design: The designer sketches it and voila! the garment appears. Hardly. That sketch is just the beginning of a long, laborious, complicated process that can take months to complete. There are patterns to engineer, muslins to make, fabrics and notions to be chosen, samples to sew up and a myriad of details to be determined. And, hey, somebody has to sew those final garments.
Swim wear designer Susanna Kuhlemann, who lives bi-continentally in Honolulu, Hawaii and Berlin, Germany, first introduced her line, called 1979, in Honolulu. (See my original 2009 story from The Advertiser http://www.1-9-7-9.com/pdfs/Summerof79HonoluluAdvertiser.pdf). She struggled to find seamstresses here who could sew her one-of-a-kind swim wear. Initially the line was created from recycled aloha shirts. Now it has segued into sophisticated, sleek retro-inspired one- and two-piece suits in fine French fabrics.
In Honolulu, Suzanna could find an occasional seamstress who could help her sew her suits made from vintage aloha shirts but the quality was not always up to her exacting standards. Once she began creating her one-piece collection in European fabrics, there were even fewer people who could sew the designs. She turned to a manufacturer in Nevada. That didn’t work out ideally either.
“Production is the only issue holding me back,” Susanna said during an interview in eTown, her little boutique on Smith Street. “We had really good press in Germany during Fashion Week so all I need is to get things stocked and have them available.”
In the meantime, Suzanna was trying to keep a long distance relationship going with her boyfriend of eight years, law student Tarek Issa. Not easy to live by Sype alone. So last July she returned to Berlin to renew her relationship with Tarek and to see if she could find a manufacturer in Europe. He goal is to have dual manufacturers: one in the U.S. and one in Europe. This will help enormously with shipping, as she plans to sell her suits on both continents. She found a manufacturer in Lithuania and that worked for one season but will not work for the long term, so she will return to Europe next month to “shop” again for manufacturers.
One thing is settled: Her supplier of exquisite French fabrics is definitely going to work out. The fabrics come in beautiful colors such as aubergine and slate and they hold up to the standards of even the toughest water women.
Suzanna’s goal is not to become a Gottex or Jantzen. She would like to remain small and exclusive, to be sold in a few select boutiques in Europe and the U.S.
The aesthetic of 1979 is right in line with the direction fashion is taking right now. Ladylike and feminine, it’s based on the philosophy that “less is more,” seeing a little less skin can be a lot more sexy. One of her most popular styles came from a 1940s suit Suzanna found in a Honolulu Goodwill store and took apart to make a pattern. With her contemporary approach to pattern making, hardware and construction, she combines the romance of vintage with the functionality of contemporary sportswear.
See the latest collection from 1979 on Ala Moana Center’s CenterStage Friday, March 25, at 2 p.m. Then go shop for the suits in the Hifi Pop-Up Incubator. Note: If you love her original styles, made from vintage aloha shirts, this is your last chance to buy one. She will not be making them any longer.
– Paula Rath