Lovers Intertwined: The Legend of ‘Ōhi‘a & Lehua
The ancient Hawaiian legend of ‘Ōhi‘a and Lehua tells a story of the undying love between a warrior and a beautiful girl, intertwined with the fiery personality of Pele, the goddess of fire.
In Hawai‘i, the culturally significant ‘ōhi‘a lehua tree is critical to the islands' watershed, and was used by early Hawaiians for weapons and adornments during hula and other ceremonies. As the legend goes, the beautiful Lehua and brave warrior ‘Ōhi‘a were separated by the lust of Pele, only to be turned into a tree and its flower, never to be torn apart.
One of the first plants to grow after a fiery lava flow, the ‘ōhi‘a lehua is resilient enough to withstand all of Pele's creations, and signifies rebirth and the strength of love. However, beautiful stands of these endemic trees are currently threatened by a harmful disease. To honor this powerful legend and raise awareness for the ‘ōhi‘a lehua tree, we partnered with Hawaiian designers Matt Bruening and Brandy Serikaku to create a limited edition collection of Men's and Women's shoes that pay homage to the significance of this ancient mo‘olelo (story). We've also ensured that portions of those pairs sold at our retail stores in Hawai‘i give back to organizations working to preserve the ‘ōhia lehua.
Tell us the ‘ōhi‘a lehua legend in your words.
Matt Bruening: To me it's an important love story where not only intimate love is provoked, but rather love about community and togetherness - very much what the early Hawaiians practiced, and I feel like this notion is still very important now. The whole inspiration from this story has definitely sparked a lot of influence in the design of the shoe.
Brandy Serikaku: I heard this version of the story from my Kumu Hula Uncle Johnny Lum Ho. ʻŌhiʻa and Lehua were lovers; ʻŌhiʻa was the most beautiful man in the village, and Pele wanted ʻŌhiʻa for herself but he rejected the goddess and she turned him into a crooked old tree. Lehua found out what had happened to her lover and cried. The other gods pitied her and turned her into a flower to reunite her with her lover ʻŌhiʻa by placing her on the tree.
What elements of the ‘ōhi‘a lehua story spoke to you the most and ultimately inspired your designs?
Matt: For me, the part of the story where ‘Ōhi‘a sacrifices his life to keep Lehua alive as Pele's lava surrounds them really spoke to me. I envisioned him lifting her up away from danger, and that was what is symbolized in the graphic print I designed. Overall, it's a broken-down form of herringbone, a motif that is significant and easy to recognize within the menswear category. However, I wanted to shake things up and broke it down even further: you have a figure standing strong for his loved one by holding her up, and at the same time the design also signifies the footprints of the birds who called to the other gods and goddesses for help during Pele's rage. I shifted the design a little to modernize it by mocking a seismograph, which then brings in the volcanic aspects of Pele as well.
Brandy: The story is representative of the cycle of life, of human emotions, of endings and new beginnings and of love taking on different forms. The lehua itself signifies all of this to me.
Describe your shoe for us.
Matt: For this design in particular, I wanted it to be an easygoing and effortless shoe, but still look like you put the effort into your overall look. I wanted it to fit in with any lifestyle that guys lead today, whether it be for travel, work, or simply just doing leisure errands; I wanted this to be a transitional piece that we wouldn't have to think about with each outfit. Knowing that we can slip something on with confidence and be able to strongly face every day - that was my idea. I wanted it to be sleek, smart, and sharp, yet super comfortable and ready to handle whatever situation comes our way.
Brandy: Playful and pretty! These shoes are the sandals I’ve always wanted OluKai to make (laughs). Their shoes are always so comfortable, but these are more than just slippers; they're both my favorite shoe options - a wedge and a mule. The wedges are a perfect combo of height and function; a style you can wear all day and into the night. The design embroidered on the straps features lehua blossoms twisted together in the Hilo style, and the mule features the liko lehua design embroidered as well, which are the new shoots of the ʻōhiʻa lehua tree. The shoots are softer, and sometimes its leaves are so symmetrical. The mule is my interpretation of the liko lehua, as the knots in the middle of the straps resemble the youngest leaves that haven’t opened yet while the soft leather texture mimics the feeling of the young ʻōhiʻa leaves.
What feelings or ideas did you hope to capture and convey through this collection?
Matt: Ultimately, adventure. The legend inspired me to not take anything for granted, especially something as complicated as love. This idea also expands through intimate and cordial relationships, friendships, and even love you have when it comes to your course of work. Everything should be done with love and intent, and the results will always be amazing. I feel that love will always take you on an adventure, and I'm hoping that this too will be felt by the person wearing the shoes, and that they will fall in love with the shoes in the same way, too!
Brandy: I hope those who wear these shoes feel the wind in the lei lehua, and they see the ripple effect of the Kanilehua on the liko leaves. I hope they look down and remember to be conscious about each step - that more people take care of our ʻāina by learning more about our lehua. I hope they take these shoes off when they walk into a home, not just a house.
What was your favorite part in the collaboration process for this particular collection?
Matt: Being that this was my first time ever having to design a shoe, I was both nervous and excited at the same time, and was really looking forward to this collaboration. Of course, with the help of the OluKai design team, it made for a smooth and very expansive learning experience in a brief amount of time, and it was worth it! I loved the process of breaking down the design of the shoe detail by detail, and I feel like this is something I'll take with me as I continue to design in the future with my ready-to-wear clothing line. This process really helped pulled elements together and weed out the things that didn't ultimately work, and that's where I feel it's most important because that editing process will either make or break the design.
Brandy: While I was working on different interpretations of the lehua flower, my daughter Lama was also drawing her lehua sketches next to me. She had quickly sketched out tiny lehua blossoms and explained to me that it represented the rain. I loved seeing her version of this flower and I asked her if I could use her drawings in my design. This is our first collaboration! Her design is featured on the footbed of Matt’s shoe, but also will be coming out later on the straps of the wedge sandal.
How do your everyday experiences help inform your designs?
Matt: With my designs, I want everything to be well thought-out and easy for us to wear on a daily basis. As a designer, I tend to overthink things as I wouldn't want another aspect of our lives to be even more complicated, especially something as easy as deciding what to wear. From our shirts and pants to even what we put on our shoes, I want my pieces to convey ease and confidence yet give off an effortless feel - as if we didn't even lift a finger to get ready. As you can tell, I live life on the go and I don't want to waste any time on something that shouldn't be so cumbersome.
Brandy: My experiences always inspire me to remember these moments that we have forever. So when I'm designing, I’ll try to create something that brings back the feeling of that particular moment. Sometimes my experiences also inspire me to change, to make my life easier. Some days are harder, and sometimes my designs are simply my solutions to overcoming them.
How do you hope to inspire others through your work?
Matt: I hope to inspire those of the impossible. I've grown to know who I am through design with the people I've met and am able to tell my story to. And because of these people who have mentored me to be who I am today and who I am becoming every day, I'm hoping to inspire those who think they'll never be able to do something or be someone that they can actually achieve what they want. Though it doesn't have to be a large significant goal, I'd at least want to hear that people are willing to try new things, because that's what I did, and without even trying we'd never know what's out there for us to have and share with the rest of the world. That's what it's all about to me.
Brandy: I hope my work inspires Hawaiians to keep sharing our experiences with the world, to keep speaking our language and to stay connected to the ʻāina.
How do your roots influence your design work and the way you tell a story?
Matt: Growing up in Hawai‘i and as a Hawaiian myself, I'd say that that, in and of itself, has had the biggest influence on how I design and tell stories. Design to me is just that - as a fashion designer, I try to tell a story through my clothes and not just because I want my clothes to be seen. I want the story to be conveyed clearly, and be compelling. At the end of the day, we've all grown tired of people pushing product down our throats, and I can understand that, but I'd hope people will understand the story of what we do, and having pieces from this experience will help them remember that and hopefully encourage them to tell stories of their own.
Brandy: Ka ua Kanilehua raised me; both the rain of Hilo town and the hula hālau named after it have shaped my storytelling. As a hula dancer, I use my body to tell stories, my hands and feet to express thoughts and feelings, and I can hear beats and melodies that tell stories themselves; I can understand the environment around me. As a native speaker, I can tell one story with multiple meanings, and as a Hilo girl, I know I have a community that I belong to and a responsibility to take care of this ʻāina and its narrative.