Sig Zane: What’s So Special About the Person and the Brand?

I first heard of Sig Zane back in 1983. I was attending college in Honolulu and was back in Hilo for a visit. My mom was going to model in a show presented by the Hilo Chapter of the American Business Women’s Association. Having a part-time job in retail fashion at the time, I inquired about the articles that she would be wearing. She ran through the list, and there was one item that she made special mention of: “This is a Sig Zane. He’s going to be huge.” 

Is That a Sig Zane?

A couple of years later at a craft fair in Honolulu, I happened across a vendor selling attractive Aloha Shirts. I purchased one and inquired whom I should make the check out to. Sig Zane Designs was the response. Hmm, that sounds familiar, I thought, but it didn’t really click. It wasn’t until I wore the shirt and my mom remarked, “Hey, that’s a Sig” that I recalled why the name sounded familiar. On a side note, the person who sold me the shirt at the craft fair also looked very familiar, but I could not place her at the time. We’ll get back to that.

Style + Substance

After moving back to Hilo in 2001, I became a regular customer at the Sig Zane Designs store on Kamehameha Avenue, and through that Sig and I became friends. I had been employed at Big Island Candies for a few years when I approached him in 2005 and asked if it would be possible for us to collaborate on a project: his artwork on a box that would hold our cookies and chocolates. I was over the moon when he agreed. Since then, Sig Zane Designs has graced us with a box design every year, which then increased to two designs per year and for our 40th Anniversary even included a commemorative tin.


Born and raised on the island of O`ahu, Sigmund Zane moved to Hilo in the early ‘70s to attend college and along the way specialized in surfing and fishing as well. It was at a party at Puhi Bay in Keaukaha that he first met Nālani Kanaka`ole, who would eventually become his girlfriend and later his wife. It was also at this party that he met his future mother-in-law, the legendary Kumu Hula Edith Kanaka`ole, who had a lot to do with his love and appreciation for all things Hawaiian. Sig recalls meeting this jovial Hawaiian woman who was serving poi the traditional way—by hand—in the lū`au line. Sig credits the Kanaka`ole `Ohana and Hālau O Kekuhi for his immersion in the Hawaiian culture and for his high regard of what the Hawaiian people have accomplished. 

In the Beginning

It was through his courting of Nālani and his desire to provide her with gifts that no one else could offer that Sig learned and honed his skills in the art of silk screening. His first projects were of plant forms like the liko lehua that were important to the hula that he would place onto pareu. The birth of his Aloha Shirts arose from his need for one to attend a party. Being a surfer, the only attire that he had in his closet at the time was surf wear. When attempting to look for an Aloha Shirt to purchase, he was unsuccessful in finding any that featured native Hawaiian plants. At that point, he and Nālani agreed that they must create, and the rest is history. (Nālani was the person from whom I purchased my first Sig at the craft fair at Thomas Square in Honolulu, referenced in paragraph 2.)


Which Big Island Candies box design has been my favorite? It would have to be between Lei `Ahinahina in 2010, Holo Mai Pele in 2013, `Ie`ie in 2014, Uluwehi O Ke Kai in 2016… Hmm, I guess they’re all my favorites, too hard for me to pick just one. Sig is on record saying that his favorite was Lei Puakenikeni in 2006. His son Kuha`o laid out the artwork that showcased the life cycle of the Puakenikeni, how it first appears in white, then yellow, and then orange as the flower ages. (Side note: Sig makes the most beautiful Lei Puakenikeni bar none.) A favorite experience of mine in regard to the box design is when Sig provided art to his design team and challenged each member to lay it out and to do a presentation to Big Island Candies for the final selection, sort of like a reality-show competition. The design that was chosen that year, Keahi`alaka in 2007, instantly conjured up memories of Aunty Edith and her Hālau O Kekuhi. That design will be making a bit of a revival this year on one of our boxes.

Telling the Story, Sharing the Knowledge

What do I like most about Sig, the business? Every design tells a story. The staff at Sig Zane Designs is skilled at recounting the meaning behind the design, reciting what the image symbolizes and what occasion it is most suited for. For instance, they can tell you the design best suited for a job interview, which design is best suited for a wedding, which design symbolizes growth, etc. Try getting that from an atelier in Milan.

A Scorpion Dragon

What do I like most about Sig, the person? He is very decisive; he makes a decision and goes for it. One of the most versatile and talented creatives that I know, he is equally at home up on the mountain as he is in the ocean as he is on the terrain of the volcano. A child of Hawai`i and a cultural practitioner, he makes a cognizant choice every day to celebrate and draw inspiration from the beauty that we are blessed to be surrounded by. “What better teacher is there than nature?” He is as gifted a writer and orator as he is an artist and designer. He is incredibly generous in so many ways and credits his mother in law for instilling in him the most generous of concepts of sharing his knowledge. “Share what you know so that our children will have their culture” is but one of the many words of wisdom that she instilled. Sig also credits his mother, whose style he compares to Jackie Kennedy Onassis, and his father for the opportunity to travel and explore the world. 

A Stroll Down Fifth Avenue or Kīlauea Avenue

Which Sig Zane item from my collection do I treasure most? With so many to choose from, if I had to select one, it would have to be my Sig Zane trench coat. Whether walking down Fifth Avenue in New York City in the middle of a dreadful winter or perusing Hilo on a rainy day, I can open the coat up to a brilliant ray of inner Hawaiian sunshine. But don’t look for it on his store racks! This piece was custom done for one of his shows.  

Merriest at the Merrie Monarch Festival

Sig’s designs have been seen and appreciated the world over. Not exclusively for Aloha Shirts and Mu`umu`u either, his art has appeared on the bodies of airplanes, on company vehicles, business interiors, employee uniforms, and, most recently, on a college football jersey. Of his collaboration with Big Island Candies, Sig has said that he is most pleased when he sees the box placed on the judges’ tables at the Merrie Monarch Festival. These boxes have been to Washington Place, the White House, and sent to dignitaries and celebrities the world over, but there is something about it appearing at the Merrie Monarch Festival that brings a sense of gratification and delight, and I certainly agree.   

Hawai`i has many great designers and attractive clothing brands, and I appreciate all of them. Admittedly, I may be a bit biased, but there’s just something really special about Sig, the person and the brand. 

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