Celebrating Business – Island HOLI
Where Color Meets the Aloha Spirit by Shilpa Rathi
For a one-of-a-kind colorful shopping experience, stop by Island HOLI in the International Market Place of Waikiki. You will step into a different world – uniquely fusing contemporary and ancient aesthetics. Experience handmade all-natural fashion, home decor and accessories inspired by both the Aloha spirit and the world-renowned Indian color festival Holi. You’re quite likely to meet the creative entrepreneur who designs almost everything that they offer: Shilpa Rathi.
Shilpa grew up in India, where both her father her grandfather ran textile businesses. She shares, “As a child, I would play Hide & Seek in my father’s textile mill. One of my favorite hiding spots was ducking under a large pile of colorful dyed yarn. Waiting to be found, I would get lost in the richness of the various colors of hand-dyed yarn. As I grew older, these colors stayed with me.” Those vivid colors are now a major part of the inspiration behind Island HOLI.
She also recalls running outside through the sticks of brightly dyed thread drying in the sun, and hearing the sound of the weavers’ hand drills, click-clack, click-clack. She wove these memories into the fabric of who she is in this lifetime.
Still in high school, Shilpa designed interiors for her father’s and grandfather’s homes – with no formal training. Age twenty is a vulnerable time for a young woman in India, a time when the family generally decides to marry them off. Partly to escape that fate, and partly glimpsing a bigger dream she needed to follow, Shilpa convinced her father to let her leave their small town to study design in college. Indeed, she earned a design degree in Mumbai.
From there, she persuaded her family to allow her to go to the US for a Master’s degree in design, still thinking she was just escaping an arranged marriage, and not realizing she was manifesting a larger destiny. At the University of San Francisco, Shilpa was the first person in the Academy of Art and Design who wanted a Master’s in set and studio production design. So she had the school create a custom course… just for her!
Once she got to LA she was wearing natural fabrics, but working pro bono with someone else’s vision of textiles or studio production. She just couldn’t see herself developing in this context. By now, Shilpa clearly visioned what she needed to be doing.
Back in the 8th grade, Shilpa had written an essay about wanting to be a business woman. She added “wo” in the middle of “business man”. She was the only girl in her school to speak of owning her own business. This youthful vision was about to become a reality.
Shilpa knows the risk of being in business for yourself: the losses and gains are all your own, yet you get to be free and do what you believe in. She has, in fact, seen several artisan families in India lose their businesses, and mourned the loss of their artistic legacy to the world. She could see that people in the US would have huge appreciation for these hand arts if she could only connect the creators with the potential buyers.
In San Francisco, she had made friends at the University with a student named John. Now her life partner and business partner, John accompanied Shilpa to all the artisanal places in India where she had connections with artisans doing beautiful textile work by hand. Sweating in his polyester shirt in the Indian heat, John asked the artisans to design something for men in a natural fabric that he could wear comfortably. Over the course of their trip, John, too, got hooked on Shilpa’s dream of keeping these small artisans’ skills alive.
Shilpa and John returned to San Francisco, still students, and opened a small design studio there, to a warm reception. However rents were phenomenal in San Francisco, so they set off on a tour of the mainland to find a place with a decent life-style where they could make a living and raise a family, doing what they loved.
They landed in Austin, a place with lots of culture, and opened their first retail store. Once again, people raved over it, but the effort drained all the money from their small savings, and the three of them (including new baby Sienna) got terrible allergies. They were all set to reopen their store in Carmel on the coast of California when the their rental agent let the deal fell through the evening before they were supposed to move in.
“What does she think we’re supposed to do?” fumed Shilpa. “Drive to California and go where? Drive into the ocean and what, go to Hawaii?!? Wait now…. Can we do that, honey?”
Asking that question aloud activated something in her. Again, Shilpa’s life dream took charge. As John slept that night, Shilpa wrote him a note: “Dear, when you wake up in 3 hours, I will be gone. Take good care of the baby. I’ll be back in three days.” And she
took Uber to the airport and boarded a plane for Hawaii.
Island HOLI was born from that trip. Shilpa, John and Sienna moved to Honolulu, and found retail space in the newly renovated International Market Place. It was a huge and scary endeavor. The stakes were high. Plan B was looking for shelters to live in. Shilpa’s mother-in-law wouldn’t speak to her for months. And Shilpa is now so glad they have Island HOLI, she has forgiven their Carmel rental agent!
The store that they have created is breath-taking. Truly beautiful in its aesthetic quality. Filled with color-drenched, handmade clothing and household textiles, spreads for the bed and floor. On Island HOLI’s opening day in 2018, people couldn’t stop themselves from coming into the store… and it’s been the same every day since then!
Shilpa says, “We believe in what we do: providing work to artisans whose families have developed these skills and products over generations, keeping their arts alive. We just needed the right outlet for their art.”
Thanks to Island HOLI, a couple artisanal groups in India are now thriving; others are beginning to turn around. All they’ve done their whole lives has been hand sewing or weaving – how could they go from that to working in a department store or a big factory and still find fulfilment in their lives? Shilpa wonders. Their plight and also their joy in life inspires her work here.
Shilpa and John work hard. They keep the store open 12 hours a day, seven days a week, going on 15 months now, largely on their own. Shilpa figures it’s doing good in the world in three ways: giving the locals and visitors to Honolulu gorgeous, handmade products for their homes and closets; keeping traditional arts and artisans in alive in India; and providing Shilpa’s family a worthwhile livelihood.
And perhaps the dream is getting passed down to their four-year-old daughter Sienna, whose every drawing is about color and textiles, a study in contrast and lighting.
I’m personally delighted that we have such a place on island! Cliff and I recently brightened up our bedroom with a bedcover from Island HOLI made of vintage cotton saris, entirely stitched by hand. The craftsmanship is remarkable. At Shilpa’s suggestion, we topped the bed with a large patchwork scarf of silk in glad colors that sing of their colorful places of origin in India. Cliff couldn’t resist getting a large hand made bean bag that Shilpa had designed for their little girl. Sure enough, the next time our two-year-old grandson came to visit, he took a running leap and did his “cannonball” landing right into the colorful bean bag. Perfect!
International Market Place
2330 Kalakaua Ave
Honolulu, HI 96815
10am – 10pm Every Day