Black Friday 2010 marked the beginning of Jana Lam the brand. Prior to that day, the day I put my newly conceived, hand-printed, hand-sewn (all by me and my mom) clutches and pillows on consignment in a shop in downtown Honolulu, my career was just a vague amalgamation of a few limited possibilities. At 29, I felt a little bit like I was back at square one again. Once again I was doubting myself. Even with a freshly minted BFA (my second bachelor’s degree), I felt insecure about my potential- this time as an interior designer. There was one key difference from the first time I had graduated from college however. At the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, I had taken an elective in Applied Textiles (aka Silk Screen Printing) and loved it so much that I took three more classes, even though it was outside of my major. I continued on, taking one more class even after I had completed my degree. And then it just so happened that after I graduated this time, the economy was in the toilet and people were being laid off left and right. The likelihood that I would find a job in interior design was not good, so that became my excuse to not even try. Instead, with a certain guilelessness I set up a screen-printing studio in my parent’s garage, (and then later a one-woman sewing sweatshop in the living room/dining room of our apartment in Makiki). I worked hard learning the ropes of how to screen print solo, and I added new pieces to my Textile Design Portfolio, instead of my Interior Design portfolio. Maybe it was a little crazy to switch directions, but as I've said many times, screen printing and textiles became the love of my life. Even so, even though I was passionate and confidently armed with what I thought was a solid body of creative work, I’m not sure how I landed in the downtown offices of Lan Chung and Rona Bennett, the owners and designers of the illustrious brand, Fighting Eel. It was my first and only meeting as a true freelance textile designer, and it was an inglorious one. I didn’t sell them on a single print that day. I walked away from our meeting a little disheartened, but with a fun tidbit: Lan had gotten married at the same place I had my wedding reception, my husband’s grandmother’s house, the house we would end up moving into just a couple years later.
The spacious formerly formal living room of our home on Paiko Beach became my new studio in 2012. It housed two, then three of us (well, one just outside in the printing area), then four, five, six, even seven people, as the demand for my products from stores across the island grew. At one point we were filling orders of up to 400 pieces for Fighting Eel. Lan and Rona had been quick to pick up my line when it was still in its infancy and I was still sewing almost everything myself (except for the beach bags totes, which my mom made). The visibility my brand gained from being sold in Fighting Eel stores was an incredible launching pad. Without that exposure, the road to becoming a recognizable name in Hawai’i would have been much longer and more arduous. It also helped validate our place in the design landscape in Hawai'i. It confirmed to me that we actually belonged here.
As my home studio became more and more cramped, spilling out into other rooms much to our chagrin and dismay, I began referring to it as the JANA LAM Factory. We churned out bags left and right, daily like it was our job or something, hahaha. At some point over the years I had gotten lost in the day to day production of it all. We became strictly bag-makers, grinding out pieces for stores, with little time to consider, let alone actually do other things. But then along came a project with Jamba Juice in late 2015, and then a little babe named Aili in the spring of 2016. After she was born, for some reason, I started to want more. Inside my head I began to pivot my thinking. I wanted to go beyond what we were doing, to explore greater possibilities, expand our boundaries and live up to our potential. I had started out as a Textile Designer, and I came to the realization that that was still what I wanted to be. I love our products; I love our bags, and I wouldn’t change a thing about what we’ve made and/or what we’ve done, but for me it was never all about the bags. It was about the artwork and design.
At the end of 2017, with a mix of much relief, anxiety and excitement we moved into our new studio in Kakaako, complete with a storefront to display and sell merchandise directly to customers. Beyond just being able to carry-out in person sales, it marked a new era in other ways. We now had so much more space, and with space we were able to be more organized, create better systems and be more efficient. As I like to say, we really took it to the next level. And beyond just being more productive and having more room to move around, our new studio in town put us in the thick of things. It hadn't been appealing for potential clients to drive out to my house in Niu Valley. My strategy before moving locations had been to hit the pavement, knock on doors and look for design work, but having a baby had kept those plans at bay. Being in Kakaako just made us so much more accessible, and I think because of it, we were able to attract more interest from people thinking about partnering on design projects. Just in the past couple of years, we’ve done work for and collaborated with an impressive list of people and companies, from Matt Bruening and Sax Home Hawaii to Hawaiian Airlines, ANA, and Foodland. It’s been quite the wild ride, and I couldn’t be happier or more excited about being on this new/old path.
Fast forward to a day somewhere in the first half of 2019. Lan called me and floated the idea of making a mu’umu’u together. A few days later we met, and a plan was set into motion. Then the Coronavirus struck, and all of sudden everything was up in the air, and I feared the collaboration would never happen. But our two companies were resilient, and though this project kept getting pushed further and further back in the year, it wasn't cancelled. Once again, I found myself in the downtown offices of Fighting Eel. This time I pulled out my sketchbook and we pondered over different designs. This time I walked away knowing that the design we picked would one day soon make its way onto an entire collection of clothing. This time I was triumphant.
And now it’s November 2020 and it’s almost uncanny that the launch of the Ohana Collection is taking place this month. It has been almost two years in the making and it's the exclamation point to the culmination of ten years of work, art, passion and design, and I’ve come all the way back around to the beginning.
Jana Lam is a Honolulu, Hawaii based design company that focuses on products and accessories for an endless summer. Lam's beach front home once served as the production house of her handmade in Hawaii line of one-of-a-kind, hand-printed and sewn apparel and home accessories. In Fall 2017, printing and production moved out of the home studio, and the Jana Lam Studio + Shop was opened in Kaka'ako.