OluKai Shoes: How Two Indigo Producers Scaled-Up for the Latest Shoe

Just a small team of two, Toku Fujibayash and Donna Miyashiro of Hawaiian Blue are bringing their “seed to fashion” Indigo to the masses in a new collaboration with OluKai. Learn the ins and outs of their process.

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It was 15-years ago that Tokunari Fujibayash first was introduced to OluKai shoes — about the same time that he started growing indigo plants in Hawaii. Today, the Japanese-native just wrapped his first major collaboration, producing fabric for a limited collection with the shoemaker, along with his business partner, Donna Miyashiro. It was a feat for the small team of two, operating out of the communal artist studios at Lana Lane, but for the duo of Hawaiian Blue, the labor was worth it to bring their unique pale shade of indigo to the masses.

Taking inspiration from the color of the surrounding Pacific waters and the light blue from the Hawaiian sky, Fujibayash shies away from deep indigo shades. “Japanese blue, Indian blue, it’s not similar. [Our color] is like the shallow ocean, a clear blue,” he says inside his closet-sized studio at Lana Lane. “I like to keep this beautiful sky blue, ocean blue. That’s what we call ‘Hawaiian Blue’.”

After the fermentation process, when the dye is finally ready, each piece of fabric is dipped by the Hawaiian Blue team three to five times to get the right shade of blue. But even so, as the process is entirely natural, the dyes can vary with each process. “The magic of dipping fabric [is] just not knowing what color you’ll get,” says Miyashiro.

Fujibayash and Miyashiro grow a variety of the plant called Indigofera suffruticosa, also known as small-leaved indigo, which from seed to harvest can initially take 3 months. It is partially grown in a community garden and partially in the garden at Miyashiro’s home in Honolulu — it was from those few plants at her home that the dyes were made for OluKai’s softly hued shoes.

As such a small operation with just the two of them, the scale of the project initially brought some anxiety. “When we were first approached [by OluKai] my reaction was, ‘We can’t do that. It’s not possible,’” Miyashiro says. But her worries subsided with the full support of the OluKai team behind them — and with a guarantee that they would have the time they needed to produce the fabric. “They came out and saw how we work and understood it. They asked, ‘How much time do you need?’ And they actually gave us the time. It’s a really long process. Indigo can’t be forced — it’s on its own time.”

She admits her nerves, just as Fujibayash admits scaling up for a trim team of two is a challenge. “I was nervous but once we finished, you start to feel excited,” she says. “Just like when I saw indigo changing color for the first time, having shoes made [with our fabric], it’s kind of like dreaming.”

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