How A School Project Became A Thriving, 10-Woman Company

Photo: Courtesy of Wings Hawaii.
A balmy late summer wind blows through the front doors of Wings Hawaii, a clothing and lifestyle boutique in the quaint town of Pa’ia on the island of Maui. Pops of bright color from striped patterned shorts fill the 500-square-foot space behind the building’s mint green facade. Handmade silver jewelry glitters as Samantha Howard cheerily restocks a shelf of handsewn shirts.

“Come in, come in,” she beckons with a warm smile, “there are pretty things inside.”

Nobody who knows Howard would call her decision-making process linear. Before graduating from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the 34-year-old native of Venice, CA, changed her major five times before settling on art with an emphasis in sculpture. Some would view her vacillation as impractical, but Howard insists that every turn led her to discover an uncharted piece of herself. Ultimately, she evolved from an indecisive student to a nascent entrepreneur.

Wings Hawaii, which began as a school project, has morphed into a full-blown business, complete with a design studio blocks away.

Howard has been sewing she was five years old. At college, she pulled out her familiar Singer sewing machine and stitched together shirts at her dormitory desk that she thought epitomized her friends’ personalities. Along with each bespoke shirt came a swatch and an order form. For $20, anyone could get a custom shirt, and that’s how her first business venture, Ho’a Aloha, which means girlfriends in Hawaiian, was born.
Photo: Courtesy of Wings Hawaii.
Today, Howard presides over Wings Hawaii, a brick-and-mortar store with an accompanying art and design studio. “Success is going from failure to failure with enthusiasm,” says Melody Torres, 35, the co-owner of Wings Hawaii and Howard’s business partner. “I read that quote somewhere and thought, that’s what we’ve done. We’re self-taught, we’re still learning how to function as a company, we’re still learning how to be profitable.”

Torres and Howard first met on the University of Hawaii sailing team and became fast friends. Fresh out of college in 2003, the two women, along with Torres’s now fiancée, Kesava Fielden, moved into a three-bedroom house, living on top of one another and breathing their business day and night. The patio became the silk screening workshop and the kitchen counter was central command for all their wire-wrapped jewelry. They worked like this for nearly three years, before saving up the necessary funds to relocate to their design studio, a former cannery. “I had $500 and Sam had 500 ideas,” said Torres.
Photo: Courtesy of Wings Hawaii.
Although Howard registered Wings Hawaii in 2003, it wasn’t until 2007 that the business partners opened their first store, in a former waste station, with another partner, Becky Dosh. (Dosh has since left the company, but mermaid-centric designs are still a prominent Wings Hawaii design motif.) Wings Hawaii now sews some of its garments on Oahu, and within the last year has begun to integrate outside brands, like Toms sunglasses, into their store.

Howard and Torres now employ 10 young women, between the retail shop and the studio. “We’re a powerhouse of women,” says Torres. And that’s just the beginning. Howard and Torres are now seeking outside investors, with hopes of expanding. On their to-do list: making hand-printed fabrics on a larger scale, continuing to create the jewelry and clothing in Hawaii, and growing their wholesale business.

Most of all, they have custom built an environment in which they, and the people who work with them, can thrive. “Sam and Melody provide this space for me, and the girls who work with us, to just get up and do it. It’s not a far off dream, it’s action. If I want to paint waves on some reclaimed wood or make a dress, the studio is right there,” says Taylor Binda, one of Wings Hawaii’s shop and studio employees. “They encourage me.” Or, as Torres put it, “It’s like my family always told me: Be careful what you ask for, you just may get it.”

Read more about what makes Maui, Hawaii so special in R29's The Places Every Woman Should Visit In 2016.

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