The Spotlight Shines South

Ari South in her Kalihi warehouse

Ari South in her Kalihi warehouse

When local fashion designer Ari South returned to Project Runway for its All Stars round in 2013, she made national headlines. She wasn’t just returning for a second go at the design competition, she was returning as a woman: When South first had appeared on season eight of the series, she’d done so as a man, Andy South.

“This is what should have happened the first time around — I should have come as myself and I didn’t because I wasn’t ready,” South recalls.

It is perhaps no large coincidence that her transition from Andy to Ari has paralleled her growth in business from a young, fresh-out-of-school designer to a widely recognized one who helms her own brand. Her choice to discuss her transition in the public eye reflects a certain doggedness — she’s the type of person who, when given a set of paths laid out for her, opts instead to forge a whole new one.

Since her Project Runway days, she’s been stirring up the Hawaii fashion scene with a fierce dedication to local production. She releases new pieces every couple of months and is one of the monthly vendors at Pa‘akai Marketplace at SALT at Our Kaka‘ako. Next up, you can find South’s work hitting the runway at Pa‘akai Marketplace Saturday, March 18, for a fashion show starting at 7:45 p.m.

South in her warehouse cutting fabric

South in her warehouse cutting fabric

“Everybody has to evolve; everybody has to go through their seasons,” South reflects. “Maybe not so drastically, but nobody really stays the same.”

When asked how she first got interested in fashion, South’s initial reaction is to laugh.

“How many years has it been, and I still haven’t figured out a way to make this sound more exciting,” she says.

Her path to fashion, she explains, was a slow, almost imperceptible journey that she didn’t realize she was on until she arrived.

Throughout her childhood growing up on a fish farm in Waianae, South was extremely close to her mother Nora Sisounthone — South jokes that they are going to end up like the Golden Girls — and followed her lead in various craft projects.

“When I would sew and do embroidery, she would hang around and try to do what I do,” Sisounthone recalls.

Ari South's lace up one piece bathing suit in Likolani black/white

Ari South’s lace up one piece bathing suit in Likolani black/white. JOHN GARCIA >PHOTOS

But South never really gave much thought to clothing.

“I wore the same thing every day,” South says.

She had, however, always had a reverent sense of awe when it came to the clothing that Sisounthone and her other female relatives wore when they got dressed up. Watching them get ready for special occasions like weddings or proms, South was transfixed.

“We see each other on a daily basis in home clothes, but to see the women in my life dress up for special occasions, those moments excited me,” South recalls.

It wasn’t until a career fair during her senior year of high school when she happened to stumble upon a booth for fashion school that she even realized designing clothes could be an option.

“It all kind of clicked and came together.”

A nude wrap around one piece with navy wrap pant and pleated kimono; accessories by M33ms

A nude wrap around one piece with navy wrap pant and pleated kimono; accessories by M33ms. JOHN GARCIA >PHOTOS

When Project Runway producers called around to fashion industry professionals looking for leads on Hawaii designers that might be a good fit for the show, they kept hearing the same name: Andy South.

At the time, South was just 22 and fresh out of Honolulu Community College’s fashion program. Upon graduation, South settled into a comfortable job working under a local designer. Things were going well, and by the time she’d been there about a year, there was even talk about South one day taking over.

But when Project Runway asked if she would be interested in auditioning, she figured it was worth a try.

“That was my kick in the butt — whether you call it God or the universe — but it was saying, hey, you are getting too comfortable; this is not where you are supposed to end up.’

“I was pretty secure and I was happy doing what I was doing. If I had grown with that company and eventually taken over, I would have been satisfied,” South muses. “But I don’t think that I would have been as excited as I am now.”

On Project Runway, South became known for her bold designs.

She placed third, and when she returned to Hawaii, she launched her own label, Andy South.

In trying to figure out how she was going to manufacture products for her burgeoning brand, South looked into various options. But ultimately, she chose to do it herself.

It was for a lot of reasons — quality control, simple economics — but also a desire to produce locally.

“One by one, (my former classmates) were throwing in the towel with staying here,” South recalls. “I knew that if we all left, there would be nothing left here. And I didn’t like the idea that we had to leave home to be successful, because I don’t think that is true.”

Manufacturing everything for Andy South was not the easiest path to take. It means frequent, tight deadlines and long hours. In the early days, South was working seven days a week with late nights, early mornings, and many nights crashing in her workspace.

It’s a persistent work ethic that seems to have been instilled in her at a young age.

Sisounthone recalls that she had all her children help with chores after school and on weekends — including standard tasks like house cleaning and laundry, but also taking an active role in maintaining the family farm.

“Ari knows that in order to get something, she has to work hard,” Sisounthone says.

The hard work paid off. Her first collection in the fall of 2011 was immediately placed into Neiman Marcus Ala Moana. These days, her Andy South line features men’s shirts, and her Ari South label features a range of women’s clothing from swimwear to evening wear. And in addition to creating her own clothing, South also serves as the manufacturer for other Hawaii-based companies, including Sig Zane.

But even as South was having a string of career successes, she felt like something wasn’t right, like something was missing.

“It was the fact that I wasn’t completely happy in the body and the form that I was putting forward because I knew it wasn’t right and it wasn’t who I felt I was on the inside,” South explains.

“I did it for as long as I could and found my way through a world that told you you have option A or option B, and didn’t tell you you could make your own option,” she says.

South knew that appearing on Project Runway All Stars as a woman meant catapulting herself into the public eye. But in a way, that was kind of the point.

“It was important for me to do it,” South says. “It was important for me to be a part of that (group) of trans people becoming publicly known and taking up space — not asking for it, but just taking up space that is deserved.

“I chose to be visible because I want people to realize what matters about a human being. And I want people to realize that my gender identity has nothing to do with my worth as a contributing citizen to the community, as a businesswoman, as a person.”

After appearing on All Stars, South faded from headlines for a bit. She quietly continued to build her business, but took a break from the frenetic pace of constantly designing.

“I knew that I had to have that space where I could really learn about who I was becoming, about who I was pulling out of me,” she explains.

In the past couple of years, South has returned to designing, and as she has transitioned from Andy to Ari, her designs have taken on different elements, too. Last year, she launched the separate ‘Ari South’ label for her women’s clothing and imagines that the official name of the company will eventually shift under that umbrella. (‘Andy South’ will remain for the men’s shirts line.)

“I realized that I couldn’t ignore my personal journey through my business,” South says. “It was finding a way to use my personal journey to basically guide the business, because … design inspiration has always been very personal.

“The further I got in my transition, the more there needed to be a separation; the more I needed to step back from what was so I could go forward into what was to become.”

Her designs, South explains, have come to incorporate new elements that she enjoys as a woman. Swimwear and active wear, for instance, are now a big part of her wardrobe, and have popped up a lot in her creations.

“With my deeper understanding of women’s clothing … my design work is much more thorough in its development,” South explains. “Now I know that in order for a woman to feel strong, she also has to feel comfortable in what she is wearing.”

Her fashion show on Saturday will feature her spring/ summer line, featuring swim-wear, active wear, ready-to-wear separates, men’s shirts and evening looks. She also will be unveiling new pieces that feature Hawaii-inspired prints, her modern take on aloha wear. Jewelry by Pi‘iali‘i Lawson also will be featured.

In her recent resurgence, South is feeling more secure in both her personal and professional lives.

“It was important for me to say, this is my life and this is what I am going to do and I am going to continue being successful,” South says, “but I am going to do it by my own terms.”

For more information, visit shop.andysouth.com.