By Michelle Banh
For junior Sara Tsukamoto, clothing has evolved from a form of personal expression into a full-fledged business venture in the past year. Tsukamoto, a business major and communication design minor, joined the ranks of talented Trojans when she founded Kealohalani, her own clothing line, in 2008.
Though Tsukamoto has designed in her free time since the age of 10 when she first learned to sew, it was not until her freshman year at USC that she began to actualize her vision.
When a friend received an oversized USC T-shirt at the beginning of the year, Tsukamoto took the initiative to convert it into something completely original. With some thread from the dollar store and a pair of scissors, she created a dress that her friend ended up wearing to a number of football games for the rest of the year. After numerous compliments, Tsukamoto began crafting dresses and selling them out of her apartment during her sophomore year.
“I really wanted to create things that were comfortable and easy to wear to games while being unique, not just to have the same things that everyone else can get from the bookstore, especially for girls because there is not a lot of choice for them in the bookstore,” she said.
So how is Tsukamoto able to do all this? She begins with the basics. Tsukamoto starts each design with T-shirts and other ready-made styles from the University Bookstore. She then transforms these simple fabrics into unique, one-of-a-kind pieces.
Kealohalani, named for Tsukamoto’s Hawaiian name, has expanded to now include custom dresses, tops, rompers, shorts, skirts, and accessories, all hand-crafted by Tsukamoto herself.
The laidback, beach-inspired style of Tsukamoto’s comfortable feminine pieces pays homage to her Hawaiian roots. Drawing inspiration from Billabong’s and Quiksilver’s current trends, Tsukamoto hopes to continue creating wearable styles for the everyday Trojan girl.
As a blossoming entrepreneur, she hopes to keep her business at its current moderate but healthy size.
“I really like keeping it just me,” she said. “I love interacting with clients and being able to customize things for people because they really appreciate being able to buy something relatively inexpensive that fits them really well.”
Fit is very important for this petite designer. Tsukamoto says many of her designs are so easy to customize because they are loose and made with elastic.
Kealohalani currently offers ready-to-wear designs as well as custom-made pieces. In fact, Tsukamoto welcomes creative input from her customers, as she draws inspiration from the “give and take” experience.
There is no real formula to Tsukamoto’s creative process. She plays around with different designs and waits to see what sells. Right now her hottest seller is a gray and red halter with a braided back.
To keep herself updated on trends in the fashion industry Tsukamoto subscribes to a number of fashion blogs and is constantly browsing shops online. In a way, she considers herself an observer of the fashion industry because “it’s fun to investigate fashion from that point of view.”
To date, Kealohalani has a Facebook fan base 350 strong and growing each day. Tsukamoto’s Facebook page and ads have been her greatest assets in publicizing her clothing line. Her page currently displays Kealohalani’s most recent fashions, photographed by Jennifer Nguyen, a fellow USC student.
“The biggest factor for me was Facebook because that’s where I started, when I first made a Facebook page for my business,” said Tsukamoto.
She now receives most of her orders and appointments via the social networking site.
Kealohalani was featured in the USC Fashion Industry Association’s 5th Annual Fashion Show on April 10 at USC’s Town and Gown. Tsukamoto sent eight Trojan-inspired looks down the runway in front of a crowd of 500 people. The fashion show as a whole showcased 12 up-and-coming student designers who worked with both professional and student models.
Tsukamoto first started as a member of FIA coordinating a spring fashion show her freshman year. She then returned last year and this year as the vice president of marketing and now oversees all of FIA’s publicity.
As she looks toward the future, Tsukamoto hopes to build a career in the business side of fashion. At the moment, she is planning to study abroad in Hong Kong next semester to complete her concentration in global business.
“Because Hong Kong is a fashion center in Asia, I think it will be interesting to see fashion from that perspective,” she said.