HILO, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) -
There's no doubt the hula competition is the highlight of the Merrie Monarch Festival, but it's not the only draw at the annual event. Thousands of people pour into Hilo to attend the Invitational Arts Fair -- one of the best showcases for local arts and crafts in Hawai'i each year.
The four-day craft fair has grown so much it had to expand from the Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium. If you've ever been, then you've definitely seen the line of customers wrapped around the Butler Building patiently waiting for a chance to get their hands on one vendor in particular - Wahine Toa Designs.
"It is a contact sport," described Kate Nawahine with a laugh. "Last year, I had somebody climbing over one rack. I had to scold some of the ladies and remind them to just shop with aloha and slow down and enjoy the experience. We have a truck full! I always tell people, you know, be prepared 'cause it can get kinda pushy when we're in there."
After six years at Merrie Monarch, Nita Pilago and her team have preparing for the festival craft fair down to a science.
"We rented a bigger truck and we packed for day four, then day three, then day two and day one. So everyday we were refreshing the stock. The tricky part is to stick to the plan and not unpack day two on day one," described Nawahine.
The Wahine Toa booth is one of the busiest every year. They sell out of stock nearly every day. The designs are in such high demand, they're the only vendors with their own entrance and line.
"I don't know what to say about that. It's just overwhelming. All the time that I see people waiting, I just feel a sense of gratitude that they're waiting to purchase my clothing," said Nita Pilago, who founded the company.
Those who can fly in ahead of time to shop Pilago's limited inventory at her home in Kona in hopes to avoid the crowds at Merrie Monarch and snag the styles they want before they're gone.
"Long, long lines. It's just like Black Friday or worse," explained Kala Tim Sing, a longtime customer who travels with his family from O'ahu a week ahead of time. "Everything looks 'ono. Everything is about being pono, so that's what we like to use. All this nice attire."
What began with her mother teaching her how to sew in the 6th grade has blossomed into an even greater family affair -- from grandsons to daughters-in-law, every one in the 'ohana plays an important role in Pilago's business.
"We are all artists -- my husband, my two boys -- we all draw. So all of the art is all original art. That was my vision to put our art on clothing and each of our art there's a mana'o -- there's a story behind it -- and I think that's part of the spirit and the essence that we try to put into the clothing," described Pilago.
Even with all the success she's experienced seven years after launching Wahine Toa, Pilago says it still thrills her to see people wearing her designs.
"Oh, I melt. I say thank you for wearing my clothes. I'm still kind of giddy," said Pilago.
The Merrie Monarch craft fair opens Wednesday at 9 a.m. and runs through Saturday.
The free event features local artists, crafters, and entertainment for the entire family.