Iconic Woman: Nalani Sato

Iconic Woman: Nalani Sato

We’ve asked Ara to introduce us to our next Iconic Woman- a path we’re excited to travel to dive deeper into the irō community. She nominates her friend, Nalani Sato and we are immediately intrigued- there’s a quiet charm and coy honesty to her emails. A few weeks later, while anticipating Nalani’s arrival at the store, we’re stopped mid-conversation by the sight of this fascinating woman- a striking style with such a facile coolness that has us both hoping it’s her. And it is. While she stunned us initially with her elegance, two hours deep, we realize that it’s Nalani’s ability to preserve her spirit throughout life’s changes that really captivates her sense of authentic living. In the interview below, Nalani shares with us her journey into modeling, business, art, motherhood and the divinity of the female experience. Welcome Nalani.

Can you please give us a little intro to yourself?

I am Nalani Sato, Co-Founder of Waihona Surfaces Library a distribution company of wallcovering and decorative finishes based upon the building blocks my father constructed in Hawaii’s wallcovering industry since the 1960’s. I am also a painter and assistant to socio-political / human rights art activist painter, Masami Teraoka in my spare time.

We weren’t surprised to hear how you were scouted to be a model- you’re stunning. Can you tell us what that experience was like? What was it like to experience different fashion destinations through a local lens?

I began modeling in the early 90’s, the time of the “Supermodel”, which included such pre-requisites as big hair, big lips and voluptuous figure. Franca Sozzani, editor of Italian Vogue, came to Oahu to shoot a casual surf culture fashion editorial. She had my hair cut into a short fringe and dressed me in boyish clothing. A couple months later, I was photographed by Laurent Elie Badessi for Mexican Vogue on the roof of Naru Tower. Word spread fast and I was soon whisked away to Milano by a scout at the age of 15.

It was really quite amazing for me to experience such, as I was relentlessly teased throughout my life until that point. I reveled in the freedom to explore the limits of portraying garments. I could get away with just about anything and was paid to rebel against the narrow confines of what “beauty” was considered to be at the time.

Can you tell us about your journey to the present- what have you experienced that has really altered your life perspective thus far?

I was born on O’ahu and lived a quiet childhood in a wood and glass cliff-side Wimberly collaborative pole house that flanked the Nu’uanu Forest Reserve. My extracurricular activities included painting, trampolining and horseback riding lessons; Social agenda: snuck out of my best friend’s house late at night to bike ride through the back streets of the Dowsett area, mountaintop parties under inky black skies, flowered the walls of punk shows, hung out with a pack of skateboarders in Kahuku Village and smoked fatties with a tight knit group of surfers.

Travel, on the other hand, was different: dinner parties with eccentric old money, backstage passes, VIP tables, no waiting in lines, private jets, prospects at each corner, near-death experiences, everything was free. A bit much for an unchaperoned teenager to afford.

My return home in the late 1990’s is what changed everything. After all, I was meek, feral and almost catatonic. Perplexed at the levels of borderline hedonism I had witnessed during my travels. I very carefully sought out innocence, purity and discipline of mind, body and spirit...and found aloha in the people I surrounded myself with. Their poetic nudges to empower me healed me.

Can you tell us about your work as an artist? What mediums do you prefer to work in?

I have painted since I was a young child. After decades of experimenting, oil is now my medium of preference. I only became serious about painting toward the end of my travels when I decided to move from Italy to NY with my boyfriend at the time to attend art school. He came from a wealthy family; yet, fought to expose the social injustices which were happening in the world by way of photojournalism. He has photographed such things as skull fragments on the walls of residential war zones in the middle east, the issue of homelessness in Detroit and has even stayed with the Neo-Zapatistas in Chiapas to document their lifestyle and people (masks on, of course). He along with a few other brave souls empowered me by way of their influence. We went our separate ways after school and I returned home to paint. My first real life subject was Haunani Trask (powerful lawyer, educator and Hawaiian sovereignty activist).

The first Honolulu art show I attended upon my return was the most poignant to me. Lynda Hess’ in 1999. That night, I also briefly met and became aware of the paintings of Masami Teraoka. I was immediately a fan of both. It was not until 2017 that I was formally introduced to Masami by David Bhelke at the first part of a 2-part series showing Masami’s early prints at Kapiolani Community College’s Koa Art Gallery. A couple weeks later, I began assisting Masami in my spare time and am continuously flabbergasted by his innocent and silly nature; Especially while tackling such subject matter as politics and human right issues.
I am currently working on a new collection of my own as well that revolves around family-owned business in Hawaii, demystification of the witch, and glorification the peaceful guerrilla and the mix plate lunch.


Tell us about your journey in motherhood so far.

When I learned I was pregnant, I automatically thought I would have an epidural at the hospital and poof, a baby would come out. But as fate would have it, I became surrounded by a small group of natural birthing Mamas. I read up on attachment parenting, and studied Janet Lansbury’s RIE style of parenting as well as the words of Carol Dweck and changed course. I hired a doula and was assisted by midwives and my husband through a 25 hour labor; and when my son arrived, not only did he arrive, but a woman. I felt like a girl transformed into a multi-armed deity.   

Motherhood is by far the most important role I have played. It has humbled me showing that I am not the teacher, but the student; Also that I am by far more powerful than I had ever imagined myself to be. My son guides me daily and reminds me of what is truly important: remaining present even in the face of the instinct to seek immediate gratification

Let’s talk about your style influences and what really speaks to you in terms of fashion. You must have some killer pieces from working as a model over the years. How has your style evolved and what dictates your personal style now?

Up until adolescence, I was deeply influenced by my older sister, Jem and the Holograms, Grace Jones, and Mr. T. Around 12 years of age, Perry Farrell and Kim Gordon influenced a grungy-mod look until I got into Curtis Mayfield and Barry White at 16. Then I dressed like a 1960’s pimp. Working with Rei Kawakubo, Masaki Matsushima, Yoichi Nagasawa, Dior (under the direction of John Galliano) and Gucci (under Tom Ford) later inspired a more elegant and twisted attire fusing all the aforementioned looks into one.
These days I roll the same, yet with a humorous flare. I will pair extraordinary quality with pops of color and Nermal cat tees.


You recently took over your father’s product line - can you tell us how that experience has been? What’s it been like as a female, and as a daughter?

It was rough being “the boss’ daughter” from the very beginning. I was clearly unwelcomed by a couple key employees; Yet immense passion for the creative aspect of the industry, the products and the people who made them kept me going.
Through time, I found my niche was to fulfill the creative and organizational aspects of the company. It took years, but I organized all the sampling and worked his old showroom space as best I could using as little money as possible, taught myself to build a website and got to know our client base by putting sample packets together for the outside sales person.
After 13 years and successful completion of an award winning showroom in 2015, I was promoted to work in the studios with the designers themselves. That is when I knew I landed my dream job.
My father retired mid 2016 and I found a chick to cover the role of his previous admin. She was sharp as a tack, tough as bullets, spoke like a lawyer and scared me shitless. So, I asked her to go into business together.

What’s your definition of happiness and success?

Metaphorically, I see happiness and success as walking a tightrope; one end reaches into the visualizations of my future, the other into heritage and ancestry. To remain present, I honor all three: the past, present and the future and make choices based upon benevolent instincts, no matter how radical they seem.

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