Kady McMaster // Fall 2014
Roberta Oaks Power (B.A. ’02) didn’t plan on being a fashion designer. But traveling the world as a UMKC student inspired in her a passion for travel. Her journey led her to Hawaii, where she runs Roberta Oaks Hawaii, a line of retro-cool clothing.
“Honestly, I think my experience at UMKC and in the art department, the relationships I built with my professors, my study abroad experience — all of those things helped put me on my way,” says Power, who founded the Honolulu clothing line nine years ago.
Power traveled to Australia and Italy during college, eventually participating in a UMKC study abroad program at Kingston University in London.
“I was taking mostly art classes in London, and the fashion program was in the same building,” she says. “I really got inspired during that time. I was taking the train to central London and roaming the boutiques and shops with my headphones on and just really started to pay attention to details, stitching and shape.”
After graduation, Power moved to New Zealand, where a friend of hers from UMKC was living. She eventually landed in Hawaii, where her sister was working as an archeologist. She was hired as a live-in caretaker for an elderly woman who was also an artist. Power rebuilt the woman’s darkroom and started shooting and printing. She bought a sewing machine.
“I started playing around with reconstructing vintage pieces, ripping things up and re-making, dying and embellishing vintage slips and just really finding my expression,” Power says. “I was fully engaged with an amazing group of artists, too. We were always feeding off of each other, sewing stuff, doing photo shoots.”
Power credits her parents, who both ran their own businesses, with giving her business savvy.
“I put together a solid line, found a local manufacturer, signed up for a mainland tradeshow, and went for it,” she says. “And it worked.”
By 2004, she had a sales rep and merchandise stocked in 150 stores nationwide, the Caribbean, Canada and Japan.
“Then (in 2009) I burned out, opened my shop and did a total flip-flop to focus local instead of nationally. I never saw myself having a retail store, but I really love it. I started doing menswear when I opened the shop as well. That’s now about half of my brand, and it’s really taken off.”
Power (who is known in Hawaii only by her first and middle names, Roberta Oaks, for which she named her company) is collaborating on a brand to be sold exclusively in a men’s shop in Honolulu.
“I always feel funny calling myself a fashion designer,” she says. “I consider myself to be more of an artist who designs fashions, although designing is just a small piece of the pie these days. It’s more about running my business as a brand and a retail location, plus I’m really involved in the local arts community.”