Raising the bar on craft fairs: Co-organizers present four days of creative arts, culture, music

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It’s hard to imagine the Merrie Monarch Invitational Hawaiian Arts Fair was once, in Nelson Makua’s words, “very small.”


It’s hard to imagine the Merrie Monarch Invitational Hawaiian Arts Fair was once, in Nelson Makua’s words, “very small.”

Since Makua took on the job of arts fair directer 12 years ago, though, the four-day event has grown from fewer than 40 vendors set up at Aunty Sally Kaleohoano’s Luau Hale (then called Seven Seas Luau House) to more than 160 artisans and cultural demonstrators filling the Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium.

In spite of its considerable growth, the goal for Makua and co-organizers Paula de Morales and Makua’s son, Kainoa Makua, remains the same each year.

“The whole point is for the customer to form a relationship with the (vendor) and know what they’re all about,” Makua said.

That’s why everything sold at the fair has to be made in Hawaii and the producer has to be on-site.

“Personalizing the fair like that has helped create sort of a party atmosphere,” Makua continued, likening the event to a family reunion of sorts. “If you come all four days, you’re going to see the same people there.”

Attendees can browse vendor booths, stop by a demonstration or workshop and take in the musical acts and halau performances. The planned musician lineup includes Keali‘i Reichel, Natalie Ai Kamauu, Kuana Torres Kahele and Mark Yamanaka, among others.

“We’ve sort of set a new bar for what a craft fair can be,” Makua said.

Vendor Nita Pilago of Kona called Merrie Monarch the most exciting of all the fairs she attends throughout the year.

“The Merrie Monarch is just a big lei that brings everyone in,” she said.

Pilago’s booth, where she sells her colorful Wahine Toa clothing designs, has such a following that craft fair organizers created a special line just for people who want to check out the latest fashions.

“People line up at 6 a.m. just to get to her booth,” Makua said. “She’s phenomenal.”

“You want to give something unique and exciting to your customers,” Pilago said, recalling that at her first fair six years ago she was nervous about selling anything at all. “I just feel grateful for customers who keep coming back.”

For fashion designers such as Pilago, the venue can be a place to kick-start their careers.

“Simply Sisters, Hina, Kealopiko — because of the fair (they) were on the map,” Makua said. “People know who they are now.”

Fair participants come from throughout the state, including from Niihau, with a few mainland vendors also setting up shop.

This year, more than 60 newcomers applied for two available spots at the fair.

“I talk to every vendor while I’m there,” Makua said.

On the first day, the three co-organizers will talk story at each of the booths and, while they’re there, take a photo of each vendor.

And on the final day, everyone gets a mahalo card with that first-day photo on it.

Of the 160 vendors and demonstrators, about half are from Hawaii Island.

“This is our really big event,” Makua said. “Honolulu people have many events; we have one. So it kind of starts here and radiates outward.”


The Merrie Monarch Invitational Hawaiian Arts Fair takes place from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday at the Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium.

Email Ivy Ashe at iashe@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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