Punahou School - Class of 1999
Designer & Owner: JANA LAM
“Sometimes the littlest things turn into something really special.” - Jana Lam
Jana Lam’s story is a hopeful one for thousands of English majors entering the workforce - that their creativity can, one day, find its loving home. A Punahou graduate, Jana was working temp jobs in New York City after graduating from Davidson - a highly, academically selective college in North Carolina. She was in the same kind of limbo that’s familiar to many twenty-somethings holding liberal arts degrees: they’re vastly knowledgeable, creative thinkers, exceptional learners, great communicators, extremely hard workers, yet they don’t fit into a narrowly conceived box of employment opportunity. Nearly every job interview is a struggle to convey their worth to employers who are looking for trade skills above the latent potential of the whole person. Unlike their peers who are being hired by tech firms, financial companies, and the like, they’re searching for their niche - a place where their heart and mind’s desire to be a part of a creative industry can ultimately reward their pocket books as well.
Jana speaks candidly about that time in her life when she wondered how she was ever going to find a fulfilling career outside of the odd jobs she was working to pay the bills. There was a pivotal experience, she explains, that involved a boss, a red Porsche, and a thousand dollars in bail money. It’s true! It was that incident, and the advice of her husband, that made her realize that she had to make a directional change from the path she was on. That change came in the form of a move west, and enrolling in the interior design program at The Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
Since she was a young girl, Jana had always had a love for decorating with patterns and fabrics. She recalls enjoying art and doodling, yet had never considered it as a career possibility outside of the fun she had doing it. She felt encouraged by family members who remarked that her choice to study interior design was a “no brainer.” Though initially, she worried about returning to school. There were the financial sacrifices to make and there was the unknown question of whether or not success would come. Yet, she enrolled, and midway through the program, it was a textiles class that would prove to inspire and influence Jana’s creative work today.
After graduating from the Academy of Art University, she returned to Hawaii and with the help of her husband, they built a screen-printing table in their home and began adding to her textile portfolio. One day in 2010, Jana opened her portfolio to a local business owner. Upon seeing her designs, the store owner said, “Make something I can sell.” That was the moment everything changed for Jana and subsequently, the orders for JANA LAM textiles began mounting. Today, her home continues to be the center of design and production. Located on the ocean in Niu Valley, all of Jana’s designs are hand-printed and hand-sewn, setting JANA LAM apart from the mass produced alternative in the fashion accessories industry. It’s a level of high quality that's rare today, and what adds to it is the story behind Jana’s creative development - a girl who didn’t ignore her creative desires, but pursued them through uncertainty and worry, to come to a spot by the ocean where she can truly unleash the artist within.
Read our Q&A with Jana Lam below.
What were you like as a teenager?
Nerdy. I had a hard time in middle school. I was slower to mature. I didn’t shave my legs, I had a bowl cut, and I would wear really bright clothes. I didn’t fit in. I didn’t start to realize it until too late, and I got really bullied in seventh grade. Then in eighth grade, I just tried to stay away. I didn’t want to be noticed.
Going into high school, I tried to not stand out. I wanted to be like everyone else. I played softball, track, and cross country. I was really responsible and disciplined. I didn’t want to make any waves. When I was younger, I was more bossy and creative, but that kind of faded away. I didn’t want attention. Sports became my outlet and school work was my thing.
If there hasn’t been a book written on the plight of the English major after college, then it needs to be. Tell me, did you major in English with an intended career path?
It was what I thought I was the strongest in. I had been preparing so hard in high school for college, that I didn’t really think about it. So when I graduated, I was like “oh crap, what do I do now?” Everyone asked if I was going to be a teacher. I wanted to do something creative - either be a copywriter or work in advertising.
You worked a lot of temp jobs out of college - one with a tissue box company. Tell us more about those experiences.
I can hardly remember most of the jobs because I was going place to place, week by week. The tissue box company stands out because I was there for ten months. I should have been out of there in two weeks. I got into a slump where I was like “I don’t know what I can do. I don’t know what I’m worth.” I felt like I was smart and I could do things, yet I was there.
My boss’s office was a disaster zone. Papers piled everywhere. He wouldn’t let me touch anything, he wouldn’t let me answer the phone. He wouldn’t let me touch the internet, because he thought I would bring a bug into the system. It was terrible. I remember there was a ruler with all the Presidents and I memorized all of them, because I couldn’t do anything.
Everything came to a head when he was out of the office for a dentist appointment and he called me and said, “I need you to come out right now, I have something for you to do.” He was in his red Porsche. I get in and he has his brother’s name written on a note, and he says, “This is my brother. I need you to bail him out of jail.” I mean, he wouldn’t let me touch the internet, but he wanted me to bail his brother out of jail.
After that, I was done the next week. I was dating my husband at the time, and he was like “what are you doing? You can’t be taken advantage of like that.”
When you decided to go to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, did you have any worries about taking that step?
I had tons of reservations. Going back to school and paying for it myself. What if it doesn’t work out? How do I know if I’m going to be successful? About midway through, I took an elective called Textiles. I didn’t even know what it was, but we had to buy all these supplies. After the first or second class, I loved it. It was the perfect creative outlet for me. I went in for interior design and came out wanting to make fabric.
How did your business start?
The way my business started was pretty crazy. I got really lucky. I graduated in May, and we moved back to Hawaii in June. By November, I had my first pieces in store. It wasn’t what I thought I was going to do, but everyone was getting laid off in interior design, so we built a table. I started printing and made a portfolio, and I took it around with me. I stopped in a store, and the owner said, “Well, if you make something with your textiles, I’ll sell it in my store.” For the first two years, I wasn’t really thinking of it as a full-time job, but I kept getting orders.
What was it like bringing your portfolio around to stores? Did you worry about rejection?
That’s what I most afraid of. In job interviews in New York, I felt like I couldn’t communicate to people what I had to offer. You feel like you’re repeating yourself a million times. After I graduated from Academy of Art, I felt like I was back in the same boat. I wanted to be a textile designer, but how does one do that? I had my portfolio in my bag, but I didn’t actually show a lot of people. I randomly showed this one shop owner as we were talking about how I want to design. I didn’t shop it around at all - that was the one time I brought it out.
But I’m more comfortable talking about my work than I was in those early interviews, because I’m confident in what I’m doing. Yet, even now, one of my least favorite things to do is to put myself out there like “Oh, you should buy my bags!” When we’re trying to get into new stores, I always try to go about it in different ways.
Looking back, do you think you could have tapped into this field earlier if you had more knowledge about it at a younger age?
I think art in general needs to be pushed more. It was something I enjoyed, but I didn’t have confidence in myself at all. It never occurred to me that it could be something to pursue. I would doodle, but I didn’t draw pictures or paint or do anything that I thought would be called an “artist.” I think if it was more of a feasible option in addition to math and sciences -- but maybe parents are nervous for their kids to become an artist or be in a creative field, because it’s tough. There’s a lot of rejection. I wish somehow it had been pushed earlier, but then it’s such a specific thing what I do, and it needed to be that thing. Textiles is how I can express myself, and I’m confident in what I do. Sometimes the littlest things turn into something really special.
What goals do you have for JANA LAM?
Right now, I’m in a bit of a transition period. The next step is to use my fabrics in other mediums - the way I think it should be used. I’d like to get into interiors, maybe by starting with clothing and expanding. My goal is to see it in many more places and to keep building and growing.
How do you see the textile design industry evolving in Hawaii?
It’s a really small community right now. If you don’t have the resources to print your own fabric, it’s hard. That’s what I’m finding. Right now, we’re making and printing everything by hand. My costs are pretty outrageous. It’s hard for people to understand that, because everything in the world right now is fast and mass produced. It’s hard for people to understand how it’s being made. As far as Hawaii, there’s huge room for growth. I’ve been fortunate, because not a lot of people do what I do. Sig Zane is the only one I can think of who has a hold on their own unique textiles.
How do you stay motivated in design?
My kids. Being in Hawaii. Everything in nature. Everything around me. I tell people that I see things when I’m sleeping or when I close my eyes, and I need to draw them. There’s so much inspiration to be had - seeing what people are doing colorwise. I try not to worry too much about trends. Sometimes you have to pay attention to it - I finally did a pineapple print after a long time and it reinvigorated my business at one point. It was worth it to do that.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to pursue the art or design field as a career?
Try not to get overwhelmed. Keep working at it. Do what you started and do it great. Then, focus on the next thing, because if you don’t do that one thing well, you can’t move on. Build a solid foundation. It can be hard to be original with so much out there, but you have to focus on what you love. Some people will love it, and some won’t. You know you’re headed in the right direction when it feels authentic.