By Léo Azambuja

Kaua‘i Fashion Weekend producers and co-founders Marynel Valenzuela and Sha Ali Ahmad, center, are seen here at the closing of last year’s event.

Eight years ago, a visiting fashion designer suggested a one-time, small runway fashion show on Kaua‘i. The challenge was reluctantly accepted, and on the following year the Kaua‘i Fashion Weekend was on. But right after the show, Kaua‘i’s then-mayor dared organizers to do second event the next year. And the show would go on, year after year.

That’s how the Kaua‘i Fashion Weekend — billed as the island’s signature red carpet event — was born and blossomed into an annual affair. This year will be the event’s seventh rendition, and organizers are keeping some of the surprises a secret.

“It’s not just a fashion show,” said Marynel Valenzuela, event producer and co-founder. She added that on the evening of the runway show, there are many other attractions, such as local entertainment, hula dancing, live music, locally made products, designers selling their creations, and a VIP dinner.

“It’s a date night. It’s a whole event for fashion. It’s a celebration,” she said.

In 2012, Valenzuela, then-president of the Filipino Chamber of Commerce, brought a visiting friend, fashion designer Sha Ali Ahmad, to one of their quarterly meetings. Ahmad had stopped here after a fashion show for his brand, Ahmad Couture, in Miami. That’s when he suggested a runway fashion show on Kaua‘i.

“He’s the reason we were encouraged to do a Kaua‘i Fashion Weekend,” Valenzuela said of the flamboyant fashion designer from New Delhi, India.

At first, Valenzuela was skeptical of how they would pull it off, and didn’t want to do it. Even though she loves fashion and had experience in organizing events for various nonprofit organizations, a fashion show would be a first for her. But Ahmad was persistent.

“He said, ‘Just give it try, one time,’” Valenzuela said.

Ahmad said he could bring his designs after his annual Miami fashion show, and they could find additional local designers to complete the show.

So in 2013, Valenzuela and Ahmad co-founded the first Kaua‘i Fashion Weekend, held at the Kaua‘i Beach Resort. Valenzuela remembers the models getting ready in a small dressing room improvised in the back of the stage. Because the hotel was running a weekly play at the ballroom at that time, the models had to share the dressing room with several covered props, making it even more challenging.

“It was a small event, we were just going to do it one time,” Valenzuela said. Yet, the show was a success. When it was all said and done, Valenzuela and Ahmad were still picking up their pieces after many sleepless nights, when then-Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. — who had just modeled a custom-made suit on the catwalk — hit them with a dare.

“He was joking but he said, ‘I dare you, why don’t you just do it every year? Do it again next year,’” Valenzuela said. “I looked at Sha and said, ‘You want to come back and do this again next year?’ He said, ‘We’ll see.’ Because at that point we hadn’t slept yet, it was that night.”

As it turns out, Ahmad and Valenzuela took Carvalho’s dare seriously. In the following year, the Kaua‘i Fashion Weekend moved to a larger venue at the Kaua‘i Marriott Resort at Kalapaki Beach, and it has been held there every year since then.

That first event at Kaua‘i Beach Resort attracted a little over 200 people, according to Valenzuela. Last year at the Kaua‘i Marriott Resort, there were 400 seats filled, plus more than a hundred people standing to watch the show.

Over the years, the Kaua‘i Fashion Weekend has given opportunities for many local designers and local models to work alongside celebrated designers and professional models, and also to work with professional photographers, including renowned fashion photographer Natasha Kertes, who has been involved with the event since its first year.

This year, the model lineup includes Kaua‘i-based and Honolulu models, and at least one professional model from Miami.

“It opens up a lot of opportunities for everyone,” Valenzuela said of the network potential at the Kaua‘i Fashion Weekend, adding the event is advantageous to both local and visiting participants, especially with social media acting as a powerful channel for information these days.

Besides Ahmad, whose brand highlights the event each year, other famous foreign fashion designers have graced the catwalk with their designs in the past, including Edgar Madamba from Philippines and Ehmad Kaky of Lebanon. One of the most high-profile celebrities to attend the Kaua‘i Fashion Weekend was Meghan King Edmonds, a former star of the TV show Real Housewives of Orange County.

Valenzuela said over the years, participants and organizers have forged new friendships and built wonderful memories.

“That’s what makes it special,” she said.

On the days leading to the big night at the Marriott Resort, event organizers hold several smaller events throughout the island, including a fashion boot camp for aspiring local models, smaller fashion shows and a meet-and-greet with participants and celebrities.

This year, the lineup includes Louda Larrain’s designs; Ainofea, of designer Vance Pascua; Definitely Baba, of designer Barbara Green; Silk & Cotton, of designer Christiane Love; Leiko, of designer Julie Lopez; KaiKini Bikinis, of designer Taryn Rodighiero; Dezignz by Deziray, and Ahmad Couture, of Ahmad.

As far as surprises, Valenzuela is keeping a tight lip on some local celebrities coming from Honolulu. But she did say Miami actress and singer-songwriter Elizabeth Elias, known for her acting role at Nicklodeon, is one of the event’s guest stars.

The community-modeling portion of the event will return, with local men donning custom-made suits — which they agree to purchase after the show — and local women sporting a collection from Macy’s clothing.

“Putting this show together is a combination of great effort of great people coming together, wanting to inspire one another,” Valenzuela said. “It’s an event we all are proud of putting together for this island.”

Emcee Dickie Chang with Gov. David Ige and wife Dawn Ige during last year’s event.

The 7th Annual Kaua‘i Fashion Weekend will be held at the grand ballroom of the Kaua‘i Marriott Resort at Kalapaki Beach June 22. Registration starts at 5:30 p.m., with the doors opening at 6 p.m., dinner served at 6:30 p.m. (VIP tickets only), and the fashion show starting at 7:30 p.m. Some vendor booths may open at 11 a.m.

Tickets for only the show are $40 in advance and $50 at the door. VIP tickets, which include dinner, are limited and will only be sold in advance for $100. Visit www.eventbrite.com and type Kauai Fashion Weekend for advance tickets, or purchase them at Inkspot Printing in Lihu‘e, WB’s Restaurant & Grill in Lihu‘e, Ainofea at Kukui Grove Center, State Farm in Kapa‘a, Leiko in Anahola, Silk & Cotton in Kekaha, or with any of the organizing committee members.

Visit www.kauaifashionweekend.com for more information.