The clothes that have defined our islands, and four brands that are defining its future

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I can’t remember the first time I saw an aloha shirt. Growing up in Colorado, it may have been on a friend’s dad recently returned from that long-awaited vacation in Hawai‘i, or in a Hollywood spin like 50 First Dates. Not until I moved to O‘ahu did I realize that alohawear isn’t just a tacky tourist thing – it’s the real deal. My boss, a 60-year-old local Okinawan woman, wore a mu‘um‘u to the office for a meeting and looked stunning. I saw downtown swarmed by reverse-print button-ups at noontime. I bought my first aloha print tank top. I got a job at a local restaurant and was issued that island-style service uniform: a set of three interchangeable pareau-print shirts in green, blue and khaki. I began to see that what alohawear means to each of us is complicated, and what makes us want to wear it (or not) has been determined by decades of tourism, garment and service industries, self-expression and a tropical setting.

The aloha shirt was born in the 1930s at a local tailor shop and was quickly snatched up by tourists arriving by boatloads who wanted a “visual postcard” of their time in paradise. It became widely adopted locally when WWII limited garment exports and imports, and Hawai‘i folks found it truly did express and fit our islands’ vibes better than mainland fashions. Inevitably, as with most fashion crazes, the aloha shirt aged with the industry and population that first adopted the trend.

But today’s alohawear designers – both locally born and mainland transplants, as it has been since day one – still have plenty to say about the islands’ signature style. Here, we delve into the roots and aspirations of four trending alohawear names: Reyn Spooner, Jeffrey Yoshida, Roberta Oaks and Sig Zane Designs. Because we all agree about one thing: Alohawear won’t be saying goodbye anytime soon.

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REYN SPOONER

Turning alohawear inside-out since the 1960s

“What makes something alohawear? That’s a tough one … I would say it’s by the islands, for the islands.”

It was the 1950s. WWII had ended and Boeing 757s were flying over Catalina Island from LAX with increasing frequency, headed to a tropical destination in the middle of the Pacific. For Reyn McCullough, whose home placed him right below those jet streams, Ala Moana became a persistent daydream, an industry man’s paradise rising from swampland amid the deep blue sea. He wanted in. So he left behind his successful menswear shop, Reyn’s, and headed to Honolulu.

It wasn’t until the next decade that McCullough decided to introduce aloha shirts to his high-end menswear shop at Ala Moana, which gained the “Spooner” name after he bought out Spooner’s custom swimwear manufacturing business, which originated with a few seamstresses sewing board shorts from rice bags along Waikīkī beach. McCullough initially avoided the aloha shirt, adamant that the bright prints clashed with his idea of refined menswear involving white pants, blazers and polished loafers. But he began to want something that reflected the island setting in a trendy, refined way befitting of the up-and-coming young gents who worked in a tropical setting and frequented his shop.

“Reyn’s style was menswear preppy, Ivy League, which is where the button-down comes in,” say Kirk Hubbard, III, the current CEO of the company. Inspired by the polo shirts of the day, McCullough hunted down his own patterns for the brand and would eventually create Reyn’s signature pullover-style shirt, the oxford cloth of the islands. Reyn’s signature reverse print soon became the other key ingredient to his island-inspired sportswear shirt, an appropriately refined interpretation that could go under a blazer for a fine-dining resort destination or stand alone for daily wear. To this day, the print is made with a technique in which the dye is controlled to penetrate the fabric evenly, creating a “wrong side” that becomes the outside of the shirt.

It was, in fact, Honolulu bartender Pat Dorian, who is said to have crafted the first ad-hoc reverse-print shirt. Dorian, a charismatic, enterprising beach-boy type, would wear his own line of alohawear while serving drinks and pull out a box of stock if a customer complimented it. In time, he got to talking with Tom Andersen, then the assistant manager at Reyn’s. In exchange for getting his shirts in the store, Dorian offered Andersen a customized shirt. Since Andersen wasn’t keen on bright patterns, they discussed muting the print by turning it inside out. Dorian made good on that idea, and next time Reyn’s ordered, reverse-print aloha shirts were a portion of the batch. And they sold, and sold and sold.

While manufacturing originally took place on the islands and in Asia (today, almost everything is sewn abroad), prints have always been designed locally and have even included some patterns by Alfred Shaheen, who is celebrated to this day for bringing printmaking home to the islands in a big way. Throughout the years, Reyn Spooner has been adopted as a surf staple in California, claimed as classic American sportswear in Japan, and featured in collaborations with the likes of Vans (then Van Doren) and Stussy. They made some killer jumpsuits for ladies – and men – in the ’80s. And their original customers stayed true to the brand, which is why you see reverse print in almost every bank and father’s closet – picture George Clooney in The Descendents, or your favorite uncle who always has a $20 to spare.

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But dressing like your folks isn’t necessarily trendy. “Younger customers were saying, ‘I know Reyn’s, sure. I buy that shirt for my dad,’” says Hubbard. “Reyn’s is a well-known name but we need to stay relevant for generations coming up.” Hubbard himself didn’t warm to the trend until he was reporting to an office in downtown Honolulu and realized that not only were the higher-ups bedecked in aloha print, but that you didn’t have to iron the shirts either, which younger generations can relate to, if nothing else.

In response to this changing of the guard, Reyn Spooner kicked off their Modern Collection three years ago, with a slimmer fit and an overt reference to classic, vintage patterns, even bringing back a pareau print designed by Shaheen, a nod to the fact that vintage shops and thrift stores have become a trending place to dig up favorite aloha shirts. Hubbard is also sure to point out that while women’s options have been relegated to a back corner for the aunties who would miss them otherwise, the idea of rejuvenating womenswear is just awaiting the right moment and inspiration.

In 2011, Reyn Spooner collaborated with high-fashion mainland brand Opening Ceremony, creating jumpers and summer dresses rocked in their campaign by Kirsten Dunst, and extremely tailored, classic aloha-print shirts that were paired with mid-thigh-length shorts and modeled by a bleach-haired hipster with a steady smirk.

“You get a lot of customers still asking, ‘Tucked in or tucked out?’” remarks Hubbard at his storefront in Kahala Mall. “I tell them, that depends.” Right then, a grey-haired gentleman strolls in with the signature reverse print tucked into khaki pants, a man who would have certainly scoffed at Opening Ceremony’s rumpled, untucked interpretation. From the looks of it, Reyn Spooner will continue sparking this debate for generations to come.

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JEFFREY YOSHIDA

Bringing women’s vintage alohawear home

“It would be so easy to say, ‘Oh it’s something in a Hawaiian print,’ but I don’t think that’s it necessarily at all. I think it’s really more of the feeling of how we live here on the islands.”

“Every generation of women wants to have their Audrey Hepburn moment,” says Jeffrey Yoshida, who’s sitting on a couch in the home where he grew up in the heart of Kalihi, soft jazz crooning in the background. “So I thought, how fun would it be if I created that dress, but in the right Hawaiian print that was a little vintage and modern looking?” Just a few feet away, an off-the-shoulder dress in a simple, vintage aloha print with a slim waist and a full, knee-length skirt with petticoats (“That’s so a Grace Kelly dress”) hangs from a dress form. It brings unexpected clarity to this Hepburn statement from a 50-year-old local Japanese man in a city where dressing for winter currently involves “people wearing their Las Vegas leather jackets over their shorts,” as Yoshida jokes.
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For the last 12 years, the couture designer has flown under the radar in his hometown of Honolulu, handcrafting glamorous aloha, evening and bridal wear on order-only basis. He returned after 16 years working on 7th Avenue in the New York City fashion district, where he began making his signature retro-inspired aloha dresses, to take care of his ailing parents. It was a time for family, not a time for self-promotion.

But 2013 is the year, a “now or never moment,” he insists. He is eager to branch out and offer limited, vintage-inspired ready-to-wear batches locally, and has already created a solid base. Jeffrey’s main clientele are women in their 30s and up who are looking for alohwear that exudes poise and glamour: “I’ve always had clients who say, ‘What do I wear to an invitation that says elegant aloha attire? I don’t want to wear a mu‘umu‘u with ruffles.’” While aloha shirt companies have cropped up as plentifully as bougainvillea blossoms since the first ad ran in 1937, women’s high-end options have waned through the years and become even more limited since renowned designer Alfred Shaheen retired in 1988. And in fact, Yoshida found inspiration early on in Shaheen creations. “I love the glamour of the old Shaheen dresses,” he says. “I started examining Alfred Shaheens and other dresses and that’s how I started doing a vintage style.”

Lately, Jeffrey has been surprised by the interest many young buyers have shown. Perhaps it’s because they’re imagining snagging their own special dress with delicate aloha print and a keyhole neckline for a classy brunch outing – or to wear while recreating a tropical version of the famous Hepburn scene outside of Waikīkī’s Tiffany’s.

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ROBERTA OAKS

Creating a fresh take on the classic

“The print. An aloha print makes an aloha shirt an aloha shirt.”

In the window of Roberta Oaks’ storefront in Chinatown, a women’s mannequin wears a half-buttoned aloha shirt with rolled up sleeves tucked into high-waisted jean shorts. Just inside, a mix of mod-inspired dresses and tailored aloha shirts, all made in Hawai‘i, line the walls. The store is strategically scattered with handcrafted leather goods, beach jewelry and rugged hiking backpacks. The xx plays in the background. It feels anything but dated, and only a bit like the islands we’ve come to expect from alohawear.

And it welcomes a broad array of shoppers. “It’s everyone,” says Roberta Oaks, a tall blond with a pierced nose, about the men who snatch up her alohawear. “I have the young, hip, professional guys – I don’t want to call them hipsters, but that kind of client. I have older business men, tourists. It’s 80-year-old men and 25-year-old guys.” Her sales are split fifty-fifty between locals and visitors, and Japan has a soft spot for the brand.

Oaks herself is originally from Missouri and found her way to the islands 10 years ago from New Zealand. “I fell into the lifestyle, fell in love with the tropics. The mountains, the ocean,” she says. In 2009, after five years of wholesaling her women’s clothing, she debuted her store along with her first line of men’s aloha shirts. “I wanted to do something nice and clean and modern. I put a lot of time into that first pattern, and it was worth it. … Alohawear wasn’t cool, but I think I started doing it right at the right time.” The launch coincided with the beginnings of aloha print trending on the mainland, and a new generation looking for a different outlet.

“You can design a hideous aloha shirt, it’s really easy,” she says. “A lot of people do. It’s about keeping it fresh.” She uses all-natural fabrics and continues to scavenge for just the right textiles at tradeshows around Asia and North America. Coming up, she has a new round of aloha shirts planned, as well as a women’s spin on the men’s classic.

“The aloha shirt is not going anywhere,” she says, after waving goodbye to a middle-aged man with a ponytail who had stopped in to snag a chambray long-sleeve. “It’s here to stay.”
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SIG ZANE DESIGNS

Introducing alohawear to its roots

“We don’t create ‘alohawear’ as it’s categorized.  We create what we live. Labels and categories follow …”

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Sig Zane Designs originated in a desire to take alohawear back for its people, a repossession of the patterns that visually define our island lifestyle every day. The family members behind the company have found design inspiration in their roots in hula; in lava flows and tropical fauna; in surfing at Honoli‘i; in maps of their hometown, Hilo. (Flux delved deeply into their hula roots in our Fall 2012 Nostalgia issue, as well.)

And the brand quickly found a community that understood the depths of their alohawear. “Our main base is island locals,” says Kuha‘o Zane, son of namesake Sig and the director of design and marketing. “We celebrate our land, culture and the people that live it. If tourists want to learn more about our lifestyles, then great. Our designs and stories offer an authentic education from all that we have learned.”

For him and the entire family-run brand, the future is not just about fashion that returns to its roots. It’s about supporting a community. “We believe that with every collaboration and project, we are building a blueprint of options for the next ‘kid from the homestead.’” They have a few things on the horizon that will link the company’s values with a more youthful audience, but their clothing is only a part of the brand’s story. Because as they know, true aloha is both in the clothing we wear to the conference room or the beach and in the lives we lead on our homeland in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

“All things aside,” says Kuha‘o, “we are blessed to be from Hawai‘i.”