There are no customers at Hawaii in the Valley this afternoon. Margarite Auda sits alone in the Sherman Oaks boutique, surrounded by racks of Hawaiian-print muu muus, sarongs and short-sleeve shirts--clothing that bursts into shades of aqua and fuchsia and sunset pink. Thatched-roof awnings hang over the aisles. Synthetic palm trees sway in the air conditioner's breeze.
Outside, a low-lying smog covers the San Fernando Valley. Traffic has slowed to a standstill on Ventura Boulevard. The Hawaiian Islands are a daydream away, about 2,500 miles to the southwest.
But what's Hawaii got over the San Fernando Valley? There are palm trees here, Auda says. The sun shines brightly most days and the winds are warm. If fact, she says, Sherman Oaks and Maui aren't that different to her.
"The clothes are the same," Auda reasons.
Luaus and Hulagrams
Auda is serious. And she's not alone. The shop she has managed for 15 years is only one of a dozen businesses around the Valley that have staked their futures on peddling the allure of the islands to natives of Tarzana, Arleta and other such landlocked places. Hawaii in the Valley and Kimo's Polynesian Shop in Woodland Hills specialize in Hawaiian clothing and accessories. Kay's Gourmet Catering in Westlake Village offers authentic Hawaiian luaus, complete with a Hawaiian master of ceremonies. For $40, 66-year-old Agnes Henderson of Sylmar will arrive at your front door in a flowered hat and leis to deliver a "Hulagram."
Hawaiian culture is not new to the Valley. For years, San Fernando-based KGIL-AM radio (1260) has broadcast music from the islands on its "Classics Hawaii" show from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. Sunday mornings. Hawaii in the Valley has been in business for 30 years, Kimo's for 22. Faye Fish, owner of Kimo's, said other such clothing shops have come and gone during the years. Perhaps there is only so much Hawaii the Valley can take.
However, both shops say business has picked up in the last few years. There are other signs that Hawaiian products are popular. Wallace (Buster) Walea, a native Hawaiian, said his Oxnard musical group, The Aloha Islanders, is more in demand than ever. Maui Blanc, a pineapple wine, has recently become available at liquor stores in the Valley. The Hawaii Shoe Co. in Reseda manufactures nothing but Hawaiian-style sandals and shoes.
And then there are Hulagrams. Summoned to the telephone by her husband, Henderson explained that she was inspired to go into business after taking a hula class at an Eagle Rock recreation center.
"People love Hawaiian things," she said. "I came up with Hulagrams because nobody else had thought of it. You know, there are strip-o-grams, but I'm not a young woman. In Hawaii, they even have old women dancing."
Serious Hula Dancing
At Nicol's hula studio, the dancing is taken somewhat more seriously. The teacher said she became enthralled with Hawaii and its customs when she first visited by propeller plane in the late 1950s. Nicol speaks often of her psychic connection to the islands.
"You don't just teach hula. You live it," said Nicol, who without warning will break into Hawaiian dialect during casual conversation.
Not only is her studio business hopping, but Nicol is also receiving more requests for performances by her dance group, Hui Kuahiwi Iluna, which charges $50 a dancer and usually sends groups of three to 10 hula dancers to events. The dancers perform at any event from surprise birthday parties to openings of office buildings.
But the classic Hawaiian shirt remains the best-known and single most popular island item.
Teens Like Fashions
"The thing that most people don't realize is that Hawaii is rapidly taking its place in the fashion world," Fish said.
In fact, Valley teen-agers are now wearing the same Hawaiian fashions that were big in the 1950s--surfer T-shirts with Hawaiian logos and baggy, knee-length swimming trunks.
"Look at how colorful it is!" said Auda, gesturing with a broad sweep of her arm. "It's like you're at a party. People come in and they are friendly. When they put these clothes on, they get very excited. It's an occasion."
Customers seem to agree.
"It's the colors. Even around the house it gives you a lift," said Lea Davitt, a regular at Hawaii in the Valley for 10 years. "You don't have to be in Hawaii to wear the clothes. My husband likes the shirts, which he wears right here in Granada Hills."
Buy Souvenirs Back Home
"Sometimes people come in after they've gone to Hawaii," Auda said. "They forgot to buy gifts, so they come in and buy them here." Her voice lowered to a conspiratorial tone. "The label says 'Made in Hawaii.' No one will ever know."
Linda Cullen of Kay's Gourmet Catering thinks the attraction to luaus may be nothing more than a desire for something a little different. Besides, she said, the luau is slightly less expensive than other types of affairs, unless of course you want the Hawaiian emcee. He'll cost you another $150.
"A lot of the luaus used to be Las Vegas-style--all flash," said Walea, whose group plays such events. "Now people are getting interested in the Hawaiian culture because it is intriguing to them."
Auda agreed. She pointed toward a garden hut built in the center of her store to house a jewelry and perfume counter.
"This is exotic," she said. "People tell me, 'When I think of Hawaii, I think of this store."