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Shirts and Ideas Cut From a Different Cloth

O.C.-Based Creator of Maji Label Says Hola to Mexico With Aztec Motifs in a Variation on a Classic

April 02, 1999|ROSE APODACA JONES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

First came the Maji guayabera, a slinky spinoff of the classic that's missing the trademark pin tucks to leave more space for lavishly embroidered roses.

Now Dana Point-based designer Mario Melendez is twisting the tradition of another standby. With a little word play on "aloha," Melendez created the Hola shirt.

Like aloha shirts, the Hola has coconut buttons. But in lieu of hibiscus flowers, he cuts shirts from cotton spattered with Aztec motifs he designed.

"Hawaii is the size of my thumb in relation to Mexico, but people get so much mileage off of it," says Melendez, whose father is Mexican and mother is Greek. "But Mexico is a country with an older history. We've got more people of Mexican heritage living in Southern California than Hawaiians."

Granted, but another Hawaiian import--surfing--has made quite an impression on California culture, launching many surf brands.

When Melendez, 26, entered the fashion industry in 1997, he decided that surf wear would limit his "design expression." He also didn't want to get into the convoluted mire of sponsoring athletes to sell clothes he thought were good enough to stand on their own.

"I've found that this line crosses boundaries of age, interests, whatever," Melendez says. A pinstripe model made of stretch fabric is fitting on bodies of any age or shape.

Though he's still recognized among retailers for his guayabera shirts, Melendez has branded shorts, T-shirts and jackets under the Maji name. Later this year he's introducing a line of dressy Maji leather shoes and sandals produced in Spain.

Melendez has more in mind than revolutionizing a shirt. He wants to build a conglomerate in the name and philosophy of Maji, the way that British tycoon Richard Branson has built a brand with Virgin.

His last day off was Christmas. Most social time is mixed with business. If he could eliminate two requirements from his life, he says, they would be sleeping and eating. "It gets in the way of life," he says.

"I can't see how anybody can have a nine-to-five career," he adds, admitting that it's been only seven months since he resigned from moonlighting as a waiter.

After high school, Melendez spent two years in the Navy, traveling the world. Then he spent two years teaching English in Mexico.

From there he moved to Spain, to a beach town two hours southwest of Madrid, where he earned a master's degree in business administration at the University of Alicante. To help fund his education--and his fun--he took black-and-white photographs and sold them as postcards at hotels and other tourist haunts. He also produced T-shirts with the university's logo and sold them, mostly to Americans passing through.

"Necessity is the mother of education," Melendez says, noting that his GI bill only went so far and that he wasn't allowed employment papers on a student visa.

"I always learned how to be resourceful. I was living day to day on what I made," he says, smiling devilishly.

But necessity wasn't the only factor driving Melendez. Since high school, he'd been filling notebooks with graphics, clothing designs and company concepts--sources he now calls his archives.

The first T-shirt he screened in high school brandished the name Maji, a nickname he picked up from his younger siblings when they had difficulty pronouncing Mario. Melendez is the middle child in a tightknit family of four boys and a younger sister.

He founded several environmental movements in Dana Point, including a drive to save Dana Strands from development (he made the T-shirts) and a recycling program energized by live music festivals (he created the tees, organized the event and profited from food sales). He's planning a jazz festival for this year that will include a fashion show featuring Maji and other local rising labels. "Fashion and entertainment are one in the same," he says.

His studio apartment is a picture of an organized mind and a well-traveled spirit. A mask from Oaxaca peers at racks of plastic-wrapped shirts and bottoms. A framed African batik hangs across from a copier in the bedroom. Samples from the new shoe line sit in a kitchen cupboard.

Living room shelves display a Zapatista rag doll, an African wooden bowl and a huge 15th century glass wine jug from Spain. An exquisitely painted box from Thailand is crammed with beaded necklaces from nearly every continent. A jar is filled with volcanic ash from the Philippines. Another jar holds holy water from Rome.

"I want to create a place where people want to work, a second family," Melendez says. "I know most people think I'm crazy for talking that way, but I think there's so many opportunities just waiting for the taking."

Maji is available at surf stores such as Second Reef in Laguna Beach and the Hobie stores, as well as Shoe Zoo and NaNa's in Costa Mesa, Soul to Soul in Laguna Beach and on the Internet at http://www.thepcshopper.com.

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