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Check the Fine Print

To today's makers of aloha shirts, it's all about designing irrestistible, gotta-have-it prints--and protecting them.

February 02, 2001|SUSAN ESSOYAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HONOLULU — Dale Hope took some flak when he told people he was putting together a book about Hawaiian shirts.

"Some folks would ask me, 'How could you possibly even consider doing a book about aloha shirts? They're tacky, awful, grotesque,' " he said with a mischievous grin. "They had this image of a tourist in Waikiki, wearing black dress shoes and socks, checkered shorts and a loud aloha shirt."

But there's far more to the aloha shirt, which Hope considers a cultural icon, evocative of the playful ambience of these islands. For such a casual garment, a surprising amount of thought and effort goes into the ever-evolving aloha print. And much is at stake for the shirt makers as aloha shirts ride a new wave of popularity beyond Hawaii's shores. So much so that a few makers face the problem of battling counterfeiters.

The Hawaiian motif is so popular that it has shown up on the runways--in past collections of Giorgio Armani and Tommy Hilfiger--and on Gucci and Kate Spade handbags.

The advent of "casual Friday" from Tokyo to Europe, which local fashionistas say was an offshoot of Hawaii's "Aloha Friday," has boosted the popularity of aloha shirts of all types here and on the mainland. Vintage rayon "silkies" dating from the '40s and '50s are so hot among collectors today that they can fetch thousands of dollars.

The bold and breezy garments appeal to those who want to make a statement with their clothing. And anything goes, as far as what that statement might be. Aloha shirts are no longer limited to Hawaiian themes. They've gone way beyond the hibiscus to sports motifs and taro farmers.

"It's really the art that drives the business," explained Hope, whose new coffee table book, "The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands" (Beyond Words Publishing Inc.), traces the folk history of the garment. "Your canvas is a textile that's made up into a shirt. Put that Waikiki tourist in some woven leather shoes with linen pants, and a beautifully drawn and printed shirt, and the guy could look elegant."

Patterns and colors are what move a person to buy a shirt. "Since the 1930s, there's probably been 100,000 prints done, and that's because we're all different," said Hope, who grew up in the garment industry here and is art director for Kahala Sportswear. "What one person loves, another might hate."

The better garment manufacturers invest considerable resources in fabric design. The most expensive prints may require up to 18 screens of color to achieve the pattern, said Josh Feldman, vice president of Tori Richard Ltd., a major manufacturer here. His firm and other shirt makers maintain archives of thousands of images, cajole fine artists into creating fresh images, and copyright them in an effort to protect themselves.

"We have many different storyboards, from automotive to sports," said Tim McCullough, president of Reyn Spooner Inc., which was founded by his father, Reyn. "The business is a lot more challenging today. It's a lot more sophisticated. A lot more people have gotten involved in it."

His company produced a souvenir shirt for Super Bowl XXXV featuring parrots and flamingos, as well as one with ukuleles and sunsets for this weekend's Pro Bowl here. Reyn Spooner made its name in the 1960s with dignified, Oxford-style button-down aloha shirts showing the muted "wrong" side of the fabric, the so-called reverse print or inside-out shirt.

"They took the fabric and made the shirt on the wrong side because local people didn't want to look like tourists," explained Hope. "The local market has always been inclined to wear something a little bit more conservative and refined, whereas visitors want that explosion of color--something wacky and big and bold and loud."

The latest trend is toward a looser, more flowing fit, with the fabric's true colors showing. Artist Avi Kiriaty, who has produced 300 designs for the Kahala label, has helped shift the industry in a new direction with his dramatic block prints, Hope said. The quality of his art, featuring indigenous themes such as taro farmers, or mangoes at the open market, inspired Kahala to run it right side out.

"His colors were muted and earthy, and when reversed, they would lose their pop," Hope said.

The local garment industry produces an estimated 8 million aloha shirts annually, nearly seven times the state's population, most of them for export. Hawaiian motif clothing generates an estimated $600 million in revenues a year, according to the governor's office, which declared 2000 "The Year of the Aloha Shirt."

"We've always had two things going for us: the made-in-Hawaii label, which assures the customer that the shirt is authentic," said Hope, "and a unique print."

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