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Vol.18, no.2
April/May 2015


Popo’s Prints 
Story By: Lynn Cook
Photo By: Kyle Rothenborg

Martha Leong knew what was trending long before the word even existed. In 1951 she took a job as manager of the yardage and notions department at the Kailua, O‘ahu, branch of Hawai‘i’s iconic department store, Liberty House. Back then the entire store was a grand 1,200 square feet. Martha had great instincts; the yards of floral design fabric she selected, printed in the Islands, were destined to become the classic aloha wear of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s—Von Hamm-Young, THC Hawaiian Textiles and the king of Island print design, Alfred Shaheen. Martha would pick her favorites, measure off a few yards and buy them for herself, intending to sew them all up when she retired. She never got the chance.

“My Popo left behind her amazing collection, sitting on the shelf waiting,” says Stacey Leong Mills, using the Chinese term of endearment for “grandmother.” “In 2007, when we sorted her treasures, I couldn’t let her favorite prints go to waste.” But what to do with Popo’s archive of Hawai‘i’s textile history? “Last year I decided to make bags,” says Stacey, who runs her own graphic design firm in Honolulu, “but just for me and the family, to enjoy Popo’s favorites every day.”

There was one small problem with her plan, though. “I spent summers with Popo,” Stacey says, “but I never learned much about sewing. A wonderful bag maker, Norma-Jean Chock, is my angel. I design, she sews.” Soon enough, friends and clients started asking where they could buy the vintage-cloth bags that Stacey carried. Thus was Popo’s Collection born.

Leong says she spends relaxing hours designing, matching fabrics and writing little love notes to insert in the pockets. She’s expanded to design smaller bags, iPad cases and men’s silk ties. The bag project was meant to be temporary, as there are only so many yards of Popo’s fabrics. But lately people have been asking Stacey if they could bring her vintage fabrics from their own grandmothers’ closets. She smiles and says, “That might have been Popo’s plan all along.”