A Moment in the Sun
Story by Curt Sanburn
Photos by Jyoti Mau
Back then the capital city of the freshly minted fiftieth state was a genuine international crossroads. Everyone flying the Pacific had to stop here to refuel, even when they flew on the new jet-powered United DC-8 Mainliners and Pan Am 707 Clippers. To handle the traffic, Honolulu’s airport completed a $28 million expansion in 1962. After decades as a romantic beachside colony for a few well-to-do steamship vacationers, Waikiki suddenly went high-rise. The gleaming department store windows along Kalakaua Avenue—Liberty House, McInerny’s, Andrade—bloomed with flowery, color-saturated cotton-print mu‘umu‘u, shifts, jumpsuits, bikinis and surf trunks. Men’s tailored sport jackets were covered with graphic flower prints in shocking colors or rugged, kapa-inspired patterns. The familiar rayon sarong sheaths and shirts, adorned with coconut trees, lei, surfers, hula girls and ‘ukulele—a.k.a. “chop suey” or “hash” prints—retreated to the his-and-hers racks at bargain tourist shops like Watumull’s and Hilo Hattie.
“Gone are the old touristy prints,” proclaimed the glossy city magazine Honolulu in its inaugural July 1966 issue. “In their stead are vivid colors plucked from our flora, combed from our sky and sea. Gone are the droopy old muus. In their place, dashing culottes, caftan-type cover-ups, shifts with cut-outs, and tiny-topped tents that float wide at the hem.” The graphics on the March 1965 cover of Honolulu’s forerunner, Paradise of the Pacific, hinted at what was coming. An early illustration by Hawai‘i artist Pegge Hopper, the image of an Island girl surrounded by huge tropical leaves and blossoms, is rendered in flat, saturated colors. As much as Hopper paid homage to Matisse, her image reflecting the same creative pop as the just-emerging Carnaby Street style in London, as mod Courrèges in Paris.
For a time in the mid-’60s through the early ’70s, mod Honolulu celebrated its own sunny colors and its own supremely casual style. Honolulu was chic.
Between 1955 and statehood in 1959, the wholesale value of the industry more than doubled from $6 million to $15 million. More and more tourists filled Waikiki shops, hoping to go local in casual, comfortable Hawaiian wear. The locals themselves were loosening up after World War II’s constrictions, entertaining on the lanai in hostess skirts, Asian-inspired tunics and mu‘umu‘u. Honolulu ladies donned their best mu‘umu‘u and flower lei for the de rigueur Aloha Week events and the high-society “Mu‘umu‘u Mania” fundraisers for the Honolulu Symphony. By 1963 there were seventy-seven apparel makers in the state, most of them in Honolulu and geared to the local market. A few, like the houses of Alfred Shaheen and Tori Richard, began exporting Island-inspired sportswear to the Mainland, where the California-casual style revolution was sweeping the country.
Ambitious and with mouths to feed, Bill Foster chafed to get in on the boom. “Bill wanted to have his own company,” Weyand says, still impressed with his determination, “and he told me, ‘You’ll have to be the designer.’” In 1961 the young couple sold their inherited Tantalus home to buy Peggy Wood Design on Waimanu Street. Suddenly the Fosters had twenty-two seamstresses poised to sew up … something. They hired a nanny for the kids.
“I remember one day in Waikiki,” Weyand tells me. “This was when Bill and I knew we were going to open up. There was a tall woman wearing a long dress walking down Kalakaua Avenue. I was behind her. I remember it like I remember my own name! She was long and beautiful, and she had on a long and beautiful print dress—which they wore in those days in the afternoon—and it was stunning. It had a white background with brilliant colors, big flowers, and I thought, ‘Wow. That’s a work of art.’ And that was it!” She looks at me, her eyes wide and brimming. “I knew that that’s what I would have to do all the time. It has to be colorful, and it has to be in the sunlight. It just had to …”
She pauses as if trying to recall a dream.
“… have that ‘Hawaiian’ look. Because it was so lovely.”
Bill and Mary named their company Malia (Hawaiian for Mary) and geared it to produce modern women’s dresses and sportswear. The early Malia designs were simple sheaths, mu‘umu‘u and swimwear cover-ups with few prints. “I started out in a prosaic way,” Weyand says but credits her California sales team of Morey and Hazel Goldstein, who repped regional fashion lines at the Los Angeles Fashion Mart, for getting Malia moving. “They were a fantastic team,” she says. “Hazel was very clever. She told me, ‘You need to do something different.’ So I got serious about prints and what I wanted to do.”
Eventually Weyand had five artists working for her to come up with as many as twenty original prints per season—each year had five seasons, she tells me. The deadlines were grueling. Approved fabric art flew back and forth to Japan for printing: as first strike-offs for approval, as sales samples and finally as thousands of yards of screen-printed fabric ready for the workroom. Meanwhile, the Goldsteins set up Malia sales reps in Dallas, Chicago and New York. Soon Malia’s stylish logo and its well-constructed clothes were all over the fashion pages of Honolulu newspapers and magazines, both in editorial coverage and in then-abundant department store ads.
In 1966 the Liberty House department store, then the state’s dominant up-market retailer, awarded Weyand its first Golden Hibiscus Award for fashion design. The citation: “We salute Mary Foster of Malia with our Golden Hibiscus Award, our tribute to this talented designer whose signature is Polynesian fashion with sophisticated flair … brilliant, original, exotic looks of a new Hawaii!” I read the citation back to Weyand, but she doesn’t preen or sigh or smile at past glories. She remembers curtly that the store gave her a little hibiscus pin: “It was so small you could hardly see it,” she says in her cool contralto voice.
Malia wasn’t alone, however: Giving it a run for its money were the youthful, nearly abstract floral prints by Nalii of Honolulu. Catering mainly to the junior market, Nalii began when new mom Connie Gaffney improvised some diaper covers for her son from printed kapa (bark cloth); husband Bob saw an opportunity. Weyand says the Gaffneys were family friends, and she calls their Nalii line “polished.” Husband and wife Ernie and Baba White created another line, Baba Kea, with its ethnically inspired prints and youthful vibe. They were awarded for their originality with an in-store boutique at Liberty House’s flagship store. Tori Richard, led by Mort Feldman and his wife and head designer, Jan Feldman, was exporting elegant, Asian-inspired luxe goods to Mainland retailers like I. Magnin, Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman.
In 1962 Mort Feldman joined forces with Bill Foster and Bob Gaffney to set up the Hawaiian Fashion Guild, which pushed for something they called “Aloha Friday,” wherein office workers would be allowed to wear mu‘umu‘u and aloha shirts on Fridays. In 1965 business leaders agreed to give the idea of try—but only during summer. By 1970 Hawaiian wear had become acceptable throughout the week in the office towers and government buildings of downtown Honolulu.
The other big Hawai‘i fashion news of 1965 was the advent of Jams, those bright, baggy cotton shorts with the drawstring waist that took Hawai‘i, and the rest of country, by storm— especially after LIFE magazine printed a Jams fashion spread in June of that year. “Flamboyant Pacific Island floral prints,” read the caption. Mike Doyle, a well-known surfer at the time, described his pair of Jams (short for pajamas) as “a cross between a Hawaiian muumuu and an extra-large pair of boxer shorts.”
The guy who invented Jams was Dave Rochlen, a Rand Corporation systems analyst, avid surfer and Hawai‘i-lover who chucked it all after the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 and started a small surf shop on Pi‘ikoi Street in Honolulu. He called it Surf Line Hawaii, and he had a fondness for the classic, two-color Tahitian pareau prints that had become almost a uniform among Waikiki entertainers and beach boys in the postwar period. Tapping into the Jams craze, Rochlen quickly applied his formula to a women’s line of tops and ruffled shorts called Jellies. He rendered both the men’s and women’s lines in multicolored prints that clearly riffed on the old Tahitian pareaus.
“They came in outrageous colors with big flat floral prints,” Rochlen explained to author Dale Hope in his essential tome, The Aloha Shirt. “The wilder the print, the more they sold.” Rochlen applied the same prints to a line of durable, all-cotton men’s pullover aloha shirts. Rochlen’s pizazz gave new life to the tired, touristy, flowered aloha shirt. Suddenly in mid-’60s Honolulu, it was the cool surfers who wore them.
Forty years later, in 2004, Rochlen’s son Pua revived the iconic Surf Line prints—“Trade Winds,” “Hau Flower” and “Monstera”—in various colorways. They’re now in their third or fourth printing, Pua says. The youngest of his late father’s five children, Pua has successfully massaged the Surf Line Hawaii and Jams World brands into an international, multimillion-dollar empire with its workrooms still in Honolulu. “I look at Dad’s old ads,” Pua tells me, “and they were awesome—we could run those same ads right now. Prints are kind of what’s ‘in’ right now anyway. You see that across the board, in couture houses, sportswear houses and surf shops. Prints are a strange thing. To me they never go away, they’ve always been here.”
Mary Weyand remembers Dave Rochlen as an influential force. I ask her whether his prints influenced her and her similarly vivid floral prints. “Hardly at all,” she says, “because they were doing swimwear and I was in dresses. But I did admire what he was doing.” In 1967 Rochlen received the second annual Golden Hibiscus Award from Liberty House. “He wins,” the store announced, “for the ‘turned-on youth’ and wild imagination of his Polynesian whatchamacallits.”
In 1969 the Oakland Tribune newspaper gushed in a headline, “Simply Marvelous Malia.” Its fashion editor, Nora Hampton, wrote, “Spectacular Island prints, vibrant colors and swirling designs, more sophisticated than most—this is Malia of Hawaii and a hit of the Los Angeles fashion press shows. Pattern is as bold and primitive as ancient Polynesian art, or subtle as the shadings of a garden in moonlight.” The San Francisco Chronicle seconded the sentiment with a splashy fashion layout, “Hawaii Makes Waves,” featuring hyper-bold mu‘umu‘u and loungewear by Malia, Nalii and Tori Richard. “Hawaiian Designs Add Color, Excitement to Fashion World,” reported an Oklahoma newspaper.
Mary Weyand studies a pile of photocopies of magazine advertisements that display some of her boldest creations. “Amazing,” she says as if seeing them for the first time. She starts talking about her staff of artists, explaining that her office was right next to the art department. The collaborative creativity was “intense,” she remembers. “They were brilliant; they would make sketches of whatever inspired them—a flower or a shell or whatever—and make paintings. Every hour or two I would go in there and say, ‘Barb, it’s not big enough!’ Or, ‘Rosalie, can you squeeze down this area a little bit?’ Or, ‘A little bit more shading in here, Insook!’
“‘BOLD!’” she suddenly bellows like a ship’s horn, as though exhorting one of her artists instead of sitting with me in her apartment forty-three years later. Twice she calls this boldness “sock-it-to-ya” style. “It wasn’t run-of-the-mill,” she notes.
I ask her whether there were famous fashion designers whom she imitated.
“No,” she says.
“Yves St. Laurent? Mary Quant? Pucci? Rudi Gernreich?”
“No, I’m sorry, but honestly, I was inspired by everything around me, by the colors, the sea, the social setting right here! There’s plenty here.”
Any art or other cultural trends that influenced her?
“I’ll tell you honestly,” she says. “What really inspired me, what really motivated me, was sales.”
I call up Ernie and Baba White, the fun-loving couple who cut a wide swath through 1960s Honolulu with their Baba Kea line. Refugees from the New York rat race, they decided to stay in Honolulu after they helped decorate a float for a 1960’s Aloha Week parade with their new best friends, artists Bruce and Pegge Hopper, and won the Best Float award. I ask Ernie and Baba (née Barbara) what Honolulu was like back then. “That’s a big subject,” Ernie says over speakerphone from his retirement home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. “It was very loving and caring. We fell in love.
“Kalakaua Avenue was a two-way street then and full of shows—Kui Lee played Queen’s Surf, Don Ho at Duke’s. Marlene Sai … where was she? It was absolutely fantastic. … Everything was happening! Vogue editors flew out to find out what was hot. There were so many things going on.” Baba adds, “There was the Red Vest and Canlis, chilled vichyssoise with sour cream at Michel’s or eggs Benedict at the Tahitian Lanai.” Ernie interjects, “The Ramos Fizz!” I ask what that is. “A lethal milkshake,” he answers.
Liberty House sold out of the mu‘u immediately, and the Missionary Mu‘u became a big local fashion story as “granny style” caught on throughout the country. Everything changed. From then on Malia’s style was diffuse and hard to categorize. Flush with cash, the company expanded its Mainland sales territory and produced increasingly tame styles and prints designed to sell: watermelon, whale and daisy prints. The Fosters began a long-running advertising campaign for Malia in The New Yorker. Sales were brisk in Texas, the South and New England, where the bright prints on crisp cottons appealed to the country club and sorority set. By 1982 Malia employed two hundred people, and annual sales hit an all-time peak of $18 million. Meanwhile the local market suffered from a flood of low-priced Japanese imports. Malia responded by moving into “identity wear,” i.e., uniforms for airlines, banks, hotels and retail stores, but it wasn’t enough to save the line. By the late 1980s the profits were no longer there. “The market changed,” says Bill Foster Jr., eldest of the Foster children, who worked for the company during its last fifteen years. “They weren’t buying dresses anymore, just jeans.”
Will this vivid and proudly Hawaiian look ever return, as fashion does in its cyclical way? Or are Mary Weyand’s and Dave Rochlen’s creations just a marvel from a different time? It’s hard to say. David Bailey of the vintage Hawaiian wear emporium Bailey’s Antiques and Aloha Shirts near Waikiki says that the bright cottons of late-’60s Hawai‘i are getting harder to find. He scours eBay every day, he says, noting that when the prints do make it into his store, they sell quickly, mostly to the under-25 set. Hawai‘i fashion authority and author of the tome The Aloha Shirt Dale Hope says he sees a quickening market for boldly printed apparel all over the world, and Rochlen says prints never really went away.
I ask whether maybe they’re just being nostalgic.
“We are,” Rochlen says, “and why not? It’s great stuff … such beautiful stuff.”
Weyand is sanguine about her role and her clothes—she has no regrets. “Malia prints were exceptional,” she says. “Even the idea of Hawaiian sportswear was exceptional. Bill and I were intrepid. We went out on a limb. We had the most beautiful colors, inspired by the sun and the flowers and all that, and Hawai‘i had leisure time and pleasures to spare. It was a time when the rest of the world was working so hard and having wars and that sort of thing, and we were just a breath of joy. It was reflected in these clothes.”