Issue 21.2: April/May 2018
Native Intelligence: Los Angeles

Checkered Past

Story by Martha Cheng. Photos by Melanie Tjoeng.

Leah Redmond left a career on Broadway dressing actors in silk charmeuse and Swarovski crystal-encrusted heels to work with palaka, the sturdy, checkered fabric once worn by Hawai‘i’s plantation workers. Redmond spent her childhood in Hawai‘i, and palaka held memories of the past, but it wasn’t until she came across it in a fabric store during a visit home in 2015 that it became a focus for her future. “There was something so fresh about the plaid that made me really see possibilities,” she says. She launched her own clothing line, Gordon, incorporating what was once called “the pattern of the Islands” into her first collection of dresses in ’60s and ’70s silhouettes.

These days hardly anyone wears palaka, but in the 1930s everyone had it in their closet. It was the denim of Hawai‘i, originally in just blue and white, and cut into shirts for laborers on the sugar and pineapple farms. Just as Redmond would more than a hundred years later, an Okinawan immigrant named Zempan Arakawa saw the possibilities in palaka. He opened a general store in Waipahu in 1909 and popularized other colors and styles. The checkered pattern soon jumped from the fields to the streets—palaka shirts predated aloha shirts as the casual wear of choice, and surfers sported custom palaka boardshorts.

But by the time Redmond graduated from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and moved to New York, Arakawa and many other palaka tailors had sewn their last pieces. Now Redmond’s trying to bring back palaka with her dresses and accessories, which she makes by hand in Los Angeles. Once, she says, a group of guys in Hawai‘i whistled at the palaka when a friend of Redmond’s was carrying an armful of her dresses to a photo shoot. “It definitely got their attention,” she says. “I think people get nostalgic when they see it. There’s something comforting about it. It’s common ground. Maybe it makes people think about the innocence of one’s youth. Or maybe it’s just a timelessly stylish fabric.”