Issue 8.6: December 2005/January 2006

The Bold and the Beautiful

story by Liza Simon
photos by Linny Morris

Pioneering designer Jacqueline
Kaleikini (with her husband Danny)
was sewing custom-fit bikinis
in Waikiki for $10 in the 1960's

Had it not been for a terrible chalk allergy, Jacqueline Kaleikini might have stayed a school teacher in her hometown of Papeete instead of achieving fashion fame as Hawaii’s first bikini designer. “Ever since I saw Dorothy Lamour in Aloma of the South Seas, I knew Hawaii would be a place—how you say—exciting and romantic,” Jacqueline laughs, speaking in her still distinctive French accent. Seated at a local luncheonette, she explains how she went from the classroom to the itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny two-piece: how she’d always had a talent for sewing; how that led her to become a seamstress for a wealthy matron; how in 1957, alongside that matron, she boarded an ocean liner bound for Honolulu and struck out for a whole new life.

Sitting beside her as she talks is her husband of forty-six years, Danny Kaleikini. The couple married during the golden era of Waikiki, when he plied his trade as an entertainer and she became a much-in-demand costume designer. With a wistful shrug, Jacqueline insists the job of bikini maker just presented itself: Once she began crafting coconut bras and lavalavas, she says, it was a seamless progression to turning huge bolts of florid acrylic print into thousands of swimsuits. Jacqueline originals were all the rage by the ’60s: At her shop at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, she promised tailor-made bikinis in less than an hour for a fee of $10, and clients mobbed the place. Danny looks at his wife and smiles as she tells the story. “In Papeete, she rode around on a motorcycle,” he says. “She made these big colorful skirts that she wore. She would turn out different, people knew.”

In other words, Jacqueline had boldness—and boldness is what it takes to be a bikini maker in Hawaii. I submit to you exhibits A through E, five seasoned contemporary Island bikini makers: Iwalani, the ex-stuntwoman; Kathleen, the former prosecutor; Debbie, who once rode wild bulls in the Makawao rodeo; Lisa, a professional windsurfer; and Claudia, a one-time design diva in Germany. They all arbitrate that sensitive space between what the mirror says, what society reflects and what a woman’s imagination paints as utterly real. They negotiate this space for water women, athletic women, fashion-forward women, cost-conscious women, all of whom—shapely, portly, big or small—will have a true moment of reckoning with their bikinis when they first don them and head to the water.

“Danny say to me, ‘You are pioneer,’ but my English not so good, so I have to look up the word in the dictionary,” says the petite Kaleikini. Whatever definition was there, it doubtless didn’t note that the bikini was far more than just a fashion item—it was an icon of changing body consciousness and emerging island mystique. The invention of the bikini circa 1946 is generally credited to French designer Louis Reard—someone obviously lacking any prescience of political correctness—who copped the name from the real Bikini, an atoll in the Marshall Islands where the United States dropped the A-bomb just as the two-piece was showing up on the runway for the first time. Reard later pleaded he wanted to convey the literal meaning of the word Bikini—“fertile land with coconuts”—and not the va-voom connotations. More than semantics, though, it was the sexiness of the “world’s smallest swimsuit,” as it was billed, that prompted pillars of society to deplore the garment.


 

Debbie Wilson started making bikinis
on an Singer sewing machine over
two decades ago; today she runs
Maui's most popular swimwear store.

To finesse mid-twentieth century attitudes out of their puritan frocks took skill and hard work but it happened: Today’s scientifically engineered contraptions symbolize high stakes, high tech fashion. The bikini industry is now huge. Hawaii—home of the Pipeline, not the assembly line—is on the outskirts of the manufacturing end of things, but still lends the industry radiance. How else to explain that the candy-apple red bikini on the cover of the 2005 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue was created not by one of the 2,000 swimsuit companies vying for the honor but by one of the five women mentioned above?

Just as the halcyon days of the Waikiki showroom were waning, a freer-wheeling spirit began to infuse Island music. Casual delights like the hit Maui Girl filled the air. Debbie Wilson, who was soon to succeed as a bikini maker/free-enterprise avatar of this new era, recalls how the tune came on her car radio as she was barreling along on a Valley Isle road. She thought: “What a great name for my business.” Today, her bikini label, Maui Girl, is sold from her Pa‘ia shop, Maui Girl. The place—“Maui’s best bikini store,” according to three years of polling by island media—is a must-make stop for locals and Hollywood types, including Courtney Love, Pat Benatar and Cindy Lauper.

Under the cooling whir of hand-woven ceiling fans, Debbie welcomes me into the store. Angular and sun-tanned, with deep-set almond eyes, she is like a Modigliani painting come to life. Rows of colorful bikinis testify to her penchant for wild prints. “I never worried about people making fun of me for trying something different, and I’ve just found that people follow me when I do,” she says. She remembers the time she stitched a bathing suit from a checkered tablecloth.“I wore it to Baby Beach,” she says, referring to an in-spot hideaway on Maui. “Everyone loved it.”

Like Jacqueline, Debbie says the island vibe inspired her. When she arrived on Maui in 1969, at the side of a boyfriend she met back in her native Maryland, experimentation was in the air and experimenting is what Debbie did well in countless ways—like riding the rodeo circuit, where she won the wahine bullriding contest; and designing and building five homes. The hippiedom days also apparently tripped the floodgates of her entrepreneurial juices. Waitressing by day, she sewed by night; an eventual single mom, she raised her daughters in this setup. “I literally had one hand on the cradle and one foot on the sewing machine pedal,” she remembers.

When the 1980s transformed Pa‘ia into the windsurfing capital of the world and created a new niche for bathing suit sales, Debbie figured she'd have an edge on those mainstream swimsuit manufacturers of near-military-industrial boringness. “I can't say for sure that none of their designers actually go to the beach, but I knew I'd be able to use my experience in the ocean to meet the challenge of making a bathing suit that didn't sag and bag,” she says, adding that it’s daunting that “as a bikini designer, you are basically sending people out in public in their underwear.” Enlisting the help of local seamstress Pam Winans, who is still with Maui Girl, Debbie began using her own size eight body as a mannequin. In lieu of market research, she simply installed herself in her store where she could carefully observe the expressions on women’s faces as they emerged from the dressing room: “For at least ten years, I put time into the store, talking with customers, reading fashion magazines, coming up with new ideas. I loved it.” This is how she came to design everything from racer back tops for the long-distance swimmer to bottoms with subtle control top waist panels for those who routinely cut abs class. The contemporary woman’s interest in fitness has given longevity to bikinis, Debbie says: “The age of thirty-nine is no longer the cut-off point for wearing a revealing swimsuit in public.” For the well-endowed, she recommends under-wire tops. And for those on the other end of the spectrum ... well, she leans in with a faux stage whisper and says, “I’ve padded half this town.”

 


Lisa Letarte Swimwear

Looking at Lisa Letarte’s 2006 swimwear catalogue, the word “charming” comes to mind—what else can you call a fabric printed with peace signs, hearts and flowers? The word seems a good description for Lisa’s life, too. The vivacious New Hampshire girl grew up in what is today the Little Red Riding Hood museum, so designated because the house once inspired the story’s illustrator. “My sister and I rode ponies on the road where Little Red Riding Hood met the wolf,” she says laughing. But make no mistake: Lisa isn’t someone to sit back and wait on a fairy tale’s “happily ever after” promise. Six years after starting her company, Letarte Swimwear, she has worked tirelessly to push it over the $2 million mark in sales. Her bikinis have been featured so regularly in the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated that her friends teasingly call the magazine Letarte Illustrated; she moved to a whole new level with SI last year when one of her suits made the cover, and today the famed image sits in the window of Debbie Wilson’s store, where Letarte Swimwear is sold.

Like Debbie, Lisa operates her company out of Maui: She first stopped on the island on her way back from Japan, where she’d been a skiwear model, and never left. She took up competitive windsurfing and met her husband; with sponsorship from swimwear makers, they struck out together on the windsurf circuit. Lisa agrees it was glamorous—except for the swimwear. Here she was a model and an athlete, “a girlie-girl who just happened to do sports,” she says. “I didn’t want only the sports bra look, but that was all that was available.” Lisa started dreaming of her own company. The imagined motto? “Flirty but functional.”

By 1999, working with a Maui graphic arts designer and having tapped her older sister’s years of experience with a surfwear company, Lisa had produced her first samples of bikinis and was headed east for her first major trade show in Miami. She stopped off in Manhattan to bring the prints straight to the desk of the swimsuit editor at Sports Illustrated. “We started off with a bang,” she recalls; the meeting led to the first of five years in a row when a Letarte suit would be featured in the magazine’s annual swimsuit edition—which is, as Lisa points out, the single best-selling magazine issue in the entire world. Just when she thought the phone couldn’t possibly ring with more orders from Saks, Bloomingdales, Macy’s, et al, Letarte Swimwear was featured on the cover of the Bergdorf Goodman catalogue, leading to an even greater demand. Lisa, who puts in ten-hour days of patternmaking and fabric design, has her work cut out for her. “The challenge is not to sell out to mass marketing,” she says. “You have to know that you can’t please everyone. I succeeded because I was unique. I had to find ways to stay this way.”

In every business, there are those whose success basically boils down to relationships, relationships, relationships. Iwalani Isbell, whose Pualani Hawai‘i swimwear is promoted entirely through the coconut wireless, is a great example. The wahine paddlers of entire canoe clubs have chosen her suits as de facto uniforms, and water-friendly companies like Dolphinquest have outfitted employees in her swimwear; her company has hit the $1 million mark in sales but remains debt-free. Her prints tend to the tropical-classic, and many of the models in her catalogues are old friends: a pro volleyball player,
a surf champ.

Her showroom—actually a converted condo—is stocked with merchandise samples and lined with memorabilia: mirrors are set in seashell frames; there are family portraits of her growing up on the Big Island and ocean photos that turn out, on closer inspection, to feature Iwalani in the act of big wave surfing. The gutsy talent garnered her the job of stuntwoman in the water scenes of a recent TV series. “It’s hard, hard work I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but someone got my name and I got the call,” she laughs.

 


 

After also training as a hairstylist and mortgage broker, Iwalani started in the bikini business as a rep for national companies, traipsing from big box stores to specialty shops making sure product moved. She got plenty of lessons by observing shoddy workmanship in garments that just didn’t pass muster in the dressing room. On a leap of faith, she decided to maintain the accounts with her own designs. She took a year to lay the groundwork, which included working with a factory in Colombia—not a sweatshop, she hastens to add, but a well-respected family-run business she visits often in Bogota. For fabric design, she turned to textile experts in Italy and France. These moves were her answer to dealing with the conundrum of being a clothier in a place with no manufacturing sector. And is she earnest. “You are taking on responsibility for this intimate garment that can be a source of such stress,” she says. “I don’t own a TV. I don’t open fashion magazines. I follow what I see in my imagination, and it ends up that I give others hope.”

Rather than continuing on in the abstract about how well she’s fared in this endeavor, Iwalani jumps to her feet and suggests I come in to the next room for a fitting—the best part of her job, she says. A quarter of an hour later, bottoms and tops have piled up on the dressing room couch with Iwalani tactfully steering me away from my choice of a Brazilian bottom (minimal coverage) and under-wire triangle top (maximum padding) to a so-called American cut bottom and an unpadded halter top with soft micro-fiber that is purer than silk to the touch. I put it on and Iwalani urges me to try a few moves, reminding me that Cameron Diaz and Mariel Hemingway have both been through this same ritual in this very same showroom. I am officially weaned from the padded look and, buoyant over my new bikini, I advise Iwalani that she has a great career in snake charming awaiting her should the bikini business go belly-up.

In fact, though, the industry looks nowhere near going belly-up. True, styles come and styles go. Remember the bikini’s skimpiest version—the one with the string bottom—that became a hit for awhile at muscle beaches around town? It is rarely seen these days. Too uncomfortable? Too cheeky? It’s hard to say, but one thing is sure: Bikini fashion has been known to make as many unpredictable 180-degree turns as a surfer on a perfect wave. Sitting on the beach, year after year, Erika Ireland saw plenty of suits come and go. Before long, she began to mentally redesign bikinis on the women around her. “I'd see women in suits that just didn't do much for them,” says the leggy and graceful Kailua attorney. “I'd think, ‘She should have a halter top instead of a triangle top,’ or ‘She can wear a sleeker cut than board shorts.’” One Saturday morning Erika had an epiphany at Kaimana Beach: “I was sitting there with a friend, and I said that I really wanted to design swimwear for a living.” Once she heard the words come out of her mouth, she knew they were true. At the time, she was a prosecutor for the state and accustomed to thinking about what was appropriate in the courtroom, not on the beach. But in many ways, the idea of trading in legal briefs for ... er ... the other kind was not such a career leap. Notwithstanding the fact that Erika “grew up in a swimsuit” in a beach town outside San Diego, it was her legal mind that made sense of the fashion business. Today she devotes herself full-time to her company, Hawaiian Hula Girl, and is a rising star of the Hawai‘i swimwear scene. We thumb through her 2006 catalogue—suits range from a coy all-white lacey number to a vampish two-piece in a pinstripe print—as she remembers telling the state attorney general she was leaving her day job. “She liked my work and wanted me to stay on,” Erika recalls. “But when I told her I needed to follow my heart, she understood.”

 


Claudia Garcia Cabrera-Prantl's bikinis
are adorned with the crystals
of her Austrian homeland

Austrian-born Claudia Garcia Cabrera-Prantl is the final woman in this story who has followed her heart straight to bikinidom. Like Erika, she is a beginner in the two-piece biz—though she is hardly a beginner in the fashion biz. She has a degree from Europe’s prestigious Ferrari school of fashion and decades of design experience that she literally wears well: Her entrance in a Kaimukï coffee shop turns heads as she glides in, nattily dressed in a white suit, toting a bikini portfolio that bears her company’s name: Claudia’s Mermaids. As we discuss her work, she tells me that she has laced her suits with the Swarovski crystals of her homeland—it is a symbol of one form of loveliness reflecting another. Claudia shows me her prototypes: a black bikini adorned by Pele-inspired fire opal crystals; bright blue and yellow bikinis emblazoned with crystal butterflies or plumerias.

I ask Claudia how she came to be in Hawai‘i. It is a story that is new and also, by now, familiar: She tells me how three years ago she left behind her toney Munich studio, her Porsche and her yearly trips to Paris and Milan fashion shows after being inspired by a series of dreams. “I was looking up from the ocean and heard conch shells blowing and saw the mountains,” Claudia recalls. “I knew it was Hawai‘i, and it was pulling me. I had to go.” Claudia’s dreams sound to me uncannily like the visions that inspired young Jacqueline back in Papeete half a century ago. I think about Debbie, Lisa, Iwalani and Erika, too, all women who decided to trust that hemisphere of the brain where it is not reason but passion that rules. I wonder, is it true that we fashionistas love the fashionable precisely because it speaks to us from a place deeper and more satisfying than common sense? I hear again Jacqueline’s French-tinged inflection and her words, “You are pioneer.” I think about the fact that the bikini is turning sixty this year. And I realize that, sixty or not, this most groundbreaking of garments is still inspiring dreamers and revolutionaries. HH

To find the bikini makers above, visit www.letarteswimwear.com, www.pualanihawaii.com, www.pualanihawaii.com and www.claudiasmermaids.com. For Maui Girl, call 1-800-579-9266.