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Hawaiian Themes Chic Again

Like a gentle ocean tide, Hawaiian and other island themes have gone in and out of fashion in American clothing, décor, and music.

Older Americans remember a TV celebrity named Arthur Godfrey, who strummed his ukulele and sang silly little songs in the 1950s.

In the 1960s a perky character named "Gidget" went Hawaiian in one of her beach movies, and Elvis fell in love in, and with the islands in Blue Hawaii.

The allure of the magical Pacific islands spread to a big U.S. hotel chain, which opened Kon-Tiki restaurants across the country. And tourists flocked to the islands to hear crooner Don Ho sing Hawaiian songs with an American pop beat.

Slowly, "Hawaiiana" faded from popularity, but now, everything Hawaiian is chic again.

The Tommy Bahamas brand, which sold $3 million worth of upscale island wear in 1995, has rung up 300 million in sales so far this year. Quicksilver, which sells surfing clothes, has already topped $1 billion sold this year and not just in beach towns.

One of the hottest new bars in New York City is Waikiki Wally's, complete with sentry tiki statues and an array of syrupy-sweet drinks.

There are authentic hula-dancing schools called halaus in several western states, and senior citizens around the country are dancing the hula and clapping split bamboo sticks called puilis in exercise class. University classes in the traditional Hawaiian slack-key guitar technique have long waiting lists. And mainstream stores like Pottery Barn, with shops across the nation, can hardly keep Aloha Girl cocktail plates and grass-mat rugs in stock.

But why? Why is Hawaiian hot?

There's a surfing craze, for one thing. The California market research firm Board-Trac estimates that 2.5 million Americans surfed in 2001. Marie Case, Board-Trac's managing director, says that's a million more people than took to their surfboards and body boards three years earlier.

"There is sort of a mystique that goes along with surfing. It's kind of the California dream or the Hawaii dream," Ms. Case said. "If you live in Chicago or on the East Coast, maybe you just want a little piece of that, because it reminds you of your vacation or a laid back, relaxed time."

Ms. Case says extreme sports competitions on television have fueled interest in surfing, as has a spate of surfing videos and movies.

Two hit the theaters this summer, Blue Crush, about a hard-core surfer girl, and Lilo and Stitch, a Disney animated feature about a Hawaiian girl who goes surfing with an extra-terrestrial!

Quicksilver vice president Randy Hild says the island appeal is global.

"Designers out of Paris are referencing the surf culture," he said. "Chanel just had a runway show about a month ago, and the models were wearing surfin' clothes and carrying surfboards down the runway. When you wear an Aloha Shirt, a Hawaiian print shirt, along with it comes this kind of fun attitude. You know, all of us could use a little bit more easy living in our crazy lives these days."

So America is "Surfin'-U.S.A." again. Eric Hertz, a New York clothing analyst, says people are snapping up island fashions.

"Clothes have a way of counteracting whatever's happening in the world. If you go back over time, you'll find that during the 'down' economies, clothes have become brighter, more colorful, more eclectic, more playful," he said. "I think that's what we're seeing right now. Escapism, if you will. It's kind of 'retro.' It kind of harkens back to simpler times. The motifs will change. There'll be different colors, different themes. But this idea of a lighthearted look, a very colorful print approach, I think is going to have some momentum."

Yet this boom in casual wear comes at a time when companies and law firms are re-instituting strict business attire on the job, even doing away with "dress down Fridays." But Mr. Hertz says this has not slowed the Hawaiian craze.

"As people are being channeled to dress up more for work, they feel like they should have more fun during the weekend when they can 'dress down'," he said.

Frank Haas is the marketing director for the Tourism Board in Hawaii, where tourism revenue is down this year because of a fall-off in Japanese visitors. But Mr. Haas says mainland Americans are arriving in record numbers. They're re-discovering the islands and the appeal of Hawaiian fashions, arts and crafts, and clothing.

"The good thing about the Aloha wear is that the industry has a range of styles and a range of qualities. Some of the shirts are quite dressy," Mr. Haas said. "They're certainly more subdued than the stereotype flamboyant shirt. So you can still be Hawaiian, you can still have a Hawaiian sense of style without looking touristy."

Twenty-year-old Darla Nesbit sells lots of flowery Hawaiian wear in a shop called Roxy in Costa Mesa, California.

"Definitely laid back. Dresses and stuff, you know, with the Hawaiian prints," she said. "A lot of people wear them to, like, Hawaiian luau-themed parties. It looks kinda happy-go-lucky, and so people therefore want to be a part of it."

Winter will soon be upon the United States. Beach bums and bunnies will still be wearing bright island clothes in places like Key West, Florida, and Newport Beach, California. Elsewhere there will be a lull in Hawaiiana sales. But with the first warm breezes of spring, out will come the surfboard wax, the floral shirts and flip-flop shoes, and maybe even a couple of old Don Ho albums.