75 years strong: Considering the aloha shirt

November 24th, 2011

Nadine Kam photos

Aloha shirt judges Sig Zane, left, and Amos Kotomori, listen to a discussion of the merits of various designs in an aloha shirt contest that took place Nov. 19 at the Kahala Hotel & Resort.

There’s been much discussion within the pages of our paper recently, regarding President Obama and APEC officials passing on the opportunity to don an aloha shirt for an official photo.

Perhaps, I reasoned, by wearing their dark suits, this was Obama’s way of showing that Hawaii is not just a playground but a serious place to do business. Yet, a few days later, he donned a traditional Balinese shirt for an ASEAN banquet in Indonesia.

Which makes a Nov. 19 aloha shirt contest sponsored by Hawaiian Air, Pomare, and Hana Hou, quite timely. Judging of the contest took place the same day that Obama donned the Indonesian shirt, and as one of five judges, we discussed the way the popularity of the aloha shirt is waning with a younger generation weaned on T-shirts.

The contest was created to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the aloha shirt, to get people to think about their personal connection to the aloha shirt, consider its history and its future. As more of a philosophical and theoretical exercise, the winning shirt won’t actually be produced.

What came across in the more than 100 entries in the inaugural contest, is that there tends to be more aloha for the shirt abroad than at home, where we tend to take the shirt for granted as part of the landscape.

In entry after entry, which came in from Thailand to Dubai, it was amazing to see how the designs reflected such vivid, picturesque and personal reflections of the entrants’ love for Hawaii and experiences here—everything from getting drunk and cherishing the elements of a mai tai, to fearing for the fragile ecosystem and the plight of native birds. Then there was the hyper-personal, with one entrant submitting a repeat pattern of an image of his/her born-in-Hawaii cat, Rusty.

Entries came, not only from graphic and textile artists and illustrators, but from attorneys, beekeepers, teachers, physicians and an unemployed contractor.

It was a tough contest to judge, not only because of the varied entries, but because of the varied backgrounds of the judges. I found myself judging alongside longtime designers and aloha shirt creators Amos Kotomori, Dale Hope, Sig Zane and Carol Yotsuda, executive director of the Garden Island Arts Council, who is also a Living Treasure of Hawaii. The latter two flew in from the Big Island and Kauai, respectively, to participate in the contest.

It was a lengthy process as we whittled the shirts down from 100 to 34, with each judge selecting their top 10. At that point, judging coordinator Chris Pearce and facilitator Jan Nagano hoped that the field would be narrowed to 20, but there was so little overlap among judges that most designs received only one vote, and only one shirt got 4 out of 5 votes.

The front view of the winning design by Vaopele Tiatia.

The back view of the winning design by Vaopele Tiatia.

At that point came the long task of scoring each of the finalists based on composition, originality, Hawaiian spirit and wow factor. Which is very different from going with our initial reaction. Some designs I liked, for instance, were only vaguely Hawaiian. In fact, the design that struck me as soon as I walked in the door was inspired by the Australian band Hoodoo Gurus and its song “Leilani,” in turn based on the 1951 movie, “Bird of Paradise.” The song is about a young woman who sacrifices herself to the volcano, leaving her lover alone on the beach. The retro design had a background of orange, with symmetrical palm trees at the chest, and the forlorn young man sitting alone in contemplation. The back had a huge volcano with a girl at the center, which was somewhat excessive.

Another shirt all the judges liked, but which was deemed to lack wow factor in a contest of this type, was an all-over pattern incorporating laulau. And although a fish-scale photographic pattern hadn’t been in my top 10, I liked it more when I considered its originality on a second pass.

It was interesting to hear the judges talk about their usual process. Dale, for instance, said that whenever a graphic designer approached him with images to sell, he might flip through hundreds of designs in a matter of minutes. In a split second, he might make a $30,000 to $50,000 decision, the minimum cost of putting a shirt into production.

Which is vastly different from my journalism perspective, where I not only live in a world of ideas but celebrate the weird, new and different, without introducing finances to the equation. When I did, by opening a vintage shop on King Street in the early ’90s, I ran out of cash in a year. People who frequented the shop—which featured a range of 1950s cocktail dresses and Hawaiiana, ’60s mod, ’70s hippie and disco, and upscale vintage Lanvin and Pucci—now tell me that the shop was years ahead of its time, which makes sense. I tend to live in the future, always looking for the next idea, ahead of the typical consumer. But in retail, you can’t even be as little as a year ahead of the pack, you have to be in sync with the market.

In spite of all our differences in perspectives, we came to a unanimous decision in choosing the winning design by Vaopele Tiatia of Vaopele Design, Inc., in Utah.

His design pays homage to predecessors Ellery Chun and Alfred Shaheen, and we appreciated the thought that went into the design elements, from the kapa-like backdrop full of Hawaiian motifs, to the inclusion of elements that embrace multiple facets of Hawaiian life.

While we appreciated the way many shirts graphically honed in on specific aspects of life in Hawaii, we ultimately thought this design captured the big picture.

For his effort, Tiatia wins a round trip for two to Honolulu on Hawaiian Airlines, with
four nights’ accommodations at the Kahala Hotel and Resort, a prize valued at $2,500.

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3 Responses to “75 years strong: Considering the aloha shirt”

  1. Aloha designs | Aspiringcatwal:

    [...] 75 years strong: Considering the aloha shirt – Fashion Tribe – Hawaii … [...]

  2. Rich Rogowski:

    Most of these designs look digitally illustrated. They look stale and inhuman. I would’ve liked to see something more vibrant and new.

  3. Emma Howard:

    Your account of the judging process was fascinating to read! .

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