The Kahala Story
Like a Hawaiian version of the phoenix, that mythical bird that rises from its own ashes, this legendary Aloha shirt designer label Kahala, flourished in the ‘40s, went bankrupt in the ‘70s, and was revived in modern times. Today the Kahala label is proudly brandished by a team of ultra-professional clothiers who are committed to preserving--and extending--the original’s legacy.
The original company was founded in 1936 as a partnership between the Frenchman George Brangier and a Californian, Nat Norfleet. Brangier, lured to Hawai‘i by his friend and swimming champion Duke Kahanamoku, was smitten with the culture, later opening a men’s clothing shop. By 1936 he and Norfleet had a factory producing shirts and swimwear.
Originally called Branfleet Sports Wear, the company was one of the first to switch from making strictly tailor-made shirts, to make them through a manufacturing process. The name change to Kahala, took place in 1951. Surfing legend Duke Kanamoku was associated with Kahala Sportswear (Branfleet) in the mid-1930s until 1943 as a fashion consultant . The "Duke" was associated with the company again in 1961. During this period a Duke Kahanamoku label was created with the words “made in Hawaii by Kahala” directly beneath Duke’s name.
The romance and beauty of Hawai‘i were emblazoned in their Island motifs on print; designs included hibiscus, hula patterns, and even the Aloha tower. During World War II, the Aloha shirt industry thrived as GIs stationed on the Islands wore them while off-duty, and the shirt became popular with locals now deprived of imports. After the war, servicemen transported them back to Mainland. Between the ‘40s and ‘60s, Kahala’s complete line of women’s clothing met with great success across the country, and the firm went on to produce clothing for some of the era’s best surfers. But by the 1970s the company had fallen into disarray. Once one of America’s leading clothiers, it finally went bankrupt.
Dale Hope bought the Kahala name in 1979, fully aware that he was stepping into some very big shoes. ”We wanted to keep its legacy going with quality garments, and interesting art reflecting a passion for the Islands,” he recalls. “But it had a formidable reputation.”
Hope, who was born in Honolulu, spent his life in and around Hawai‘i's garment industry. He inherited his parents clothing business when he was in his twenties. Hope is widely recognized as an authority on Aloha shirts, he received the first Governor's Cup for "Hawaii Apparel Manufacturer of the Year" in 1987. He is also author of the "Aloha Shirt Book" which is the most influential authority on the subject.
Hope had been working with his dad in the men’s shirt business under the label HRH. “Our label was confused with the English royalty; it wasn’t romantic; and it was a hard name to advertise,” says Hope. The name Kahala was also the name of a fashionable O‘ahu neighborhood bounded by beautiful Kahala Beach. “I wanted to change the name,” he says, “so we threw a big garden party and fashion show at a house on Kahala Beach.”
The buyers were persuaded and HRH officially became Kahala in 1979. In 1991 Hope sold the company, remaining as art director for 10 years, returning as brand manager when Tori Richard bought the company in 2006.
Hope and his team worked on creating a new label, new designs, evolving print techniques, and improving colors. Aloha shirts from the early illustrious years are prized for the artistry of print, fabrication, and stitching. Even some of their labels were regarded as mini art pieces. Hope seeks to maintain and recreate these high standards. He uses print houses in Japan that have served Kahala for decades. He prints on the finest cottons, rayon and linens and “much like the ’40s or ‘50s, the designs are elegant reflections of Hawaiian lifestyle, prints that have stories or meanings that are real.”
For a new label, Hope’s meticulous efforts took him out into the ocean to photograph a man paddling an outrigger canoe in the surf. Colors are denim-friendly, and prints have a hand-done feel, with a softer garment-washed look. Subtle changes in the Aloha shirts include color, contrast binding in the collar, zigzag stitching on the pocket, and unique recycled buttons.
Emma Howard, one of the artists who worked closely with Hope, does all her work for Kahala by hand. Each motif is unique, even if repeated. Howard’s studio -- a former carport near the beach, where she can hear the ocean and feel the wind -- overlooks palm trees and plumerias, which have inspired some of her designs.
“Kahala’s customers are people who connect with the outdoors,” says Hope. “They look at our work and realize it’s an accurate reflection of something very special.” He sees his role as, “shepherd of the brand, guiding it and keeping it faithful to the customers.” He added: “We interpret Island lifestyle and put them on our garments, so people can wear their passion.”
Written by Aviva Myers. Originally published in Hawaiian Style magazine Vol. 5 No. 3