Home Grown 'n' Locally Sewn: Dale Hope & The Aloha Shirt

This feature is about shirts; tops, button-downs, pullovers, etc. - shirts. But not any old shirts, we’re all about Aloha Shirts. Bright or subtle, hand painted or block printed, wooden buttons or not, the Aloha Shirt has been a staple to the islands of Hawaii and across the Pacific for more than a century. Through the trends of fashion, Aloha Shirts and their infamous design have held strong in the spotlight, speckling the streets of Honolulu just as much as in Williamsburg (maybe even more). So, to learn more, we went straight to the guru himself, Dale Hope, to get the 411 on the history, cultural significance, and life of the beloved Hawaiian shirts.

Dale recently collaborated with the masterminds over at Patagonia to re-release the third edition of his book, The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands. Dale’s publisher worked with Patagonia to launch the Aloha Shirt Book Tour, where both coasts of Scrimshaw got to connect with Dale; Will met Dale at Patagonia Bowery in New York, NY, and then a week later Wes saw him at Patagonia Cardiff-by-the-Sea in Encinitas, CA (not to mention Rob Machado & Jeff Devine were there too). Inspired by his presentation and innate passion for Hawaii, we got Dale on the phone from his place in Oahu to pick his brain a bit further about the infamous Aloha Shirts. Make sure to check out Dale’s personal website - The Aloha Shirt - and if you want to purchase your own copy, CLICK THE PHOTO OF THE BOOK BELOW (or this link) TO BE ROUTED DIRECTLY TO PATAGONIA’S ON-LINE STORE!

Scrimshaw Collective (SC): Hi Dale, thanks so much for taking time to connect with us - we really appreciate it!

Dale Hope (DH): Aloha guys! I’m all yours for as long as you need - go for it!

SC: Awesome! So you explained briefly on your tour, that the book was originally published back in 2000, correct? Was that edition also with Patagonia?

DH: Yes, the first edition was originally in 2000, but no, that was with another publisher, Beyond Words Publishing (Portland, OR). It was a great book, beautiful, well designed, 224 pages, pretty much described as the definitive book on the subject. I was always quite content with it, and never thought it would be done again! But I have a really good friend from Patagonia when I used to worked there, who basically started the Patagonia operations in Japan from scratch, which is now super profitable and has a really strong following there. Fuji would come to Hawaii a couple times a year, really liked it, loved the people, and loved the shirts - loved them! So, one time I told Fuji, we needed to reprint the Aloha shirt book in Japan; long story short, different cover, but we did a version in Japanese too!

I thought that was going to be my LAST book again. Then most recently, the USA Patagonia people saw it, went to the editor and wanted to redo it in English. Then the editor and Patagonia came through and said, hey we’re going to be doing your book and all of a sudden they started getting a team together.

SC: That’s amazing! We’re assuming you got a pretty good team together?

DH: Of course! Non other than Jeff Devine, legendary surf photographer, was the Photo Curator for the book alongside Art Director Scott Massey. They both spent a week with me at my place in Hawaii, going through archives, papers, shirts, collectibles, digital stuff, artwork, and Jeff just started shooting away. We collected a reservoir of imagery, plus some from the Bishop Museum & State Archives, and ended up completely overhauling, adding over 150+ new pages - a completely new book.

Hey, so how old are you guys?

SC: 27.

DH: So when the book originally came out in 2000, it’s likely that you wouldn’t have known about it. But now that you’re at your age, it's really fun for me to see younger people learn and be interested in it. It's been really fun seeing all the young people coming to the book tour events on the mainland. It’s a whole new younger audience that’s keen to learn, which is pretty cool.

SC: Yeah! You start to appreciate things more over time. Growing up on the ocean and surfing, is something that resonates so much with us. And while neither of us have been to Hawaii, we really want to learn more about it, and this book has been essential to fuel our distant dream of getting there.

DH: That’s great to hear because I did it to showcase the beauty of Hawaii, which influenced the artists for these shirts, and in turn the art for the book. The Hawaii that the artists were immersed in during the 30s, 40s, and 50s, was a pretty magical place. Like I say in my talk, in 1936, Panam flew eight to nine people from San Francisco once a week (with mail), and the steamships would come once a week, with a couple hundred people over each load and only a couple hotels. Bronze beach boys, gorgeous girls, fresh fruit, it was magical because it wasn’t very accessible. Now we have 8 million something tourists a year!

But it started back then. You have the guys from California in their suits, asking the beach boys where they can get some HI shirts like the ones they have, because they don’t need to wear the wool suits they have to wear every day in SF. And the beach boys would walk them across the street or downtown to a tailor, and either buy a shirt or custom order a shirt. You could go down, pick your fabric, get measured, and in a couple days go down and pick up your shirt.

SC: You mentioned in your talk, that you’d found a couple rolls of unique fabric out for trash once at home, when you were going around and interviewing for the book. Remind us again, was that outside an old tailor or something similar?

DH: Well, that time I actually found textile art, that Alfred Shaheen had thrown away. He really had the best company in HI from the 1930s to today. To me he was the most amazing! I was really fortunate to have met him. I actually called his daughter and explained that our fathers were in the business, and that they might’ve known each other. I asked if I could come up to the mainland and talk to him. She called her father, asked him, and then she said sure, he would love to talk to you! I talked with him for hours in an Elks Club Lodge. One of the most intelligent men I’d ever met! They basically did everything. They created their own art, and would travel to Tahiti and elsewhere for influence. But I’d heard one night that Freddie threw away all his art designs, and that I should go pick them up. I was paddling professionally those days, but drove my van up there, and collected a huge bundle of art. Then (fast forward) in the process when I interviewed Alfred, I found out that his daughter was doing an excellent job at archiving all her father’s art so I ended up sending her a lot of them, of which I’d (up until that point) held on to forever. She never asked me how I got them! But Alfred to me was the epitome of a Hawaiian manufacturer. They had hundreds of employees, and if you put what they were making back then into today’s business, they’d be making $100 million a year - and the shirts were only selling for about $5!

SC: What!! $5 bucks - sounds like quite the legend! So tell us about your line, Hope For Man, isn’t that the name?

DH: Well, I had a line I started with my father HRH (His Royal Highness). My dad pulled me out of college and said I want you to come work with me, and I said - oh boy! He made really bright ladies stuff geared for the visitors. I hung out with him in the factory for about a two weeks and said if you want me to stick around, you’ve got to let me do shirts! He insisted there was no money in shirts, but I let him know other guys were doing it. And before you knew it, I started making reverse pullovers out of his fabric. Eventually got some open yardage for a new label but I needed a name and a label - quick! My dad said I didn’t have any time, so he gave me leftover labels from his boutique line that he had lying around. His name was Howard Robert Hope, abbreviated as HRH. So I bit my lip and used the name for ten years, which started to become a fairly meaningful company. But then - its a long story - I got the Kahala name, that had been bankrupt. At which point I wanted to change from HRH to Kahala (the original shirtmaker from ’36) but all the retailers said that if we changed the name we were going to lose loyal customers.

So I stuck with that, but now I do freelance projects with a bunch of people. There is this lady from the other side of town, in Kailua, Deb Mascia. She had this phenomenal store where everything was recycled; she’d get old muumuus and change them into something that young hip 22-year-olds would want to wear. Then one night she and her husband came over to our house for dinner and we sat and talked about things, and she was telling me about the shirts and fabric she had; then I showed her my collection. After seeing it all, she goes… “You’re the male version of me!” Then she says that she wants to do a line with all my shirts that are 20 years or older, called Hope For Man! Deb’s the most amazing designer & entrepreneur, she’s on the leading edge of sustainability, design, and fashion that’s kick ass here on the island. She’s got this great store, and I put my shirts in there. I actually have a photo of Prince Charles in one with Diana and the boys when they were little.

SC: That’s so cool, that Prince Charles rocked one of your shirts! So were these very special shirts you were curating with Deb?

DH: We’d have a story (on hangtags) of who the artist was, and tell how each one of them had a story! The shirts would go from $100-$1000 depending on the pedigree of the shirt. Her shop was amazing. Mark Cunningham collected skegs from the beach for nearly 40 years, put them all together, made collages and other artwork and debuted them in an art show opening gallery hosted in her shop! Additionally, she’s had Jack Johnson perform in the store. But unfortunately the landlord wanted to charge her more, and she had to close MuuMuu Heaven, but relocated and reopened as Hana Hoa Vintage.

SC: Sucks to hear that she’s not in the same shop, but glad she’s still got something similar going on!

DH: Yeah - how’s this though?! She’s just got her real estate license, and is doing great! She’ll reopen a bigger store someday!

SC: Great to hear on that front. Speaking of, I can only imagine what the real estate is going for now across all the islands, comparatively, to what it was like (maybe) back in the day.

DH: When my parents bought their first house - in a relatively nice neighborhood - that same price could probably go a couple month's mortgage payment in today’s world. It’s happening everywhere.

SC: Hey Dale, I had a question, from the cover of this book, is this a shirt that you actually have?

DH: Yeah, it is and it's one of my favorites. I got it about 30 years ago, when it wouldn’t have cost much money. I’d never seen that shirt, and I haven’t seen it again, not even in any other book or mook (mook: a Japanese publication similar to a magazine). It was hand painted, and it could’ve been done before the war, we don’t really know, maybe a limited run, didn’t sell well… hard to say exactly. The intricacy of that pattern the canoe, which is a wooden one log hand carved canoe (40 ft. long), can ride waves with a plumper design, staying above the water, and there’s four caucasian girls & two local guys steering the boat. Guy on the back is wearing a captain’s hat with scrambled eggs on it, that’s what those guys wore (when I was a kid) those were the hats! There’s tandem surfers, the guy throwing the net, and the silhouette of Diamond head framing the coconut trees - I mean I just love it.

Jeff and Scott and I came up with this one, I’d made a allover t-shirt with that print, and I said here’s the art; it's already been separated and I can get this for the book.

SC: That’s amazing, and that’s what I think is really just so fascinating, is that there seems to be story for virtually every shirt. Well maybe not every shirt, but at least every design. And that each one speaks it’s own story depending on who designed it, who wore it, etc.

D: Yeah who the artist was, who the inspiration was? Who the maker was? To me the story is just as important as the fabric, the buttons, the label, and all that other stuff. The story is always important to me. There are some companies that don’t care about the stories and they just make shirts, and I’d bite my lip and say shake my head and it's all about the story.

SC: So you told me something about my shirt at the NYC Book Release, it’s a paradise Found one. Was it Joe…?

DH: Yeah Joe Atkinson! Joe used to be the Ocean Pacific rep out here and drove a Rolls Royce with the OP on it! Super gregarious guy! He ended up doing so well, as Hawaii was the biggest market, he left OP and started his own clothing company called Paradise Found. He had the good fortune of Tom Selleck wearing one (or a couple) of his shirts, from his show out here in Hawaii. And I think they literally sold a million shirts of the one Tom was wearing. It was a little orchid print… I mean you talk about the STORY. Tom was driving his red sports car, and his black orchid shirt, and they must’ve done a million shirts.

SC: I know the exact shirt, from photos!

DH: Well you know he was younger then. Volleyball, fit, big mustache.

SC: The stache, man - we (try and) do it every Movember.

DH: The girls were chasing him and he was chasing them.

Source: Google Images, mauishirts.com

SC: With that, and popularizing the style of one design, I’ve noticed online when looking to buy used Aloha Shirts, we’re seeing a lot of popovers or pullovers, and I’m not seeing that as much anymore. I mean I’m seeing lots of short sleeve pullovers, but no aloha print ones, and I was wondering if that was a thing, or if it faded out?

DH: You know, it brought dignity to the guys working the board rooms in the 1960s. The 50s were too bright, too much for serious guys. Then came along the patterns for the button down pullover, with specific prints, two-tone Tahitian style. They were pretty conservative, and fairly gentlemanly conceived. Not big and bright, but it would enable the guys in town to wear them to work - and it was a big deal. Like the bankers would wear them versus a suit and tie. We started working with an artist about 15-18 years ago called Avi. And he was somebody who I saw a block print by, from the Big Island. For our company, we were doing a punch of pullovers, and most of them were reverse style. But Avi was doing all of this intricate block printing. So... when we reversed the print, we unfortunately lost a lot of the detail that way. So we actually got away from the reverse and pullover style to avoid losing detail and better showcasing his art. We did more of a tailored standard Aloha shirt, and I vowed never to wear a reversed pullover again. So in those days we kind of pulled the market that direction.

SC: So not necessarily reversible, but the bold print of the fabric is on the inside?

DH: Yeah so what happened in the 60s was, one guy got one made for him because he didn’t want a bright one, and made them more subtle, giving them an entire new look and consumer. It was a powerful move to switch. Yeah it had a nice look, and was a really big thing! We all used to wear them in middle and high school, because the coolest surfers were all wearing them too.

SC: Well Dale, one final thing - with this being such a big part of your life, and the third book with such an incredible company like Patagonia, how has this tour been, from Coast to Coast? I think you’ve still got Honolulu now and maybe another…?

DH: We’ve got town (Honolulu) and country (Haleiwa) coming up, and books are being received in the Patagonia stores for distribution. Plus the books are going to be going through to Barnes and Nobles, possibly RRL - Ralph Lauren, we’ll see! My dream with this momentum would be to do a documentary about the Aloha Shirt. Do it really well, make it fun and tell the story!

SC: Well Dale, you know we’ll be there in person, front row! Hope to see you soon again and thank you so much for your time and expertise!

DH: And of course, come on out and we’ll get you on the water anytime! Aloha!