Flower Empowered


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It is said that Cicero opined, more than two thousand years ago, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”

Haku lei maker and fashion designer Meleana Estes would likely agree. Estes grew up surrounded by gardens and flowers lovingly tended by her grandmother, Amelia Bailey, master lei maker and Punahou’s beloved costume coordinator for two decades. Today, Estes carries on her grandmother’s legacy, creating stunning haku lei that beautifully meld her grandmother’s traditional style with Estes’ unique, contemporary, creative twist.

“I was raised with a lei-making grandma,” Estes laughs. “I always had a lei on my head!” What she didn’t know growing up was that she’d end up one of Hawai‘i’s most coveted haku lei makers, taking her grandmother’s teaching and infusing it with her own unique style. She headed out doggedly pursuing a career in fashion design—a passion she continues to foster and cultivate—but the flowers kept showing up. “Flowers are my muse,” she says, influencing her decisions on palette and design. Maybe her fellow designers and friends saw it before she did. “My friend launched my lei making by pushing my creativity to make statement pieces for her photo shoot,” Estes recalls. That was in 2015, and she’s not slowed down since.

“A beautiful croton leaf can be my launching point,” Estes says.”One hot neon orange leaf changes everything!” Her flair for creating bold and unique pieces that extend the imagination-big spikey creations made from materials not normally seen in haku lei-has redefined the traditional craft and brought new generations of aspiring lei makers to the table.

Just check out her lei making workshops at Paiko, the botanical boutique and coffee shop nestled in Kaka‘ako’s SALT complex. Maybe it’s the draw of cocktails and gorgeous flowers, but she packs the house almost every time, many of them first-timers who’ve never picked up a lei needle. She revels in the joy of her students, watching them cast off some need for perfection and instead follow their own creative muse. “People are so happy at the end of the workshops,” she says, reflecting on the lure and beauty of flowers. “Nobody carries their lei home. Instead, they all walk out with it on their heads, happy, laughing.” For Estes, the greatest reward comes weeks and months later, when she receives photos from workshop attendees, showing off the creations they’ve made for family and special occasions. “It’s my greatest honor,” she says, “Knowing that they’ve gone home and collected flowers from their own yards—plants they maybe hadn’t even noticed before—and now they’re making lei with them.”

Estes is quick to push aside the term “master lei maker” when describing her work. “There are way more talented lei makers out there,” she says. “I’m uncomfortable with that term.” Instead, she focuses on the possibility, always looking for inspiration, new ideas, new material for her creations.”We live in this beautiful place,” she says. “No person in Hawai‘i shouldn’t have a lei needle!”

Her eyes are constantly focused, finding new colors, textures, and materials in her yard, at the beach with her son, driving around town.”I always tell people, ‘Make friends with neighbors who have colors in their yard you like!” she laughs. But she’s also quick to remind students to gather responsibly. “It’s not just about picking,” she says, “But also caring for the resources too.”

Today, her calendar is packed with photo shoots and events where she’s charged with creating floral magic. From fashion shoots to magazine layouts to private events, she’s there, crafting lei, table decor, and staging. Asked to recall that pivotal moment when she realized a career had been born, Estes immediately turned to a photo shoot and event on the North Shore. “There I was, doing the lei and decor for this event,” she says, “Working fast, on the fly, and it all came together. I looked around and thought ‘Wow, I’m pretty good at this—problem-solving with flowers.’”

Tutu passed in 2012, before Estes launched her lei making endeavors. But Estes knows she’s watching, maybe giggling at some of her creations and proud that the tradition continues. “Tutu instilled in me a love for flowers,” she says. “And I get to pass on that joy with my own creative expression. I’m just so grateful.”

Today, Estes lives in that same house where she grew up wearing her grandmother’s creations, surrounded by the same gardens and the books that her Tutu collected over her lifetime. Just as Cicero said, she’s got the library and the garden, and for Estes and her family, that’s just about everything they need.

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