Material World

Dale Hope waxes nostalgic about his ever-growing assortment of textiles and aloha shirts.

Dale Hope grew up with a love of aloha shirts that he saw all the other boys wearing. At home, he enjoyed opening up his father’s closet for the explosion of print and color, and imagined the shirts would always be there for him to wear when he got older. But, he was mistaken.

His father, Howard Robert Hope, owned Sun Fashion of Hawaii, specializing in women’s apparel, but the boom and bust cycles of the industry meant that the Hope family would often end a strong season buying a home, only to sell at downturns.

Frequent moves over the years meant the shirts the younger Hope loved disappeared over time. Vowing he would never see a treasured shirt go missing again, he started buying his own shirts. Th at has led to a collection of what he believed to be no more than 100 shirts, although, after making a bet with his wife several years ago, he counted more than 300.

Hope still doesn’t keep track of new acquisitions, because he doesn’t consider himself a collector at all. He just loves the nostalgia of the shirts, prized for their fabric and prints and the story they tell about the growth of the fashion industry here, and who we are.

“Wearing an aloha shirt is acknowledging you like the people who made them, that

HawaiÊ»i is a very special place, and that you’re fond of this place and the culture we live in. It’s a great way to say, ‘I love HawaiÊ»i.'”

Hope’s parents worked in New York’s fashion industry before moving to Hawai‘i. Howard sold fabric, but after seeing he could make more money creating and selling finished garments, started manufacturing clothing.

Helping out at the family’s factory, Dale said he often begged his father to make him shirts, which meant stopping production of women’s wear to cut and produce a boy’s shirt, and that didn’t happen often enough.

Hope said he started running to competitor Kahala to buy $8 shirts at the wholesale price of $4.

Then, as an eighth grader, he discovered Dave Rochlen’s Surf Line Hawaii, which opened his eyes to the future HawaiÊ»i fashion.


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"In Tokyo, I saw this shirt from afar … I had never seen this print of early surfers in Waikiki and the label was also new to me—'Waikiki Shirts The Liberty House Honolulu.' I had to get it!" This shirt was created by a company in San Francisco called Art Vogue. The art was done by Wolfgang Wolff, who created a series of tropical designs that were called the Master Painters collection. He also illustrated the book I Went Native in 1939, which also carries a similar theme.

“He was doing things that no one else was doing. His use of prints, colors, advertising promotions with great-looking girls and guys; everything he did was fun and cool and completely different from what my dad was doing for resort shops.”

When time came for Hope to go off to college, his father said he needed him at home to help with the family biz, and Dale had one condition, that he allow him to pursue the men’s shirt business.

His father wasn’t sure there was a market, but Dale insisted, “Dave Rochlen’s still in business, so there has to be.”

Entering the market just as HawaiÊ»i began attracting millions of tourists, increasing the need for local apparel, Hope easily sold Liberty House on his shirts, labeled with his father’s initials, HRH. Several other Ala Moana boutiques followed LH’s lead, and with the mall covered, Hope moved on to Waikiki’s many resort stores.

One day his father sat him down and said, “You’re really in the art business; you’re selling art.”

While past generations of garment manufacturers relied on traveling artists to come into their establishments and show their portfolios, Hope said companies like Surf Line, Malia and Tori Richard were branching out, reaching out to artists and traveling, delving into different worlds of inspiration to influence their lines.

Then suddenly, at age 25, Hope found himself heading the family business following the death of his father. He wasn’t certain that he could run a company on his own but he persevered, saying, “Early on, I started working with better artists, local artists, not necessarily textile artists. Eventually we started working with fine artists.”

He’d long believed that a surfboard shaper is only as good as the surfer guiding the design, and feeling the same held true for textile designers, he provided as much information as he could on the various fish, canoe, surf and other themes for shirts created for Kahala, one of his favorite childhood shirt companies, which he bought in 1986.

He wanted each rendering to be accurate, “so that a mother, daughter or wife could trust that it would be something her husband, brother or son would love because of the attention to detail and the accurate representation of the canoe or fish, whatever we were working on.”

He knew that if he could win over the five percent of people who understood the fine details, he could get a general audience to follow their lead.

In the 1990s, waterman Tommy Holmes approached Hope with the idea of collaborating on a book about the aloha shirt, but Holmes died before the project got underway. Hope felt it was important to document the history of the Hawaiʻi icon because by then, the vintage shirts from the 1930s through 1970s were already disappearing, along with the stories they told about the roots of the industry, from fabric to prints reflecting changing perceptions, interests and technology.

In the 1930s, for example, prints from Japan reflected artists’ unfamiliarity with HawaiÊ»i. The “Hawaiians” they depicted had Japanese features. Th ere was more accuracy in later renderings, and among Hope’s favorite shirts is one depicting musicians and dancers he remembered hanging out near the Royal Hawaiian Hotel at pau hana time.

“The pants they’re wearing, the color of their shirts, the coconut hats, it brings back a lot of memories,” he said.

Working on the now-famous book, The Aloha Shirt—Spirit of the Islands, took Hope across the United States to scour vintage shops and interview dozens of collectors, who in the late ’90s were sometimes spending up to $10,000 on a single shirt. If the market has waned, Hope says it’s because few of the vintage shirts are available “because the collectors are holding on to them.”

Th is year, he intends to start work on a documentary about the aloha shirt, and his long-term goal is to see the establishment of a museum dedicated to the aloha shirt.

In the meantime, he continues to browse the racks of thrift stores in search of the rare piece of fabric or print that catches his eye. “I can go through a store pretty quickly. All I’m looking at is the sleeve.”

He also keeps his eyes on the side of the road for potential treasures when he’s on his bicycle.

“It doesn’t happen often, but once I saw a pair of palace shorts on top of clothing being tossed out. Looking through it, I found a red-and-white cotton shirt with coconut hats, and that’s the kind of thing that makes me smile and really makes my heart sing.”

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