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Hawaiian Aloha shirts go mainstream!


April 4, 2014

WHEN EVERY MENSWEAR label in the known universe, from top-tier Italian fashion houses to middle-market department store brands, embraces the same trend, you know there's something in the air. This spring, it's a very specific aroma—Bubble Gum surf wax and hibiscus, with notes of sinsemilla—and it's wafting off the once-humble Aloha shirt, beloved uniform of SoCal surfers, Hawaiian locals and hard-partying uncles the world over.

Just a few of the big names who've raided Jeff Spicoli's closet: Prada, Dries Van Noten, Ovadia & Sons, Tommy Hilfiger, Ami, Saint Laurent, Shipley & Halmos and Junya Watanabe. Together, they've invited one of menswear's most iconic, if kitschy, garments to the cool kids' table.

After years of abuse on film and television, however, the traditional Hawaiian button-down comes laden with pop-cultural baggage. On the mainland, at least, it's remained something of a novelty act. All of which begs the question: Will regular guys go Magnum, P.I.?

Mimi Fukuyoshi, vice president of men's sportswear and shoes at Bergdorf Goodman, said her team invested deeply in Hawaiian-inspired shirting this season. "Florals are a great, relatable trend that's available at all price points and to all walks of life," she said. Ms. Fukuyoshi said the store bought shirts from a wide range of designers, "even Tom Ford in our tailored clothing department." 

According to textile expert and author Dale Hope (who wrote a seminal history of the garment, "The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands," and is currently working on a documentary about them), Hawaiian shirts were invented around 1935 in Honolulu as a souvenir for visiting tourists. They were originally made from leftover cotton muumuu fabric, though the remnants were eventually swapped for original prints made of cheaper, silkier rayon. Emblazoned with Polynesian-themed tableaux and brightly colored floral patterns, they were boxy, and meant to be worn untucked. One savvy maker even marketed them as "wearable postcards."

In the early 1940s, returning servicemen introduced them to the U.S., ushering in the golden era of Aloha- shirt design. It lasted until the late '50s when loud florals, and rayon in particular, fell out of fashion. However, demand spiked again in 1966 after the Hawaiian Fashion Guild lobbied to make "Aloha Fridays" an accepted tradition in Hawaiian business and politics, giving men a more relaxed alternative to traditional coat and tie. By the '90s, the custom had spread to California, and soon the world, but under a new name: Casual Fridays. (If you work in an office where men dress like teenagers, thank Hawaii.)

Today, there's a serious trade in rare vintage shirts, which change hands for thousands of dollars at auction, online and off. Mr. Hope was impressed by the latest interpretations from Prada and other designers. "The patterns they're using have a deep history, often coming from the best era—the late '40s and '50s—when artists hand-painted beautiful pieces of art that reflected the romantic virtues of the Pacific," he said.

Randy Hild, co-founder of retro-inspired surfwear label M. Nii, has collected vintage Alohas for over 40 years and has a collection that's 200 strong. "You can't not smile after you slip one on," said Mr. Hild. "It's like you're instantly on vacation."

Mr. Hild covets rayon shirts from the '40s by labels like Duke Kahanamoku and Reyn Spooner, and credits the renewed interest to fashion-savvy kids in Southern California and Americana-obsessed vintage aficionados in Japan. "A new generation is finding them in their grandfathers' closets and vintage shops," he said. "They'll even have the sides tailored for a slimmer fit." Those unwilling to scour vintage racks can now hit Bergdorf's and other retailers. Ms. Fukuyoshi said that Ami's take on the trend is a good way to test the waters. "It isn't a major investment," she said. "And the print is a larger scale and more masculine."

First-time Aloha-wearers, she added, can "ground the novelty factor" by pairing the shirt with jeans or chinos. After that, it's party time. "A Hawaiian shirt," said Mr. Hope, "gives you permission to have another beer."

Hawaiian shirts are timeless