It began with sunset cocktails at Kona Inn in fall 1997. Among those talking story with Kumu Hula George Naʻope were Chelle Pahinui; her husband, Cyril, of slack key guitar fame; and Evan and Gwen Olins, who sold fine “Hawaiiana” antiques and collectibles, including new and vintage aloha shirts, at their store, Hula Heaven, at Kona Inn Shopping Village.
As the sun went down, Naʻope shared his idea for an aloha shirt festival.
“Aloha shirts are as synonymous with Hawaiʻi as poi and surfing,” Pahinui said. “Everyone from beachboys and athletes to movie stars and presidents have worn them; they’re our islands’ most well-known contribution to the fashion industry.
“Uncle George’s idea was to have an event that celebrated the aloha shirt as well as traditional wearable art, including lei, kapa, woven lauhala and ʻohe kāpala (bamboo stamping). He thought vintage, traditional and contemporary Hawaiʻi apparel should be featured, attracting collectors and fashionistas as well as supporting local designers, artists and artisans. He and Cyril were fashionistas to the max. They loved wearing clothes that showed off Hawaiʻiʻs unique style.”
Pahinui agreed to spearhead planning for the festival. With the help of a County of Hawaiʻi grant, it launched at Kona Inn in November 1998 with a barbecue buffet, live entertainment headlined by Cyril, and a month-long exhibit of vintage aloha wear from the Olins’ private collection.
“The intent was to do the event annually, but Kona Inn had limited space for growth,” Pahinui said. “Since Uncle George taught hula in Keauhou, it was preferable to have it on the west side of the island. I contacted other hotels there, but nothing jelled.”
Naʻope passed away in 2009; Cyril in 2018. Pahinui was busy running her family’s farm in Kona and serving as the executive director of Naʻalehu Theatre, when Outrigger Hospitality Group purchased a hotel in Keauhou in 2021 and rebranded it the Outrigger Kona Resort and Spa. With the new acquisition came an opportunity to revive the Aloha Shirt Festival. Outrigger Kona came on board as the venue, and the event was reintroduced in 2022 without much fanfare.
This year, with Naʻalehu Theatre again serving as the producer, it’s being widely promoted as the Aloha Shirt Festival, Vintage Era Exhibit and Fashion Week Hawaiʻi.
Primo Brewing Company, which traces its beginnings back to 1897, and Jams World, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, will be spotlighted in the exhibit. In addition to apparel, attendees can view the companies’ original advertisements, textile artwork, swatches and production sketches.
Two fashion shows will unveil creations by some 15 designers from throughout Hawaiʻi. The evolution of Hawaiʻi’s clothing industry will unfold each night on the runway, from hand-stamped kapa and plantation palaka to styles influenced by immigrant groups and looks that are head-turners today.
Micah Kamohoalii will open Friday’s vintage-themed show and close Saturday’s show of contemporary fashions. The renowned Hawaiʻi Island kumu hula wowed critics at Fashion Week New York in 2021 and Fashion Week London, Milan and Paris last year. He also won a coveted Emmy award this year for a 30-second television commercial, “Calling the Winds/Hole Waimea,” promoting his brand, Dezigns by Kamohoalii.
Pahinui says this all adds up to a celebration with numerous benefits and great potential. Hawaiians’ first fabric, kapa, was made from native plants, trees and flowers, which inspires interest in them. The festival also raises awareness about, and demand for, local apparel.
“Visitors get to know Hawaiʻi designers and become loyal customers,” Pahinui said. “To them, aloha shirts aren’t just souvenirs; they’re cherished items to keep in their wardrobe for years. In fact, the Japanese are major collectors of aloha shirts.
“The festival is a place to learn about the Hawaiian culture and creative kamaʻāina whose ancestors came to the islands from all over the world. Diverse ethnic groups have influenced past and present designs. Aloha wear is not only a Hawaiʻi thing, it’s a global phenomenon.”
The Aloha Shirt Festival, Vintage Era Exhibit and Fashion Week Hawaiʻi is set for Thursday through Saturday, September 28-30, at the Outrigger Kona Resort and Spa. The Vintage Era Exhibit will be on view Thursday and Friday from 12:00-5:00 p.m. and Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission is free.
Runway shows are Friday and Saturday from 5:00-8:00 p.m. Admission is $40 per person for two drinks, swag bag and runway seating; $175 per person for dinner, two drinks, swag bag and seating at a VIP table.
Also planned are a lūʻau; lei contest; marketplace local fashion companies, individual designers and wearable art and accessories; a book-signing appearance by Meleana Estes, author of Lei Aloha: Celebrating the Vibrant Flowers and Lei of Hawaiʻi; and workshops on lei, kapa, ʻohe kāpala and hoʻoponopono. Visit www.alohashirtfestival.com for more information.