Talk Story: Dale Hope
We caught up with the aloha shirt maker and author at his home in Honolulu
Dale Hope is a Renaissance man: stylish, athletic, creative and intelligent. We had the honor of talking with the 63-year-old, aloha shirt maker at his home about the re-release of “The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands.” Sitting on the lanai – his favorite place in the house – and looking around it’s obvious that he is a humble, ocean lover through and through when you see his massive quiver of surfboards, canoes and paddle boards. But, when you really start digging-in into the conversation about Hope’s career and he starts showing you pictures on his iPhone while explaining the beautiful paintings and vintage aloha shirts hanging on the walls you realize that he has an amazing eye for art and an appreciation for Hawaiian history that rivals any museum historian or couture fashion designer.
Q: What do you for a living?
A: Well I’ve been a shirt maker. I grew up in the garment industry here in Honolulu. My dad was a clothing maker, he made shirts and ladies’ missy resort [wear under the Sun Fashions label]. He started at Kilohana Square then he went to Makaloa Street where he stayed there with a bunch of garment manufactures for a long time, for many decades. And that’s where I would work in the summer times as my summer jobs, breaking cases of fabric that had been shipped from Japan 3,000 to 9,000 to 12,000 yards of piece-goods would arrive and all of these cardboard huge crates would come and I would have to cut them open and put all the pieces of goods on my shoulders and take it up to our cutting room upstairs. Growing up around that industry, I was pretty much convinced I never wanted to have any part of it.
Q: I can see how you didn’t want to takeover the family business after back-breaking work like that. So how did you ultimately get involved in the fashion industry?
A: Then I went away to school for a year and I came back and my dad said, “Hey, I really need help, I really want you to come and work with me.”
So I started with him and looked around and after about two weeks looking at all of his ladies resort, missy stuff – that they were designing and doing a good job with for all the better resort shops here like Andrade, Liberty House and McInerny the resort shops in Waikiki – like Waltah Clarke I kind of said [to my dad], “You know I don’t really know if I can sell all of this stuff to the blue-haired ladies, but if I could sell shirts I could give that a try?”
And he goes, “There’s no money in shirts.”
“Yeah, but Dave Rocklin and Surf Line is doing it and Kahala is doing it and you know some of these guys are making some beautiful shirts so could we try it out?, I said.
And he said alright because he knew he would lose me if we didn’t do that. So we started making shirts and had some really good mentors out there in the retail world […] so we started selling shirts and he told me that every time I got a new account he would take me to lunch. I was starving and I wasn’t being paid much so I kept opening up new accounts and kept getting lunches because I was paddling canoes pretty competitively in those days, training for Molokai [canoe race]. He would keep taking me to great lunches and I just kept opening-up new accounts. I really had the thought that all people could do was tell me, “no.” I just had that go-for-it-and-try-it-with-the-freedom-to-fail attitude that just as long as you didn’t mind being humiliated if somebody told you, “no,” they didn’t want your shirts then you just keep trying. So we started pretty much from zero and started selling shirts and year by year, slow by slow, we got more and more popular, and we got better and better and eventually the shirts caught up to where the ladies were and it got to where the shirts overpowered the ladies.
Q: When did you move from your dad’s brand to working with other brands and creating other brands?
A: Well I stayed with my dad’s brand for a long time, and then eventually we started doing Hawaiian Style, which was a great T-shirt line that sold to the really young people, middle-aged people and older people – the kupuna and the grandpas – that loved fishing. We had a lot of really fun T-shirts. Nicholas Black – a great fine artist here in Hawaii – he did the art. He and I grew up together, surfing at Kahala and paddling together. I met him one day up at the U.H. with his portfolio and he was talking about what he was doing and it started to rain and I said, “Hey Nicky why don’t we go into my van (I had my Volks Wagon van right there) let’s go look and see what you are doing?” We got out of the rain and I looked at his beautiful illustrations and I said, “Nicky whatever, however you want, we could start working anytime you want, your work is beautiful and I think it really is applicable to what we’re doing in the shirt world.” [When we first started working together] we were the Local Motion licensee and we made all of their clothes and did some T-shirts for them. And then we just realized, “Hey, why don’t we just do it ourselves?” I’d registered the name Hawaiian Style so we just said, “Hey let’s just do it and we’ll call it Hawaiian Style,” and we did a whole group of T-shirts. I remember bringing them home to my little garage in Kahala and I hung them on the clothesline and I asked all of my friends, “Hey what do you think? You think these would sell?” And everybody said, “Yeah, that would be really great!”
Q: When and how did you acquire the Kahala brand?
A: So we just forged ahead and did it and then later on we were able to get the name Kahala, which had started in ’36 and was a premier brand that made gorgeous men’s shirts and women’s apparel and bathing suits. It had been dormant for at least 10, maybe 12, 13 years and the original owners didn’t own the name, but one of them called me and said, “Hey, you gotta stop doing what you’re doing and we are doing a line for Liberty House called Kahala Bay Club.” We got a letter saying we can’t do that and they own the name, “Kahala, “or you could buy the name. So I just said, “let’s just buy the name.” So we bought the name and changed it from the HRH brand, which was my Dad’s initials, to Kahala and then the Liberty House buyer said, “no we’re not going to buy Kahala, HRH is one of our top two vendors.”
Q: That is so heavy! What did you do at that point?
A: So we threw a party in Kahala, rented a house on the beach and had everybody come: the artists, the bankers, all the retailers and buyers. Anybody that had been part of our whole growth and what we had done – any part of our whole story. So we had this great party and we passed out potholders with our new labels on it that were in the shape of aloha shirts with little coconut buttons. They were really cute with all of our new prints and little fish with wooden buttons for their eyes. And, the Liberty House buyers who had objected to not wanting to purchase the new label line was in there with all our associates grabbing all of the pot holders out of Santa’s bag and Santa was asking me what do I do? For anybody who loves surfing under Santa’s beard was Malibu legend, Dave “Baby Dave” Rochlen. And, I just gave him the thumbs up and told him it was okay and we never heard any problems from there. We were able to really work with a name that one, had a history, and two, was a Hawaiian name of a fish, a name of a beautiful place and was where I happened to live, enjoy, paddle canoe, surf, sail and catch fish. It was just a super special place even more Hawaiian style in those days than it is now. Today, it’s kind of like “Kah-Hollywood.” It’s an incredible almost Tahiti-esque place on Kona wind when there is no wind and you’re out there and it’s just a calm lagoon and beautiful. You get out in the water and look back and see the silhouettes and see the trees on Diamond Head and it’s like you really are in Tahiti. It’s really a beautiful spot, so we changed our name and we started working with some great artists and I sold the company to Local Motion and I stayed-on as the art director and then I got to move around more and worry less about the day-to-day operations. I was really able to concentrate on the art, which I really loved and I went out and I found artists and for starters we found Avi Kiriaty on the Big Island. I saw his art in several different shops. First, I saw it in Hilo in an art gallery and I was just outspoken when I said, “who is this guy?” And the gal there said, “his name is Avi,” and she ended up giving me his phone number. So I called him and said, “Hey would you ever consider doing textile art?” And he said, “yeah, when I come to your island I will call you.” And he came and brought a whole stack of prints and we sat at this table and I looked at them all and said, “whatever, however you want we can start to do art with you.” So we started with his prints and did really, really well. And I really think it was – every decade, every generation every shirt making new crew kind of has a new way of interpreting it and I think it just happened to be our turn with Avi’s art that we really hit a nerve. We also worked with Surfer Magazine founder and Maui-based artist, John Severson, and created an amazing collection of shirts.
Q: How much work do you do now from your home as opposed to when you were with Kahala?
A: Well when I was with Kahala and you’re an owner of a company, you know I was there at Thanksgivings. I was there six or seven days a week. Sundays I would go in just to organize so I could get ready for the next week. I sometimes paddle board, I really loved paddle boarding in those days and surfing, but when the waves were junk I would go paddle boarding and I would paddle board at night with the moon and all the lights in Waikiki just to keep my sanity. But now I’m not chained to a desk with a lifetime sentence of going to jail everyday. It’s more working around in my house and doing projects I enjoy and people I want to work with and people that have something young and fresh and different, and they can use the experience of an old dog that’s been around and has done this for many, many decades and grew up with it. We made some great garments and did some great marketing with great photo campaigns, working with some fabulous photographers over the years, some of the world’s best photographers from Germany or from the Big Island or from here. I still got a lot of ideas left in me and it’s just putting them out there and sharing them. We did a line of aloha print T-shirts recently just for the Quiksilver stores here in Honolulu and that’s been great. The most rewarding thing for me is my daughter buys the smallest size, cuts the bottom off and wears them to school couple times a week. When I was in the 3rd grade my dad used to make aloha shirts for me, and you know now I’m making shirts with the aloha spirit that she is wearing, too. She has no idea how happy that makes somebody like me feel – it’s pretty cool.
Q: Would you call yourself an artist?
A: No, I’m not really an artist and I wish I was. I wish I could sit down and paint instead of having to drag these artists through all of my wonderful, wild ideas that I come up with for shirts. I wish I could just do them myself, but I really rely on finding the best artists here, Europe, England, Maui, Big Island, the Mainland, wherever they may be to really work and execute our prints. Once when I was a teenager, I was at a friend’s house down at Tongg’s and Joey Cabell was there and he made the comment that he was going to work with Dick Brewer. In those days Joey was the best surfer in the world. He was the Makaha International Champion along winning in California and Peru, the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational and all the major big contests: he was an amazing man in the water whether he was surfing, canoe paddling or sailing. Joey Cabell said that the surfboard shaper is only as good as the surfer who is reciprocating all the information to him for him to shape the best board. And so I kind of remembered that and thought that the same principle could work for textile art. As I got older and started to do our own prints, I thought the artist is only as good as the reference material that I bring them and so I’ve kind of made my role in the whole process like an art detective, art junkie where I find a lot of reference materials to work with that I can then go to the artist so that it would be a good reflection of what’s out there in nature. Sometimes you see these designs in the marketplace and they really aren’t meaningful or purposeful. They don’t take into account the authenticity of the subject and they just don’t do a good job, they do it quick, they do it fast, and you know, it’s just their style. In the island we try to do it a little more carefully, little bit more closer and true to whatever it was we were trying to commemorate for our shirts.
Q: In the last two decades you’ve been working with Patagonia on various projects like the Pataloha Collection, but can can you just talk about how the company evolved your “The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands” book from its first run in 2000 to the re-release this year?
A: Well years ago, a scholar bon vivant in Honolulu, Tommy Holmes, came to me and told me that he really wanted to do a book on aloha shirts. He had done a book on the Hawaiian canoe, it was a definitive book, when we were all young we watched him do it and it took him 10 years. If we ever went with him for a ride in his little VW there was 200 Post-its all over with all of his notes with everything he had to do for his book. So I had high esteem for him and he asked me if I would help outline all of the things that should be in the book – I did. And he said, “Ah, you know more about this than I’ll ever so know we are going to do this together, it’s going to be a book by Hope and Holmes.” And he and I tried to go around town trying to find money from all the likely subjects in here that looked like they were or might be generous in helping to publish our book. And everyone kind of laughed looking at two sun-burnt bachelors and said, “well, when you guys get a little further on let us know,” as if to say, “no.” Then Tommy tragically passed away at the young age of 47 while paddling with Nappy Napoleon and their canoe crew. And then I talked to Rell Sunn about it, and Rell was going to help collaborate because she was one of Tommy’s closer friends and I thought she really understood the project. She was a great shirt collector, thrift-shopper, garage-saler, swap-meeter and had a really amazing collection of Hawaiiana clothes, glass balls and all things vintage Hawaiian. Then eventually I just took a year off at my job at Kahala as creative director and just said I’m going to go work on a book. The owner of Kahala said to me, “Are you going to do you’re going to go surfing for a year?” “No, I’m going to go and work on a book.”
Q: Just because you’re a surfer everybody at work thinks you’re just bailing to go catch some waves, huh? [Laughs] Seriously though, what was your main motivation for the book?
A: I had no idea what I was getting into, but I really wanted to pay homage to all the people that were involved in the aloha shirt industry. People that I had grown up with were the cutters and the seamstresses and the pressers in my Dad’s factory that I had eaten lunch with everyday, that I had seen them come into work everyday at seven and take a five-minute break before lunch and a 30-minute lunch and then another five-minute break and then they would go at four and catch the bus home out to Aiea or Pearl City and they would be back the next day and they did it for 10, 20, 30 years. And I thought, “man, without them the industry would never have happened.” So I really wanted to do a tribute and homage to them. The artists were obviously very, very important and I did as much research as I could about the artists because without them we wouldn’t have had any shirts and then the individuals that were brave to start these industries back in the time before Hawaii was even a state, when we were a territory. That really started with the tailor shops in downtown there were over a hundred tailor shops down there, in downtown and the shirts really started there with Ellery Chun in the King Smith store, Musa-Shiya, Mr. and Mrs. Miyamoto. We just tried to cover every single facet of what the aloha shirt industry was all about: who were the big companies that printed it, how did these people get their fabric, who were the guys that were some of the reps who made it available and who were the retailers, who were the guys who sold these shirts. You needed all of them to make an industry. And so I tried to pay tribute to all of those people. For sure there are still companies out there that their shirts are beautiful and I haven’t been able to crack the code on who the owners where, what their story is. So there are still a lot of mysteries out there.
Q: What new content are you really excited about with “The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands” 2.0?
A:So you know I’m always learning, I’m still enthusiastic, passionate about it and to me it’s just a fun new Patagonia book that we’re able to include a lot of new stories that I didn’t have when we did the book in ’00. We’ve added nearly 150 pages to the new book and it’s a lot of photos from Jeff Divine, who is probably the best surf photographer in the ’70’s. He worked at Surfer Magazine as the senior surf photographer and is now the photo curator at Surfer’s Journal. He was assigned the job of being our photo curator for the book and he came out to Hawaii with the book’s art director, Scott Masey, and we spent a week together just going through all the stuff in my office, going through the State of Hawaii archives, going to the Bishop Museum, going to vintage stores, just getting a whole feel for the current landscape of the aloha shirt industry and what we felt would be fresh, new and exciting to include in this version and it’s incredible!
Q: I thought it was really cool that the original “Mr. Pipeline,” Gerry Lopez, wrote the foreword for the new version. How did he get involved in the project?
A:I went to Gerry Lopez and asked him if he could write the foreword and he is an ambassador with Patagonia and so he said sure. Couple days later he sent me this single-spaced doc to my computer. It was so long so I sent it to my wife’s computer so we could all read this together. So I grabbed my wife and daughter then three of us sat at the computer to read it. Basically it started out when Gerry Lopez went to his first day of school at Punahou in the 8th grade. He got into a fight and he ripped his shirt. Later that day Gerry discovered there was a place called the thrift shop on campus at Punahou where he found that used-(silky) aloha shirts were were sold for $.25. That’s where he got his first “silky” and then he talked very eloquently about the industry and people like Alfred Shaheen […] and he keeps going when you wear an aloha shirt in this wonderful place you are wearing the mana and the spirit of the place that we are surrounded in. And that lady that I bought my first aloha shirt from at the Punahou thrift shop was Dale Hope’s mother. So if you don’t think I was crying after I read that, there was a river of tears coming down my face when I read Gerry’s introduction. We didn’t change a word and it was printed as is and we are just so grateful that he could write this foreword.