Bishop Museum will present an exhibit of island fashions by Alfred Shaheen
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Nov 1, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 8:22 a.m. HST, Nov 1, 2012
Unlike the well-documented political or sports arenas, where events and accomplishments are tallied and discussed daily, those who make history in creative endeavors are rarely aware of the process while going about their daily business. It's often only in hindsight that they and others are able to look back and recognize an extraordinary body of work.
While Hawaii's fashion industry certainly took note of Alfred Shaheen's work, creating beautiful and unique garments was all in a day's work for his family, not worth any more than what customers were willing to pay for them.
Camille Shaheen-Tunberg grew up working in her father's factory from the time she was 10. As a teen she started working in his Waikiki retail stores.
"I knew I was involved in something special, but I didn't understand the impact of what he was doing at the time," she said.
She didn't start collecting her father's work until the late 1990s, after he'd retired and closed the business in 1988.
She realized the breadth of her father's legacy only when her husband, William Tunberg, gave her a book on aloha shirts. As she was leafing through it, she noticed "that's Daddy's shirt and that's Daddy's shirt. Then I would see a Shaheen print, but it would have a different label on it. I talked to Dad about it, and that was the first time I realized all the different labels he had. The more I learned about the business, the more I understood how large and far-reaching it was."
"HI FASHION: THE LEGACY OF ALFRED SHAHEEN"» Where: Bishop Museum
» When: Nov. 10-Feb. 4; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Tuesdays
» Admission: $17.95, $14.95 for youths and seniors, $10.95/$8.95 for kamaaina and military, free for members and children age 3 and under
» Information: www.bishopmuseum.org or 847-3511.
» "An Evening of HI Fashion" fashion show takes place Nov. 17; $55 for museum members, $75 for nonmembers
In addition to familiar labels like Alfred Shaheen, Shaheen's of Honolulu, Surf 'n Sand, and Kiilani, she discovered he was behind such lesser-known labels as Burma Gold Handprints and Pacific Trends.
Shaheen-Tunberg, who now lives in California, took up collecting to preserve the family's history.
"At first he didn't understand what I was doing. He asked, ‘Why are you collecting that? You should save your money.' But when I took it to him, he loved it. It was like seeing old friends again."
And many in Hawaii who might recall moms or grandmothers wearing Shaheen's designs will have that same feeling when Shaheen-Tunberg brings 200 pieces from her collection to the Bishop Museum exhibition "HI Fashion: The Legacy of Alfred Shaheen."
The show, opening Nov. 10, will include walls of aloha shirt designs as well as the designer's iconic Hawaiian "bombshell wiggle" dress, named for the narrow pencil skirt that gave women a particular mincing walk and side-to-side sway, and other creations spanning 40 years.
An earlier version of the exhibit debuted in 2010 at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles in California. The new version also features archival photos and ads that recall how his textiles were designed, manufactured and marketed.
Among special events held in conjunction with the exhibition will be a fashion show, "An Evening of HI Fashion," taking place Nov. 17 at the museum. In addition to the show of Shaheen vintage aloha wear, Andy South will present a capsule collection of designs inspired by Shaheen, and Reyn Spooner will show some of its collaborations with Shaheen that continue to this day.
Following the show, guests can enjoy food from Hale ‘Aina and Café Pulama, and participate in a silent auction of nearly a dozen vintage Shaheen garments collected by Bishop Museum staff members. These items range from a late-1950s men's cotton aloha shirt, titled "Fiji Tapa Border Variation," with a start price of $90, to a red 1950s metallic dye "Pussy Willow" wiggle dress. The dress, which includes specially made period accessories, starts at $250.
Shaheen bombshell and sarong garments have a particular fit and curvy womanly aesthetic that makes it hard for today's more muscular and fuller-figured women to fit into.
"I talked to my dad about that," Shaheen-Tunberg said. "It's just that women in the 1940s and '50s had an ample bosom and very tiny waist."
Specially ordered mannequins for the exhibition typically measure 36-24-36 inches at bust, waist and hips.
Beverly Noa, who was hired full time to model for Shaheen in the 1950s, said she never felt self-conscious in his clothes. "When you're that young you don't have the rolls in the middle, the flabby arms and wrinkles, so I didn't even think about it. And those photos weren't meant to be sexy. It was just what people wore back then," she said.
Noa will be among former models and employees attending the fashion show.
ALFRED Shaheen was an aeronautical engineer who turned his expertise to building one of the most comprehensive textile printing, garment manufacturing and retail companies Hawaii would ever see. He was a visionary who "wasn't into re-creating something everyone else did," said Betty Kam, Bishop Museum's vice president of cultural resources. "If there was a problem to figure out, his attitude was you don't shy away; you find a way to do it; you figure it out."
Shaheen-Tunberg remembers, "He built everything. He started from scratch with two-by-fours and bicycle chains. He developed his own hand-screening method."
He also hired a chemist, Edmund Lutz, who developed 100 metallic dyes that became another Shaheen signature.
"We take metallic inks for granted today, but they started from scratch to make them saltwater- and chlorine-resistant, and able to wash and wear," Shaheen-Tunberg said.
Shaheen was born into the business. He grew up in New Jersey, the son of first-generation Lebanese immigrants. His grandfather and father started a silk factory and mill in New York, and he was immersed in the process of manufacturing garments. When the factory was closed to make way for a government development, the family moved to California to rebuild but discovered a lack of skilled garment workers. When their home burned down, it was the last straw, and his grandfather decided to retire in Hawaii.
During World War II, Shaheen became a fighter pilot and hoped to return to the civilian workforce as an aeronautical engineer, only to find there was no demand for planes after the war. He returned to Hawaii, where his parents had established a custom dress shop in 1938. It wasn't easy to make a living one dress at a time, and Shaheen wanted to enter the then-emerging field of ready-to-wear fashion.
But it wasn't enough to make the garments. Shaheen didn't want to be beholden to the limited textile designs coming from Japanese and American textile plants, as well as shipping schedules that often led to long delays. To maintain quality and cost controls, he eliminated the middleman by pioneering his own machines, prints and silk-screening method.
He favored bold, large graphic images requiring 24-inch printing screens. Because the typical screen is about 8 or 10 inches, he had to reverse-engineer his printing process, coming up with machinery to fit the screens.
By 1959 Shaheen employed 400 workers and grossed more than $4 million annually, dominating the local garment industry. His designs were carried in his own stores as well as Liberty House, Andrades and McInerny. Shaheen's designs were also carried by such major retailers as Bullock's, Macy's and Bergdorf Goodman.
Today, interest in the designer has led to new licensing deals, including with long-standing collaborator Reyn Spooner, and in the area of home furnishings, including Duralee & Suburban Homes indoor and outdoor fabrics, Seascape Lamps and Chandra Rugs.
Although a cursory glance at his designs conveys an impression of exoticism, closer inspection reveals the global inspiration of Hawaiian kapa prints, Japanese kokeshi dolls and florals, and Indian temples.
"He loved authentic culture, and he would take the staff and fly them to Tahiti or Hong Kong to design a line. He had a line, Hong Kong by Alfred Shaheen."
Shaheen-Tunberg has no doubt her father would have succeeded in today's global economy. "His love of cultural imagery is shown in his textiles and fashion from Hawaii, and he took it to the mainland and the world."