Hawaiian fashion designer Lei Mamo Howell has closed her Ward Warehouse boutique after two decades and is partnering with Hilo Hattie to expand her brand worldwide.
The longtime designer left her 930-square-foot Ward location at the end of June with 10 months remaining on the lease. That triggered a lawsuit by her former landlord for rent through April 2011.
With the slowdown in the economy and many of her customers losing income, "loyal customers can’t shop anymore," Howell, 81, told the Star-Advertiser.
In addition to lower sales, Howell found herself struggling to make the rent payments and overhead costs including electricity, payroll and insurance.
"It would’ve been stupid to just stay on and dig ourselves deeper in the hole," Howell said. The shop had one full-time worker and six part-timers.
"I asked for a reduction until 10 months from now, but they just won’t do it — they just can’t, I guess. A lot of companies are closing at Ward."
Calls to leasing agents for Ward Warehouse yesterday, seeking a comment on the lawsuit, were not returned.
Meanwhile, Howell inked a long-term deal with Hilo Hattie’s parent company, Pomare Ltd., which began producing Mamo Howell products this month through its manufacturing arm, Royal Hawaiian Creations.
The deal gives Pomare the exclusive rights to license the Mamo Howell name, brand and designs. The financial terms of the transaction weren’t disclosed.
"We knew that Mamo was suffering businesswise. She’s been a true pioneer of Hawaiian fashion for a very long time," said Mark Storfer, Hilo Hattie executive vice president and chief operating officer, and former chief operating officer of Liberty House.
"We wanted to extend her legacy not only to carry her products in our stores, but sell Mamo’s creations to mainland retail chains and to distributors worldwide."
Howell, who is in semiretirement, now occupies an office within Hilo Hattie’s Nimitz Highway headquarters several times a week and is working on new designs, though Hilo Hattie will continue to market "some prints and styles that are timeless," he said.
Pomare will not only produce the bold-print apparel that feature the traditional breadfruit, taro and Hawaiian flower prints that she’s known for, but expand her signature designs to home, bath and beauty products as well as accessories.
Expansion to department stores and national retail chains, expected to take the Mamo Howell brand to a "new level," is scheduled for early 2011.
"They have the financial backing … they have all connections that I don’t have — that’s the best way I could go," Howell said.
Mamo Howell Inc. was established in 1978, and in 1980 the former high-fashion model and hula icon opened a tiny shop in the Willows restaurant while making the company’s uniforms, before moving to Ward Warehouse.
"I miss my own factory and I miss my own shop because I had total and complete control," she said. "But at the same time, I could not go much farther unless I got a good partner."