Gulab Watumull, a patriarch of the aloha wear industry, died May 18, leaving an indelible print on garment manufacturing, apparel retailing and arts philanthropy in Hawaii. He was 95.
A native of India, Watumull long led the now 106-year-old local fashion retailer Watumull’s, established by his father, and helped diversify the family business into areas that include commercial real estate holdings in Hawaii and on the mainland.
Dale Hope, a local fashion industry veteran and author of “The Aloha Shirt” book, said Watumull likely was the last surviving “garmento” from Hawaii’s early era of garment manufacturing.
Hope said Watumull was an impressive merchant whose early accomplishments of authentic creativity have been forgotten by many. He noted the Watumull family had a very early hand in the transition from Asian to Hawaiian-inspired clothing designs.
“The original garments made under the Watumull label during Gulab’s watch were exceptional and considered very collectible today,” Hope said.
A precursor to Watumull’s was established in 1914 by Jhamandas Watumull, who is described by the family as the first businessman from India to arrive in Hawaii. He opened the East India Store with a partner in the old Blaisdell Hotel building on Fort Street in downtown Honolulu and enlisted a brother and other family members to help.
The store, which initially sold apparel, souvenirs and other items from India, was set up locally when its retail operation in the Philippines saw its military business drop after the U.S. government curtailed ties with foreign businesses, according to Jaidev “JD” Watumull, grandson to Jhamandas and president of Watumull’s parent company, Watumull Brothers Ltd.
“He followed the Navy,” JD Watumull said.
Gulab Watumull came to Hawaii in 1948 for school, intending to build on his college degree in India and become an engineer. But he joined his dad’s business instead because Hawaii universities had few openings due to veterans enrolling under the G.I. Bill after World War II.
The shift to aloha wear for the company had begun when artist Elsie Das was commissioned in 1935 to paint 15 Hawaiian floral designs that were sent to Japan for printing on silk and then returned to Honolulu, where the fabric was made into Hawaiian wear. The company also became known for the matching family aloha wear it introduced in 1941.
In 1956, Gulab Watumull became general manager of the enterprise with seven stores, and continued building the business into a powerhouse of aloha wear with its own manufacturing operations and a collection of about 30 stores under a variety of names.
The stores, which grew with the development of hotels and shopping centers, operated under the names Leilani Gift Shop, Aloha Fashions and Moana Gifts and Sundries, in addition to Watumull’s.
Gulab Watumull capitalized on growing tourism to Hawaii, and in the mid-1950s had acquired Royal Hawaiian Manufacturing and closed out lines of merchandise from the mainland to concentrate exclusively on aloha wear and gifts.
“More and more we are finding out that Watumull has become a synonym for Hawaiian fashions,” Gulab Watumull said in a 1966 interview in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.
Sam Shenkus, who was marketing director for Ala Moana Center in the 1980s, regards Gulab Watumull as one of several “rock stars” in local retailing who deftly adapted as tourism grew.
“He was one of the pioneers,” Shenkus said. “He was very strategic. He was always looking for an opportunity. He was always looking for the next big thing.”
Hope said apparel manufacturing and retailing is a tough industry, and Gulab Watumull was a keen operator.
“He worked with beautiful garments and he knew how to make money with them, which is an art in itself,” Hope said.
In the face of changing times, Watumull’s winnowed its chain of stores while diversifying into commercial real estate and other areas. Today, there is just one Watumull’s store in Hawaii. The store, at Ala Moana Center, is a rare remaining charter tenant from when Hawaii’s largest shopping mall opened in 1959.
JD Watumull said his father never retired, but gradually shared more responsibility for running the company while staying involved with key decision-making.
“We will miss his wise counsel,” JD Watumull said.
Two siblings to JD Watumull also are partners in the family business: Jyoti “Jojo” Watumull, who runs affiliate American T-Shirt Co. in Kalihi, and Vikram Watumull, who also operates the independent business Happy Shirts Hawaii.
Throughout his life, Gulab Watumull and his wife, Indru, were ardent supporters of the arts, serving on boards of organizations that include Bishop Museum, sponsoring theatrical productions and helping pay for art acquisitions and exhibits.
A statue of Gandhi fronting the Honolulu Zoo was made possible by the family, and the Honolulu Museum of Art dedicated its gift shop to Gulab and Indru Watumull for their long-lasting support.
Halona Norton-Westbrook, Honolulu Museum of Art director, said contributions from Gulab Watumull and his wife, who is a trustee on the museum’s board, have left the organization indebted with gratitude.
“Together with his loving wife, Mr. Watumull has built an enduring legacy of generosity and selflessness that serves to strengthen the role that art plays in our day-to-day lives and will continue to uplift the entire art community here in Hawaii for generations to come,” she said in a statement.
Watumull was also recognized for his prowess on local tennis courts as a ranked player in his youth who continued playing the game until six years ago.
He is survived by his wife, Indru; their children, JD, Jojo and Vikram Watumull and Chitra Wright; 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
A celebration of Gulab Watumull’s life is pending. The family suggests that contributions in lieu of flowers be made to Bishop Museum or the Honolulu Museum of Art.
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