Sartorial Honolulu part 2: tropical bespoke

As I noted in Sartorial Honolulu part 1, sartorialism and tropicalism are by no means polar opposites. But pairing the two requires a bit of an effort. Otherwise, if you have your sartorial blinders on, you’d skip the place. The key to finding interesting examples of sartorialism is paying attention to the underlying work that goes into anything you wear. Just like any place with a history, Hawaii has its own craft traditions. They point to what might be called tropical bespoke.

Recently I had the chance the visit Honolulu, my first visit in several years. I’m happy to report that I found two examples of tropical bespoke in tailoring and shirtmaking.

Asia Tailor located at 1330 S Beretania St, Unit 309 in Honolulu. Photo credit: Juhn Maing

At Asia Tailor I was pleasantly surprised to find one local artisan soldiering on as a bench tailor. But he is also quite likely the last working tailor in Honolulu. In the course of our conversation, he mentioned two other tailors who have retired (a Japanese and an Indian tailor). In this respect, Honolulu is no different than other cities. Whether tropical or not, bespoke tailoring enjoys nowhere near the numbers of practitioners that it once did.

Ronald Lee, the proprietor of Asia Tailor, trained with his father and his father’s friend and has been working for more than 40 years. He showed me a jacket he made in 1978 with a natural shoulder and light padding. Lee is a true bench tailor and does everything from the buttonholes to the pants. Handwork is integral to his tailoring – hand-padding canvas is standard. He can also make a jacket without any shoulder padding.

He only makes suits, jackets and pants – no shirts. If you’re interested, you should know that he is very busy and will need at least 1 week for fittings, preferably more. Normally he does 2-3 fittings for a new customer.

Pants run $300-400 while suits are priced at $3,000-$4,000 (including cloth). Lee declined to have a photo taken, which was understandable given he is of the old school. But Asia Tailor is certainly worth a visit. I think Lee will be happy to say hello and have a chat with anyone who is interested in his work as I did.

Let’s turn to shirtmaking. By keeping a more open-minded view of sartorialism that includes local and cultural variations, we can see that Hawaiian island culture has produced one of the instantly recognizable icons of menswear – the Hawaiian or aloha shirt.

The impact of this iconic shirt is quite broad and includes creative design, tailoring and its social impact. In recent years, I’ve seen Hawaiian shirts worn in Manhattan and Orlando and at trade shows in New York. In Honolulu, dressing up for men usually means wearing a short-sleeved aloha shirt with trousers. This is perfectly acceptable for business attire. Formal is wearing a jacket and tie.

So it is perhaps not too surprising that I found Soon Alteration which makes custom aloha shirts. This small workshop is on the second floor of the building next to Fabric Mart, which sells a variety of aloha shirtings as well as specialty Japanese prints that could be made up into aloha shirts.

The two ladies I met there keep a busy schedule. They recommended calling ahead to confirm timing and delivery for a custom aloha shirt ($100 with customer supplied fabric). You should budget at least 1 week including measurements and single fitting.

Given the wildly variable patterns found on Hawaiian shirts, you have the option to request pattern matching around the pockets, sleeves and the front edge which I would recommend. You can see this in the sample shirt I saw (see below).

Sample custom aloha shirt by Soon Alteration. Photo credit: Juhn Maing
Sample custom aloha shirt by Soon Alteration. Photo credit: Juhn Maing

In terms of sourcing fabrics, all you need to do is go next door to Fabric Mart. You’ll need the following amount of fabric:

  • No pattern matching – 2 yards @ 45” wide
  • Large pattern matching – 3 yards @ 45” wide

I didn’t have time to confirm with Soon Alteration but I believe they include coconut shell buttons. Otherwise you can find the buttons at Fabric Mart. This also might come in handy if you’re going to ask your own shirtmaker to make an aloha shirt.

Some of the Japanese cotton prints I picked up at Fabric Mart…

On a related sartorial note, I also had a friendly chat with the store manager of hat shop Carludovica in Waikiki. They offer Panama hats in different colors and designs which is unusual:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top