Hardworking Hawaii: ‘Iolani to stop producing aloha apparel after nearly 70 years

Hardworking Hawaii

HONOLULU (KHON2) — ‘Iolani has been selling aloha apparel to people from around the world since 1953.

The nearly 70-year-old business first started on Beretania Street.

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“The story about how ‘Iolani got its name was at that time, if you looked across, there was no State Capitol, but you saw the palace, ‘Iolani Palace,” said Lloyd Kawakami, the second generation owner of the business.

Tourism took off after Hawaii became a part of the United States, and so did aloha shirt sales.

“The aloha shirt became a real staple,” Lloyd Kawakami told KHON2.

His parents worked day in and day out to keep up with the demand.

“It was huge. Everybody benefited from it. We had a really vibrant, very big local fashion industry,” he said.

The Kawakami family prided itself on making its products locally since the beginning.

That made being in retail tough as the years went on.

“Even till today, everything in this store was made by hands in Hawaii,” said Lloyd’s son, Alx Kawakami. “Although a lot of companies are shifting to overseas and doing things a little bit cheaper, which is great, we wanted to keep everything in Hawaii, which was very difficult,” Alx added.

‘Iolani faced other challenges, including competition from big-box retailers and companies not in Hawaii making copycat versions of the aloha shirt.

“They wouldn’t call it an aloha shirt. They would call it a ‘resort shirt’ or ‘resort wear,’ and we’ve always maintained that unless it’s made in Hawaii, you can’t call it an aloha shirt,” Lloyd Kawakami said.

The Kawakami’s pushed through despite all the challenges, and then COVID-19 hit the State of Hawaii.

“Number one was the pandemic that was the nail in the coffin so to speak,” Lloyd explained. “It affected all of us just right down the line.”

‘Iolani announced it is ending its clothing company.

“The news that has come out, a lot of people have come out saying, ‘Wow we were so surprised. We’re saddened,’ but this is something we’ve been talking about for a long time,” Alx Kawakami said, adding that the closure was not just because of the pandemic.

‘Iolani the brand isn’t going away for good, however.

“Although there is some sadness, I can feel it more than ever that we’re headed in the right direction,” Lloyd said.

The Kawakami’s will be focusing on other projects like supporting small businesses through their ‘Iolani Center on Kona Street.

“We’ve always had to adapt and we’ve always had to change. This is just one of those times that we are adapting and changing,” Alx said.

The Kawakami’s would host live music, food and charity events at the ‘Iolani Center before the pandemic. They hope to be able to start that up again soon.

Alx Kawakami said his memories of the clothing company make saying ‘Aloha’ even harder.

“I remember the offices were here, and I would race my brother on the office chairs around the office,” he said.

Alx said this is ‘A hui hou,’ or until we meet again.

“I tell everyone while ‘Iolani is phasing out of the apparel for now, it’s not like ‘Iolani is dying. It’s not like were just going to get rid of all our prints and all our styles, we’re just shifting our direction right now,” Alx said.

There is no set closing date for the storefront yet. The business is trying to get rid of inventory right now, so the entire store is 25% off.

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