Letter from Hawaii

On Oahu and up to my eyeballs in coco-surf, sloppy-flora, roasted-pig chic.

By Janelle Brown

Published May 14, 2001 7:30PM (EDT)

It is noon, mid-February at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Waikiki Beach. The sky is hazy and humid, and the clouds intermittently drizzle a noncommittal rain on the determined sunbathers below. It is not an auspicious day for the debut of the spring/summer line of CocoLulu, the Japanese teen clothing company that has chosen the Royal Hawaiian for its fashion show.

A runway has been set up in the hotel courtyard, steps away from the beach, and a passel of lithe Japanese models is gamely maneuvering the catwalk. Synthetic, hyperspeed techno blasts from a fuzzy P.A. system; the music's manufactured beat is designed to send dancers into late-night frenzies, but on this languid Sunday morning it simply grates. The teenage models can't quite keep up with the pace, though they make up for this with exaggerated enthusiasm, swiveling their hips as they traipse down the runway.

Over the P.A. system, an invisible announcer gushes in rapid Japanese before offering a terse English translation. "What about going on a date like this?" she queries, the implicit question mark obliterated by her translation. Two models walk down the runway in headache-inducing outfits. One girl trips along in neon-green platform shoes at least 4 inches high, wearing skintight, candy-colored vinyl pants with a matching vinyl coat. The other wears hot pants (a strange choice for a date in Japan, but hey, that's fashion). In a nod to the ganguro girl look so popular in Japan, their hair is peroxided to a strange brownish-orange hue and coaxed into waves with hairspray, and they both sport fake tans, so that their skin is the same odd hue of their hair. The girls arrive at the end of the runway and vamp, enormous smiles plastered across their faces.

CocoLulu is the Japanese equivalent of Wet Seal; in Asia, it's a popular fashion label and shop that sells cheap and trendy clothes for teenagers. CocoLulu's itsy-bitsy pants and wee tube tops are cut far too small for your average American booty, but the line does boast one store in the United States -- here in Honolulu.

Honolulu, after all, takes as much from Asia as it does from America, and gives back to both. Equidistant from the West Coast of the U.S. and Japan, the city has a transient population that hails from both countries and includes a large number of native Hawaiians. Roughly a third of the 7 million annual visitors are from Japan. Shop signs in Honolulu are as likely to be in Japanese as English, and the presence of the vowel-heavy Hawaiian language (mahalo, haole, malihini) just adds to the sensation that this place is not just one place. Instead, it's an undestination that conflates the best and worst of three cultures.

As America's sole island state, Hawaii is the unfortunate recipient of our collective tropical fantasies. Tourism may have stripped this city of everything that it once symbolized as a tropical destination, but the Japanese and American tourists who flock here still persist in perceiving it as the ultimate island getaway. As a gesture to this, every visitor's first Hawaiian purchase will inevitably be in a hibiscus print, and, as tribute, trendy fashion lines like CocoLulu look to the islands' fluorescent colors and surfer chic and vibrant florals as stylistic inspiration.

But in a sense, the idea of Honolulu, on the island of Oahu, is more potent than the actuality. Oahu hosts more tourists than any other island; although islands like Kauai offer more authentically tranquil paradises, it is still Oahu where tourists go first (and, often, exclusively). The wall-to-wall tourist boutiques hawking schlocky tchotchkes -- dolphin sculptures, T-shirts airbrushed with palm trees, dancing hula girls for your dashboard -- cater to the notion that Honolulu is a gateway to a tropical paradise.

Yet the fantasy of island leisure that the city and its international tourists hope to evoke is more about a notion stuck in the 1950s than the reality of what Honolulu -- a bustling modern city of 800,000 -- is today. It is an exotic vacation destination whose impact on international fashion has unwittingly sent it whirling toward its own aesthetic crisis.

Honolulu wasn't always a mishmash of international tackiness. Just a few decades ago, it was a highly fashionable paradise; and nothing symbolized that more than the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Built in 1927, the pink stucco hotel boasts an architectural style that's part art deco and part Spanish mission. Once, the "pink palace" dominated Waikiki Beach as the glamorous refuge of the rich and famous, where celebrities like Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks carried out their affairs; these days, it is dwarfed by a supersize vista of beige high-rise hotels, all wall-to-wall windows and neon logos. Its clientele no longer consists of movie stars but of Japanese tourists, honeymooning Midwesterners, senior citizens and businessmen traveling on the company dime.

Today, the Royal Hawaiian presides over just a small strip of Waikiki Beach, its outdoor patio bar separated from the sand by only a low concrete wall. Hawaiian postcards conjure up images of vast sunny beaches studded with palm trees and deserted but for a few shapely sunbathers. Waikiki Beach, however, is no paradise. It's a city beach, nothing more than a thin strip of sand, punctuated intermittently by concrete barriers intended to keep hotel guests from wandering into the enemy territory of neighboring hotels (or, more specifically, to discourage them from drinking at other overpriced hotel bars). The Royal Hawaiian is still lovely, but it's difficult to feel that you're in an exotic paradise when you can hear the music at the hotel bar next door.

Honolulu may be the capital of Hawaii, but it is a city that has no cool. It is packed with high-fashion boutiques -- Prada, Fendi, Chanel, Gucci, etc. -- that cater primarily to Japanese tourists frantically spending their suddenly valuable yen. (The American tourists seem to prefer shopping at the themed tourist boutiques next door.) Yet Honolulu boasts no Wallpaper-esque bars where black-clad hipsters sip sidecars, no decent all-night dance clubs, no soignée restaurants (which, granted, may be the very reason some come to Honolulu).

This is the city that designer Philippe Starck forgot. It feels tailor-made for tourists. The local youth drink at the same musty tiki bars and garish hotel restaurants as the tourists; as one pink-haired, 20-ish Hollywood transplant put it, "You have to have a deep sense of irony to live here."

But despite the apparent uncool of its capital city, Hawaii has had an enduring impact on international fashion. For America, it has come to represent the familiar exotic. Surfer-girl fashion continues to dominate the closets of most hip teenage girls, and the retro beach chic of a girl with red-red lipstick and flowers in her hair is still a pointed reference in resort wear -- 50 years after Pearl Harbor. Old Navy's summer windows are currently stuffed with hibiscus-print surf shorts, floral triangle bikinis and saronglike skirts. BCBG wrap dresses are all about island chic. Not to mention the hint of the tropics that appears in couture runway collections -- for example, when Yves Saint Laurent ties orchids to the necks of his models, or Prada designs skirts in oversize florals that bear a striking resemblance to Hawaii's aloha prints.

Of course, Hawaii's most visible contributions to international fashion are the muumuu and the aloha shirt (the local term for a Hawaiian shirt). The muumuu is unfortunately ugly. When Victorian missionaries arrived here in the 1800s, they demanded that the loincloth-wearing local Polynesians cover themselves up like good Christians. The compromise was the muumuu, made from endless, shapeless yards of vibrant floral fabric. Although most muumuus these days are simply tropical caftans, the most egregious are still cut in 19th century patterns with high necks and lace trim.

As for that aloha shirt, it has become a post-ironic symbol of tropical island fun for the rest of America, yanked from the back of the closet for the occasional suburban "luau." Nearly every man in the country owns an aloha shirt, although few have the audacity to wear it unless a barbecue is involved. But here in Hawaii, where every day is casual Friday and suit sightings are as rare as snow days, the aloha shirt is not party gear -- instead, it's everyday attire worn for both work and play.

It is de rigueur for every tourist who visits Hawaii to purchase an aloha shirt and a muumuu (or, if not a proper caftan muumuu, at least a shapeless sundress in a bright hibiscus or shell print). The gaudy cotton fabrics native to Hawaii seem to serve as a kind of totem to island living: Along with tropical drinks and an orchid lei, the donning of a newly purchased floral dress is a gesture toward "going native." Never mind the fact that Honolulu is devoid of everything you might associate with leisurely island living -- sweeping beaches, silent vistas, crystal seas and bargain-basement prices.

Sure enough, here in the patio bar of the Royal Hawaiian, nearly every tourist is wearing some variation of the aloha uniform. The sunburned hotel patrons sit sipping big fruity cocktails bristling with paper umbrellas and studiously ignoring the fashion show going on just a few yards away. One woman in a floral muumuu and oversize sunglasses sits with her balding, golf-shirted husband, drinking $9 mai tais. He gets up to take a picture; she holds up the two shocking-blue cocktails, one in each hand, and screws her face into a grin. "Cheers!" she smiles.

It is oddly incongruous with the fashion show taking place nearby, whose audience consists mostly of Japanese kids who appear to have wandered up from the beach. On the runway, one tiny girl trips out in a rainbow-print tube top and a pink head scarf, matched with blue trousers so tight that they wrinkle around her thighs like an earthworm. "How about some coordinated surfer style?" the announcer says brightly, as the girls begin marching down the runway in tiny fluorescent green and pink bikinis, worn with fishing hats and surf shorts.

On Waikiki Beach, a few feet away, the bathing suits aren't nearly as revealing, nor the bodies as forgiving. Honeymooning Japanese couples frolic in the surf. The girls wear demure skirted bikinis in modest florals and giggle as they back into the water, bottoms facing toward the sea so that no one on the beach can see their dimpled thighs from behind. Young American women lie facedown and unfasten their bikini tops to prevent unsightly tan lines; from the side, you can see lily-white breasts spilling into the sand. The favored bathing suit accessory is the complimentary orchid lei that the Royal Hawaiian gives to guests as they check in. But the thick sweet odor of the orchids is mixed with the more powerful scent of coconut oil, and the flowers are rapidly wilting in the heat.

Honolulu is a perfect example of the way tourism can kill a paradise. The minute the retirees show up to buy muumuus for their nieces and the first package tours begin loading up buses with Japanese families paying $50 a head to experience an "authentic Hawaiian luau," the taste makers flee. Movie stars may still visit, but they stay in the remoter reaches of the islands, far from the world of Crazy Shirt shops and plastic leis. The tourists satisfy themselves with a view of the sea and the trappings of old Hawaii, even as the locals move farther away from the cities and the rich and famous move on to St. Bart's.

And still the travelers flood in from around the world, lured by an insatiable tourist industry; the city swells to accommodate them until its main purpose is to sell them the image they came to acquire. Honolulu is the ultimate East-West city: The Japanese who come for cheap Gucci and piña coladas find that they are conveniently catered to in their own language; the Americans, in turn, satisfy themselves with theme restaurants and hula lessons without having to exchange any currency. And never the twain shall meet, except when fighting over the last aloha shirt on the sale rack. Or, perhaps, in the patio bar of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.

The CocoLulu spring/summer collection concludes with an array of Japanese kimonos: two girls holding hands and wearing neon orange and green kimonos cinched in and tied with a bow. The models wear platform flip-flops instead of the traditional zori sandals -- a look that's half traditional Japanese, half vibrant Hawaiian. For the finale, the kimono girls are joined by the bathing suit models: They squeeze into a big group and pose for a photographer, with big, happy, shocked-looking grins ("Me? You're taking a photo of me?") and demure little waves for the camera, their posteriors arched up and chests pointed down.

The techno is turned off and the models vanish; in the sudden hush the sound of the waves is once again audible. The tourists at the tables order another round of mai tais and resume staring out at the sea.

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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