Snap & Relax
Western Aloha’s eventual relocation to Waimea will be kismet, as founder Paul Sullivan says the northern area initially served as the inspiration for the clothing-maker’s aloha shirt snap-button piece s.
What do you get when you combine a vintage-style aloha shirt with a traditional Western-style snap-buttoned cowboy shirt? The answer is Western Aloha clothing company, a Kona-based biz that has taken the concept of the aloha shirt to new heights.
Launched in 2018, Western Aloha was founded by Kona resident Paul Sullivan, whose appreciation for the Big Island lifestyle extends to the island’s unique ranching and paniolo heritage. Practical and stylish, Western Aloha’s lines for both men and women showcase original designs, Western-wear construction and lightweight custom-woven fabric — plus snaps, lots and lots of snaps.
“I grew up wearing traditional snap shirts,” says Sullivan. “I also love aloha shirts. I thought it would be cool to combine both. There wasn’t really anything like it on the market at the time. That was five years ago. It took about four years to figure out the apparel business and how the manufacturing process works.”
Sullivan works with renowned artist Dale Hope, the foremost expert on aloha shirts and author of the coffee table book, The Aloha Shirt. A Waimea resident, Hope designs many of the company’s vintage aloha prints. The local stories behind the designs are what make Western Aloha’s apparel so enticing.
“Dale is our art director and he is my mentor in this,” says Sullivan. “He knows more about aloha shirts than anybody. I started the brand and developed the first release of designs. Now Dale and I work together on the designs.”
To date, Western Aloha apparel is sold online at westernaloha.com, and can be found locally at Parker Ranch Store, Four Seasons Resort Hualālai, As Hawi Turns, M. Field Gallery in Hōlualoa, Quill & Feather in Kailua-Kona, Kūki‘o and all Four Seasons Resorts statewide. Select retailers in California, Texas, Colorado and Florida are also stocking the line.
In addition to aloha-style shirts, the company manufactures the traditional palaka shirt, a quintessential plantation-era piece that originated in Hawai‘i in the 1800s. Traditionally, the palaka has always reigned supreme as kama‘āinas’ apparel of choice for special occasions, rodeos and equestrian parades in Hawai‘i. Indeed, palaka was the precursor to the aloha shirt, which appeared many decades later in the 1930s.
“Most visitors to Hawai‘i don’t know about the palaka, but it has such an interesting history,” says Sullivan. “The first palaka shirts arrived in Hawai‘i with the British sailors, who wore them loose-fitted like frocks. The utilitarian fabric was initially used for mattresses, and eventually was styled into long-sleeved shirts that protected the Hawai‘i plantation workers in the field.”
A contemporary variation of the palaka style, Aloha Western’s palaka shirt is tailored with shoulder yokes, snaps, and pockets with flaps and bartacks. Custom woven fabric is made of lightweight cowboy cloth that retains the original twill weave and colors.
“It’s an everyday shirt and very popular,” says Sullivan. “We put a lot of thought into it our palaka shirts.”
Western Aloha is working on new designs with internationally renowned Japanese artist Mayumi Oda, a resident of Kealakekua. According to Sullivan, Hope saw Oda’s artwork at the Gallery of Great Things in Waimea, and approached her about incorporating her art into exclusive apparel.
“One of the things I would like to do with the brand is to create wearable art,” says Sullivan. “It’s a canvas for interesting artists who have a story related to Hawai‘i. We are utilizing four or five of Mayumi Oda’s designs for a special line. There are so many interesting, creative, artistic people on this island, and we are planning on doing more of that in the future.”
Commitment to quality is the hallmark of Western Aloha products. Working with a sustainably minded fabric-maker in Taiwan, the company created a special dual-fiber blend that feels like soft cotton but boasts the functionality of a synthetic. Most of the shirt styles, and all of the printed shirts and dresses, are cut and sewn in El Paso, Texas, by a family-owned business of third-generation Western shirt-makers.
Sullivan also credits Janice Lucena, the company’s head of product, for her creative contributions, especially with the women’s lines that include recently unveiled aloha dresses.
“Janice was a senior vice president at Gap and has the technical know-how about the industry and the manufacturing, as well as being a great designer,” Sullivan adds. “She has been instrumental to our success.”
With Western Aloha’s official headquarters eventually relocating from Kailua-Kona to Waimea, Sullivan cites the significance of the upcountry town as the original inspiration for the company.
“I remember when I first moved to the Big Island 26 years ago, I was completely taken aback by the beauty of Waimea. I had no idea that a place like that existed in Hawai‘i. It caught my imagination and passion. I wished I could be a paniolo because it’s such an amazing lifestyle. I have a passion for the stories about the island in general, and that’s how Western Aloha was born.”