Sunday, June 18, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hawaiian shirt tale: The Aloha spirit threads its way across the Pacific

Seattle Times staff columnist

It's appropriate that we meet at the beach on Alki. Sure, the parkas you see people wearing tell you this isn't quite Hawaii weather, that this is partly-cloudy-some-rain-summer-in-Seattle, and the surf is only 2 inches, and you'd get hypothermia within 20 minutes of swimming in Puget Sound.

But, still.

We sit at a picnic table, and Danny Eskenazi starts showing some of the Aloha shirts in his collection - which numbers hundreds of Hawaiian shirts - and of course the sun begins to peek out.

We like Aloha shirts here in the Northwest. Is there a closet here without one? Hawaii always has been a relatively cheap vacation package for us, and if there is a region that can appreciate life in the sun, it is a place that sees it only six weeks a year.

I mean, look at that 100 percent rayon beauty! Flowers and hula girls, all in yellow-green-orange-white-red, a classic that was manufactured 40 or 50 years ago, still in pristine condition. For some reason, moths don't seem to like rayon. The shirts last and last.

I'm meeting with Danny because it didn't seem right that recently, after his family waited a while to disclose his death, Ellery J. Chun got relegated to a one-sentence obit in many newspapers: "Ellery J. Chun, 91, credited as the creator of the original Hawaiian shirt design that spawned an industry of copycats, May 16 in Honolulu."

The Aloha shirt, one of the classic creations of the 20th century, deserved better.

Danny asks me when I like to wear Aloha shirts. Lots of times, I say, when I'm doing remodels around the house, putting up Sheetrock, painting walls. And I do believe I've done some of my finest writing while wearing an Aloha shirt. You put it on, and suddenly you can almost hear the waves on that beach.

"Yeah," Danny says, "I've bought lots of shirts that've had paint on them, guys doing the same thing."

Danny's 56. Until last year, he used to run Dreamland, a store selling collectible clothing, as well as wholesaling such items. After 30 years in the business, he decided to take a break. All boxed up, however, is his Hawaiian shirt show, just waiting for a venue.

Danny shows me a black-and-white photo of the first Aloha shirt he ever owned. It's 1953 or 1954, and he's in grade school. His folks went to J.C. Penney and bought a little bit of Hawaii. His first visit to the islands wouldn't be until 1966, when he worked the summer in a Honolulu department store. He's been back, what, 20, 30 times since then? The shirts are always a reminder.

It's that whole attitude. Relax. Life is short.

"It's about the beaches, it's about the water, it's about the sunshine, it's about . . . the air, the smells, the people, the feeling . . .," he says. "Men don't get a chance to show plumage. And this . . ."

He points to one of those magnificent Aloha shirts.

". . . this is eye candy! Use that in the story. I'm proud of those two words."

But this all started with that one-sentence obit about Ellery J. Chun. Here is an abbreviated early history of the Aloha shirt, which you can trace back to combining the shirts worn by plantation workers with kimono materials used by Japanese who settled in the islands. Those shirts had colorful images: Mount Fuji, tigers, bamboo. By the 1930s, those images evolved into the Hawaiian scenes we associate with the shirts.

Chun, who majored in economics at Yale, owned a Chinese dry-goods store. And although others also were creating such shirts in small Hawaiian tailor shops, it was Chun who had the savvy to register the name "Aloha shirt." He didn't actually come up with the designs; Chun, in fact, later became a banker. But he was an enterprising marketer. The shirts found their way to the mainland during World War II, when soldiers brought them back home, with fond memories of the islands.

Danny Eskenazi's collecting began in the late 1960s. He was young, living in the University District, sporadically going to college and buying clothing at thrift stores. An Aloha shirt could be had for 25 cents, and in the scene at the Rainbow Tavern it certainly made a statement. These days, shirts from the Golden Age of Hawaiian Shirts (1935 to 1955), when you had all that detail in the paintings, when President Truman was on the cover of Life wearing one, are worth hundreds of dollars.

"Look at this shirt," Danny says. It has bright breadfruit patterns. He picked it up recently for $2 at a garage sale. Sometimes you luck out and find the shirts at such a cheap price. He begins showing me slides of his Aloha shirts. He brings out a Japanese book devoted to the shirts, and a letter from the Smithsonian thanking him for donating a Penney Aloha shirt for its costume collection.

We sit at the beach and peruse the photos. Hawaii calls.

A one-sentence obit for the guy credited with coining "Aloha shirt"? Excuse me, but no.

Erik Lacitis' column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Friday. His phone number is 206-464-2237. His e-mail address is:

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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