Mahalo, Alfred Shaheen! We’re enchanted by the vibrant, hand-printed patterns made famous by the Hawaiian textile mogul in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Read on for a little history on the Aloha wear legacy, and see how you can incorporate an authentic island vibe in your home.
Elvis wore one on the cover of his Blue Hawaii album in 1961. Harry Truman also wore one on the cover of LIFE Magazine a decade earlier in 1951. The original Alfred Shaheen “Hawaiian shirt” was much more than a tourist tchotchke. Aloha wear grew into a mid-century fashion movement, elevated by Shaheen and his hand-printed textiles, a style that became recognized and collected around the world.
Shaheen’s artistic designs and vanguard manufacturing methods made him a style icon in the ’50s and ’60s. With influences from tropical palm fronds and flowers to Asian and South Pacific motifs, his company purveyed a bold and bright approach to elegant sport clothing. The clever engineer, businessman, and artist created a cultural empire with his high-quality printed textiles that have defined the Hawaiian islands for decades.
Born on Jan. 31,1922, in New Jersey, Shaheen moved with his family to Oahu in 1938. After studying math, physics, and aeronautical engineering at Whittier College in California, he returned to Hawaii to join his parents’ garment manufacturing business. The young entrepreneur sought to solve a business problem that plagued the company: he wanted to produce colorful fabrics in-house rather than shipping them from the mainland.
Shaheen’s industry could not be stopped, and after gathering spare machine parts from around the islands, he pioneered textile printing in Hawaii by engineering and building his own large-scale screen printing setup. The custom fabrics were then made into myriad designs, from women’s sundresses and gowns to the ubiquitous men’s short-sleeved, button-down shirt.
He opened his own business, Surf ‘n Sand Hand Prints, in 1948. By 1952, the company was producing more than 60,000 yards of fabric each month. His dynasty went on to include a large factory, showroom, offices, and retail stores. His designs were featured under his many clothing labels, including Alfred Shaheen, Shaheen’s of Honolulu, Surf ‘n Sand, Kiilani, and Burma Gold Hand Prints. Many other retailers licensed his prints for their lines, as well. After four decades of success, the company closed its doors when Shaheen retired in 1988.
His designs have remained popular, even after his death in 2008. Still highly collectible, his work was featured in five museum exhibits since 2010, including a four-month show at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu in 2012 and 2013. Last year, Shaheen’s designs were commemorated in a series of U.S. postal stamps, a benchmark of his status as an American cultural icon. Today his colorful patterns live on in select licensed products, including Reyn Spooner clothing and limited-edition home textiles by Merchanstyle made from vintage Shaheen fabric.
Photos courtesy Camille Shaheen.