Fashion

Unisex Brand Tombolo Is Redefining the Art of Hawaiian Shirt-Making

Its Ivy-educated founders are hoping to liberate the summer fashion staple of its stereotypes.
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What once started as fragments of a kimono has now become a global cultural revolution. Once upon a time, Hawaiian prints were comedic fodder among dads at Polynesian nights. Most recently, however, they’ve been the whimsical fashion statement of guys like Justin Bieber, Miguel, Wiz Khalifa, and Harry Styles. Men’s and women’s resort fashion has historically denoted fun. Unisex brand Tombolo is full of just that: fun. The founders have wildly impressive resumes: Both Princeton alums with higher degrees from London and Harvard Business School. Their passion for Hawaiian shirt-making exceeds all industry norms. They want not to make another fashion shirt but a panache for everyone. Wonderfully ironic, once-kitsch, and currently the hottest shirt of the summer. Chris Galasso and Michael Sard of Tombolo sat down with L’Officiel USA to tell us why their Hawaiian prints are here to stay—and we believe them.

What was the inspiration behind remaking the Aloha shirts?

We’ve been best friends since we were six years old, and we’ve always had a strange obsession with Hawaiian shirts, particularly the classics from days of yore. They used to be a force for creativity; they were the closest thing to wearable, original artwork. So, it’s been really disheartening to see that innovation and originality shrivel up and disappear. Many of the prints today are simply pilfered from old designs or consist of a handful of loud, peacocky elements that have completely lost that spark. The elevated, yet carefree aesthetic has been disappearing. So, we set out to try and recapture that vintage swagger—to do so, we use all-original artwork and are constantly pushing the envelope with new combinations and finishing.

 

In Hawaii, they’re considered formal wear in business and government. Do you feel the same?

It’s the versatility that makes Hawaiian shirts so wonderful, even "Off island." They can certainly be dressed up under a sports jacket (we’d goad you to take the plunge and let the collar flare out over the lapels). But for us when it comes down to it, Hawaiian shirts are the ultimate symbol of casual confidence.

I read somewhere that the Hawaiian print shirts’ origin stems from Japanese kimonos. Is that true?

That is true! By the early 1900s, there were already lots of Japanese people in Hawaii, initially drawn to work the pineapple and sugar plantations. They came to dominate the local tailoring business, introducing traditional garments like the Kimono. Over time, they started to cut the kimono fabric into casual collared shirts the plantation laborers wore. Soon, motifs from the ‘tapa’ cloth of the indigenous Hawaiians were incorporated too. This was the beginnings of the Hawaiian shirt.

This wildly eclectic mix is the thing we love most about the Hawaiian shirt. It’s the ultimate culture blender, and out of the culture blender comes the very best! And it doesn’t stop there, along the way elements from French Polynesia, China and California also made their mark on the Hawaiian shirt we know today.

 

What is your favorite styling for a Tombolo piece?

Our abiding rule is that there are no rules when it comes to wearing a Hawaiian. It’s all about having fun and not taking yourself too seriously. That said, if you’re first dipping your toes into the world of Hawaiians, a good starting point for guys is to pair the shirt with simple, solid shorts or pants. Let the print do the talking! If you want to look like an irresistibly laid back, retro loaf, go up a size larger and let it hang off your shoulders with the sleeves dusting your elbows.

As a male-founded company, we are always happily awed by the inventive ways women style our shirts. It’s fun to see women pick up colors from the print in accessories like their earrings and sunglasses, making a wildly colorful yet cohesive whole. A tried and true classic is with vintage jeans or a short skirt.

In the ’60s, Honolulu’s fashion crowd staged “Operation Liberation," a campaign to ditch heavy suits in-exchange for lighter clothes and Aloha shirts at work. That prompted “casual Fridays” in government buildings and offices. Are we in the second phase of “Operation Liberation” with the wave of athleisure and Aloha shirts?

We absolutely agree we’re embarking on a second phase of “Operation Liberation” … but this time around it isn’t really about rescuing men from overly formal attire. This time it’s about liberating Hawaiian shirts from their stereotypes so they can be enjoyed anywhere by anyone. Why can’t you wear a shirt this expressive on a night out or at your start-up job rather than just at a beach resort? Why can’t women wear them in any way, shape, and form that men can? Our shirts are the ultimate wearable form of self-expression with original artwork that tells a story; they should be liberated from kitschy irrelevance. That’s an operation we’re striving to help with.

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