story by Liza Simon
photos by Linny Morris
Pioneering designer Jacqueline
Kaleikini (with her husband Danny)
was sewing custom-fit bikinis
in Waikiki for $10 in the 1960's
Had it not been for a terrible chalk allergy, Jacqueline Kaleikini might have stayed a school teacher in her hometown of Papeete instead of achieving fashion fame as Hawaii’s first bikini designer. “Ever since I saw Dorothy Lamour in Aloma of the South Seas, I knew Hawaii would be a place—how you say—exciting and romantic,” Jacqueline laughs, speaking in her still distinctive French accent. Seated at a local luncheonette, she explains how she went from the classroom to the itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny two-piece: how she’d always had a talent for sewing; how that led her to become a seamstress for a wealthy matron; how in 1957, alongside that matron, she boarded an ocean liner bound for Honolulu and struck out for a whole new life.
Sitting beside her as she talks is her husband of forty-six years, Danny Kaleikini. The couple married during the golden era of Waikiki, when he plied his trade as an entertainer and she became a much-in-demand costume designer. With a wistful shrug, Jacqueline insists the job of bikini maker just presented itself: Once she began crafting coconut bras and lavalavas, she says, it was a seamless progression to turning huge bolts of florid acrylic print into thousands of swimsuits. Jacqueline originals were all the rage by the ’60s: At her shop at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, she promised tailor-made bikinis in less than an hour for a fee of $10, and clients mobbed the place. Danny looks at his wife and smiles as she tells the story. “In Papeete, she rode around on a motorcycle,” he says. “She made these big colorful skirts that she wore. She would turn out different, people knew.”
In other words, Jacqueline had boldness—and boldness is what it takes to be a bikini maker in Hawaii. I submit to you exhibits A through E, five seasoned contemporary Island bikini makers: Iwalani, the ex-stuntwoman; Kathleen, the former prosecutor; Debbie, who once rode wild bulls in the Makawao rodeo; Lisa, a professional windsurfer; and Claudia, a one-time design diva in Germany. They all arbitrate that sensitive space between what the mirror says, what society reflects and what a woman’s imagination paints as utterly real. They negotiate this space for water women, athletic women, fashion-forward women, cost-conscious women, all of whom—shapely, portly, big or small—will have a true moment of reckoning with their bikinis when they first don them and head to the water.
“Danny say to me, ‘You are pioneer,’ but my English not so good, so I have to look up the word in the dictionary,” says the petite Kaleikini. Whatever definition was there, it doubtless didn’t note that the bikini was far more than just a fashion item—it was an icon of changing body consciousness and emerging island mystique. The invention of the bikini circa 1946 is generally credited to French designer Louis Reard—someone obviously lacking any prescience of political correctness—who copped the name from the real Bikini, an atoll in the Marshall Islands where the United States dropped the A-bomb just as the two-piece was showing up on the runway for the first time. Reard later pleaded he wanted to convey the literal meaning of the word Bikini—“fertile land with coconuts”—and not the va-voom connotations. More than semantics, though, it was the sexiness of the “world’s smallest swimsuit,” as it was billed, that prompted pillars of society to deplore the garment.