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Hawai‘i has been lending its mystique to the bikini for sixty years
Vol. 8, No. 6
December 2005/January 2006

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The Bold and the Beautiful (Page 4)


After also training as a hairstylist and mortgage broker, Iwalani started in the bikini business as a rep for national companies, traipsing from big box stores to specialty shops making sure product moved. She got plenty of lessons by observing shoddy workmanship in garments that just didn’t pass muster in the dressing room. On a leap of faith, she decided to maintain the accounts with her own designs. She took a year to lay the groundwork, which included working with a factory in Colombia—not a sweatshop, she hastens to add, but a well-respected family-run business she visits often in Bogota. For fabric design, she turned to textile experts in Italy and France. These moves were her answer to dealing with the conundrum of being a clothier in a place with no manufacturing sector. And is she earnest. “You are taking on responsibility for this intimate garment that can be a source of such stress,” she says. “I don’t own a TV. I don’t open fashion magazines. I follow what I see in my imagination, and it ends up that I give others hope.”

Rather than continuing on in the abstract about how well she’s fared in this endeavor, Iwalani jumps to her feet and suggests I come in to the next room for a fitting—the best part of her job, she says. A quarter of an hour later, bottoms and tops have piled up on the dressing room couch with Iwalani tactfully steering me away from my choice of a Brazilian bottom (minimal coverage) and under-wire triangle top (maximum padding) to a so-called American cut bottom and an unpadded halter top with soft micro-fiber that is purer than silk to the touch. I put it on and Iwalani urges me to try a few moves, reminding me that Cameron Diaz and Mariel Hemingway have both been through this same ritual in this very same showroom. I am officially weaned from the padded look and, buoyant over my new bikini, I advise Iwalani that she has a great career in snake charming awaiting her should the bikini business go belly-up.

In fact, though, the industry looks nowhere near going belly-up. True, styles come and styles go. Remember the bikini’s skimpiest version—the one with the string bottom—that became a hit for awhile at muscle beaches around town? It is rarely seen these days. Too uncomfortable? Too cheeky? It’s hard to say, but one thing is sure: Bikini fashion has been known to make as many unpredictable 180-degree turns as a surfer on a perfect wave. Sitting on the beach, year after year, Erika Ireland saw plenty of suits come and go. Before long, she began to mentally redesign bikinis on the women around her. “I'd see women in suits that just didn't do much for them,” says the leggy and graceful Kailua attorney. “I'd think, ‘She should have a halter top instead of a triangle top,’ or ‘She can wear a sleeker cut than board shorts.’” One Saturday morning Erika had an epiphany at Kaimana Beach: “I was sitting there with a friend, and I said that I really wanted to design swimwear for a living.” Once she heard the words come out of her mouth, she knew they were true. At the time, she was a prosecutor for the state and accustomed to thinking about what was appropriate in the courtroom, not on the beach. But in many ways, the idea of trading in legal briefs for ... er ... the other kind was not such a career leap. Notwithstanding the fact that Erika “grew up in a swimsuit” in a beach town outside San Diego, it was her legal mind that made sense of the fashion business. Today she devotes herself full-time to her company, Hawaiian Hula Girl, and is a rising star of the Hawai‘i swimwear scene. We thumb through her 2006 catalogue—suits range from a coy all-white lacey number to a vampish two-piece in a pinstripe print—as she remembers telling the state attorney general she was leaving her day job. “She liked my work and wanted me to stay on,” Erika recalls. “But when I told her I needed to follow my heart, she understood.”