Sunday, May 12, 2002

WALTAH CLARKE / 1912-2002

Waltah Clarke, shown here with wife Gretchen, was once the largest retailer of Hawaiian-style fashions. The Waltah Clarke Hawaiian Shops chain totaled 31 stores in California, Chicago and Hawaii. Clarke died in California on Tuesday at age 89.

Retailer brought
isle fashions to the
mainland via his stores

Associated Press

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. >> Waltah Clarke, once the nation's largest retailer of Hawaiian-style fashions, has died. He was 89.

Clarke died of heart failure on Tuesday at a Rancho Mirage hospital, the Los Angeles Times reported.

A Los Angeles native, Clarke moved to Hawaii in 1938 and later changed the spelling of his name from Walter to Waltah, reflecting the way it was pronounced by local beachgoers.

"He became so fascinated with Polynesian life -- the customs, the music, the flowers and the whole attitude of Hawaii, the aloha spirit -- he decided to bring that to the mainland through stores," said his wife, Gretchen.

In 1952, Clarke opened a store in Palm Springs that offered Hawaiian shirts, swimwear and dresses. He married Gretchen two years later. She went on to design many of the prints for store fashions. The company kept up with the times by streamlining the baggy muumuu, turning it into cocktail dresses and Hawaiian-print miniskirts.

The couple brought "what we would call today luau kitsch to the forefront of the mainstream marketplace," said Tim McCullough, president and chief executive of Reyn's, a clothing retailer and manufacturer in Hawaii. "At the time, they were quite progressive. Their designs and styling were done very tastefully for the period and their product was very bold."

The Waltah Clarke Hawaiian Shops chain eventually totaled 31 stores in California, Chicago and Hawaii. After retiring, Clarke remained chairman of the board while his wife became president. They sold their last store, in Palm Desert, last year.

In addition to his wife, Clarke is survived by his sons, Walter Jr. of Honolulu, Rolf of Irvine and Cameron of Washington, D.C.; daughters Heather Salsbury of Los Angeles, Gretchen Clarke of Eureka, Mont., and Cissy Milauskas of Los Angeles; and six grandchildren.

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