Sunday, September 29, 2002



Store conjures up
a tropical paradise

Crafts, music, food and jungle parrots
heighten the retail experience at the
clothing outlets that equate life with a luau

By Pat Gee

Hilo Hattie used to dance in a bright, baggy muumuu against the backdrop of lively luau scenes and tourists sipping mai tais.

Whether it's the famous hula dancer or the stores named after her, the name conjures up those images. And that's what store leaders are counting on.

Founder Jim Romig knows that when visitors buy one of his garments, they are buying a bit of Hawaii to take back home. The store's "mission is to provide each customer with a complete Hawaiian lifestyle and shopping experience," says the sign at the entrance, next to the complimentary tropical punch.

"People come for a couple of hours," to enjoy a crafts demonstration, live music, sample food items, get their pictures taken with colorful parrots, Romig said.

About three years ago, the company won the annual governor's trophy for being the "Best Hawaiian Experience," placing it in the same category as Sea Life Park and the Polynesian Cultural Center, he said. It has also won the "Retailer of the Year" award twice.

Hilo Hattie CEO Paul de Ville, left, and Chairman Jim Romig posed amid the aloha merchandise inside their retail store on Nimitz Highway.

According to Paul de Ville, who became chief executive officer of Pomare Ltd., Hilo Hattie's parent company, last March, the manufacturer and retailer markets its garments and goods using its "Life Is a Luau" slogan because "that's what Hawaii represents" to most people.

Everyone who enters one of the chain's 13 stores (four on the mainland) is greeted with a cheery "Aloha!" and a shell lei, an idea Romig came up with 15 years ago.

"We're very proud of Hawaii. We're sharing what we love and know with other people. That's the whole crux of the company," said Romig, a 40-year kamaaina originally from Elma, Wash.

Romig never imagined that his first Hilo Hattie store, started in Hilo in the late 1970s, would blossom into a thriving, multimillion-dollar chain of stores. Now he is looking across the sea to Japan and the Caribbean.

"I thought it (Hilo Hattie) was a cute name. It was fun and Hawaiian. And it did represent exactly what our mission statement proposed," Romig said.

Hilo Hattie executives Jim Romig, left, and Paul de Ville say the world's largest aloha shirt hangs at the entrance to the Nimitz retail store.

The company has been awarding a music scholarship since 1980 in remembrance of Clara Haili, who called herself Hilo Hattie, he added.

Romig started as Pomare-Tahiti Sportswear, a wholesale importer of fabric from Tahiti in 1963, eventually changing the name to just Pomare Ltd.

He did not get into retail until the early 1970s, starting Kaluna Hawaii Sportwear in Kauai and other stores under different names.

By the mid-1980s the retail outlets grew to 40 from four. But in 1987, Romig sold 35 small resort shops to concentrate on the Hilo Hattie manufacturing and retail division because the larger factory outlets were doing the best.

Romig attributed his success to "always emphasizing quality and cost, good marketing and merchandising. Above all, we have one of the finest retail teams. Our people are the greatest asset."

In addition to its mainland stores in California, Tennessee, (Miami) Florida and Arizona, "we (were) very excited about opening in Las Vegas Aug. 15," he said.

Hilo Hattie

Founded: 1963 by parent company Pomare Ltd.; Hilo Hattie's Fashion Center division, mid-1970s

Named after: Waikiki hula dancer Clara Haili, who changed her name to Hilo Hattie after making the song "When Hilo Hattie Does the Hilo Hop" famous.

Number of employees: 450

Number of stores: 13, including five on mainland; flagship store, Nimitz Highway

Executives: Founder and Chairman Jim Romig, CEO Paul de Ville

What it does: Manufactures and retails Hawaiian apparel, accessories and souvenirs

Hilo Hattie

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