COURTESY SHIRAKI FAMILY
Ethel Shiraki de Saussure Guyer wears a dress of kimono fabric that will be on display at UH.
Reconstructing a fairy tale life
Family stitches fashion legacy
STORY SUMMARY »
During your next family get-together, you might consider saying more than "hello" and "what's up?" to the aunties and uncles you see only once or twice a year. They might have a secret life hidden behind a quiet countenance.
The Shiraki clan is learning this the hard way as they try to reconstruct the life story of an aunt, Ethel Shiraki de Saussure Guyer, a designer whose remarkable journey from the fields of Kohala, to school and a career in New York and Hollywood, demands telling. Unfortunately, she is unable to tell it herself because she suffers from Alzheimer's disease.
COURTESY SHIRAKI FAMILY
Designing in the 1950s and '60s, she was progressive in her use of textiles from around the world.
Garments she created for herself offer some insight into her work and will go on display next week at the University of Hawaii. The family is hoping it will spark a few memories of those who knew Ethel and are able to share more about her.
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CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
At Miller Hall, Tee Pham shows designs by Ethel Shiraki de Saussure Guyer, including a dress of embroidered Indian silk, the strapless dress sewn from a brocade kimono (the designer wears it in the mirror photo above), and a striped linen dress.
Those who decry the sloppy, tell-all culture of blogs and personal Web sites do not yet appreciate the wealth of information being generated online for historians of the future.
Ethel Shiraki De Saussure Guyer
» On view: Tuesday through Nov. 16
» Place: 2515 Campus Road, Miller Hall Room 112, University of Hawaii at Manoa campus
» Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. weekdays. Curator Carol D'Angelo will take questions in the gallery, 2 to 4 p.m. Nov. 11. Closed Veterans Day, Nov. 12.
» Admission: Free
» Call: 956-2234
The Shiraki clan is wishing this resource existed in the 1950s as they try to piece together the life story of one of their own, Ethel Shiraki De Saussure Guyer, whose innovative fashion designs of the 1950s and '60s are now raising questions about this remarkable woman.
Nieces and nephews of the designer don't know much about her because she has no remaining immediate family and spent most of her design career on the mainland, according to Doreen Shiraki, who married into the local family.
It was only when De Saussure Guyer, who has Alzheimer's disease, moved into a care home in Northern California earlier this year that the family discovered a treasure trove of dresses, costume jewelry and memorabilia.
The home will be sold, the proceeds to provide for De Saussure Guyer's care. But her designs have been donated to the Historic Costume Collection of the Apparel, Product, Design and Merchandising Program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where they will be displayed through Nov. 16.
"We were looking through her closet and discovered all these beautiful gowns," said Doreen, who wants to learn more about her husband's aunt. "I sew, so I appreciate her work more than most because I know how difficult it is."
"I was overwhelmed when I saw them. They're so beautiful," said UH instructor and exhibition curator Carol D'Angelo. "Her designs are so elegant, and I think she was ahead of her time. She seemed to be able to see the future as well as the past. She was doing one-shoulder designs that were so unusual for her time and so special."
De Saussure Guyer's Kohala farm upbringing exposed her to a multicultural society and, along with her Japanese background, likely inspired her to create Western dresses with kimono fabric, as well as Indian saris. Her designs also exhibit Mexican, Spanish flamenco and Egyptian influences.
"She paid a lot of attention to detail," said D'Angelo, noting the pleated skirts of De Saussure Guyer's 1950s dresses, which at the time were usually gathered at the waist. Pleating allowed dresses to fall more neatly and gracefully over the hips.
Also in her collection were kimonos that Doreen is certain De Saussure Guyer planned to cut up, perhaps making her the godmother of clothing recyclers.
What is known about De Saussure Guyer is that she was born Ethel Yoshiko Shiraki on Sept. 5, 1923, in Kohala, to Jisuke Shiraki and Ura Muranaka, who taught her daughter to sew. In the late '40s, when Ethel could no longer learn new techniques at home, she headed to New York to study at the Traphagen Fashion Institute, which she had read about in one of her fashion magazines.
After graduating she worked at, among others, the house of Mainbocher, the designer who created the wedding gown worn by Wallis Simpson for her marriage to Edward VIII, the Duke of Windsor.
Ethel eventually married and returned to Honolulu to open a boutique, Ethel de Saussure Designs, in 1952.
After a second marriage to Harold Herman Guyer in 1962, she moved to California, where it is believed she designed for Hollywood stars and dreamed of starting her own sewing school. Among her belongings was a notebook detailing clients' addresses and measurements, including those of Mrs. Walt Disney.
Her notebook also lists prices of a basic dress, which increased from $50 in 1954 to $55 in 1961, and gown, which increased from $75 to $85.50 during the same period. One of her couture gowns of lace and chiffon would have cost $100.
Doreen Shiraki tried to ask more questions of De Saussure Guyer, without much luck.
"She can carry on a conversation. She's very polite but her memory is not there. When I try to ask her about the stars she designed for, she just says, 'Oh, I don't know. I treated them all the same. They're just people.'"
It's been frustrating for Doreen, who has received conflicting information from De Saussure Guyer's friends, now in their 80s, and family. Friends recall that the designer's mother scrimped to pay for her education in New York, while relatives believe she received no assistance from her family. It didn't help that she kept quiet about her work, whether out of humility or the belief that her family would not understand what she did.
Doreen said De Saussure Guyer stayed at her home 10 years ago but never talked about the extent of her work. "When I asked what she did, she just said, 'I used to sew,' that's all."
One of De Saussure Guyer's nephews, Melvin Shiraki, e-mailed from Shanghai: "My grandfather was the typical Japanese farmer immigrating to Hawaii to get rich and return to Japan. They had no money, lived in the plantation camp and, I believe, could not afford to assist her by sending her to design school on the mainland. So, she did what she had to do to 'chase her dreams.'
"For her own reason (she) never talked about her profession, her clients, her shops or anything related to fashion design or the actual sewing of her garments. I can remember that she did say that some 'movie stars' bought her designs, but (she) never gave any details on who, what, when or why they bought it.
"She was, in a way, a bit eccentric as she did appear from time to time in Honolulu without notice."
In one instance, Melvin said he came home late one night and was shocked to find his aunt asleep in the living room.
COURTESY SHIRAKI FAMILY
One of her ballgown creations.
"Aunt Ethel sat up from her bed on the couch, and I did not recognize her because she did not have on any makeup -- she did apply heavy makeup. In fact, she did scare me as I was not expecting her to be sleeping on the couch or even being in Honolulu."
Considering that De Saussure Guyer grew up at a time when few daughters of immigrants were lucky enough to receive higher education, and those who did often became teachers, Doreen Shiraki said, "We still find it remarkable that a Kohala 'bumpkin' in the late '40s could travel and succeed in New York and return home to a successful designing career."