Longtime clerk Masaru Asano stands with Joyce Masuda, owner of dry goods store Musashiya Inc. at Ala Moana Center. Musada says that although local residents account for 70 percent of the 100-year-old store's business, Brazilians, New Zealanders and Canadians all find their way to the store, too. Photo by Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin

Isle dry goods store
sews patchwork of success

From its silks early on to its Hawaiian prints today, the 100-year-old Musashiya Inc. survives by serving customer demand

By June Watanabe

It was 1920 and the proprietor of the cluttered dry goods store at the corner of River and King streets in Chinatown unknowingly ordered too many bolts of British-made cloth.

Figuring he couldn't sell the fancy fabric to his mostly Japanese immigrant customers, he hired a seamstress who turned the material into dozens and dozens of striped shirts. Still, no go.

But Koichiro Miyamoto didn't stop there. To tout his merchandise to a bigger crowd, he hired an advertising agency and was lucky enough to get hooked up with adman George Mellon. Mellon came up with a masterful ad campaign that turned Miyamoto into "Musa-Shiya the Shirtmaker" and propelled him and the shop into international reknown.

Miyamoto's colorful pidgin English was printed verbatim in ads featuring a smiling, kimono-clad Oriental man in getas, an image that would be totally NOT PC today.

But the ads did the trick. Musa-Shiya the Shirtmaker became as famous as Omar the Tentmaker, luring Hollywood luminaries who favored his silk shirts, robes and pajamas.

Perhaps more notable as a cultural event, he's the man credited with making the first "aloha shirt" in 1933.

That year, Miyamoto sold the River Street store to the Fujii family and opened a shirtmaking business. He retired in 1968 and died at age 90 in 1986 in relative anonymity.

However, his legacy lives on. The tiny shop opened in 1896 by his father, Chotaro Miyamoto, and named after Musashi, an area in Japan, has reached a milestone few businesses ever do.

Musashiya Inc. is 100 years old, one of only a handful of fabric shops still around in a world of fast-foods and ready-mades.

While an advertising gimmick helped establish the store, survival this long has to do with offering customers what they want, as well as staying on top of fashion trends, according to owner Joyce Masuda.

"It's the fabrics that kept it up," said Masuda, who bought the business in 1978 from George and Mary Fujii.

Fabrics such as a broadcloth favored for Hawaiian quilts. Musashiya is the only store in Hawaii carrying all 73 colors of the line, Masuda said.

Today's rage for things Hawaiian accounts for much of the store's sales - in and out of state. Hula schools in, of all places, Japan, order yards and yards of Hawaiian prints for costumes - ordering by phone, fax or in person.

Although local folks still account for 70 percent of the clientele, Brazilians, New Zealanders and Canadians all find their way to the store, most hearing about it word of mouth. A regular customer over the years has been newspaper magnate Randolph Hearst, who personally selects silks for his aloha shirts, Masuda said.

Japanese and Korean customers are the biggest buyers of Leonardo designer silks from Paris, which sell for $125 to $155 a yard.

Elizabeth Permenter, a real estate appraiser visiting from Raleigh, N.C., was in the store one day buying colorful fish and bird prints to turn into T-shirts. "They don't have that where I come from," she said.

But for Natividad Bolosan, a housewife from Moanalua Gardens, the store is just a place "where I always find something I like," most recently material for a party dress. Bolosan remembers her mother first taking her to the River Street store in 1961.

"Hawaii people just love to sew," Masuda said. "They have become world travelers so even wools will sell here."

Many often will come to Musashiya to select the fabric, then pay to have a custom-made futon or zabuton. "When kids go off to college, they take their futons with them," Masuda said.

Masuda, born in Los Angeles and raised in Japan, always loved beautiful fabrics and sewing. She looked forward to helping Mary Fujii, her "calabash relative," in the Ala Moana store when visiting from either Tokyo or Hong Kong, where her late husband, Henry, was based for Continental Oil Co. When the Fujiis decided to retire, Masuda bought the business.

Back then, there were three Musashiyas. As their leases expired, the original River Street and Kaneohe shops were closed. The Ala Moana Center shop, opened in the mid-'60s, moved to its present 2,300-square-foot spot on the ground level, near Foodland and the post office, in the mid-'80s.

When she took over, there were many places in the shopping center to buy fabrics, Masuda recalled: Singer and Hino's fabric stores, the latter with two outlets, plus specialty departments in Liberty House, Penneys and Sears. They're all gone. Only Woolworth's offers a limited amount of fabrics and notions.

Masaru Asano was just 21 when he was hired as clerk at the River Street store. "Mostly Japanese kind of material" dominated when he started, he recalled. "Not bright kind like this," he said, pointing to bolts of bright Hawaiian prints.

"I love this store," he said, explaining why, at 84, he's still on the payroll as a part-timer. His first customers' children and grandchildren always ask for him when they come in, Masuda said. Of her 16 employees, four have worked for Musashiya for more than 40 years.

Asked if it's difficult these days to keep a specialty shop going, Masuda said modestly, "It's not a struggle because there aren't many fabric shops around."

But, like Asano, she talked about a love of her work, of searching out new and different fabrics around the world that keeps her, and the store, going.

Although a grown son and daughter are not interested in the business, Musashiya will probably continue even after she retires, Masuda said.

"Down the line, one (of the employees) will probably take over. I have no worry about that."

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