The kikepa can be worn in a number of ways: as a skirt,
left, a full-length garment and as a man's wrap.
Models are, from left, Tara Nakashima,
Catherine Kekoa Enomoto and Gordon Pang.

Whole lotta
Lava Lava
going on

Call it a pareo.
Or kikepa. Or sulu.
But just tie one on and
you're very much in style.

Story by Burl Burlingame
Illustration by Kip Aoki
Photo by Ken Sakamoto

The urge to wrap one's body in beautiful cloth is as old as cloth itself. In the Pacific, whether it's called sarong (Indonesia), pareo (Tahiti), kikepa (Hawaii), lavalava (Samoa), sulu (Fiji) or beach wrap (haole), it's an idea that has never loosened its grip on the opu of fashion consciousness.

Today, however, the humble cloth rectangle is kicking off the sand.

"Off the beach, into the closet and out to dinner," as Maile Meyers of Native Books and Beautiful Things puts it. "Some beads, nice shoes, a wonderful cotton print - you're fashionable, baby."

What happened, figures Hilo Hattie's sales and marketing vice president Carlton Kramer, is that about a decade ago high fashion magazine photographers discovered kikepa as an accessory to beachwear shoots. Since then, said Kramer, sales are "WAY up!"

So much so that the wraps have become "a very important part of our garment mix" at Hilo Hattie's. "We keep them right on the main aisle, and usually have a person demonstrating how they're tied," said Kramer. At prices ranging from $8.99 to $29.99, the primary market at Hattie's is tourists, primarily women who will wear them around the house while the snow falls outside.

Designs tend to fall into three categories - a bright "silky" pattern like the classic aloha shirt, a kind of tie-dyed dark rayon pattern, and silk-screened designs on cotton. The size runs from 36 to 45 inches wide and about two yards long.

"Pareo are doing really well," said Hula Supply Center sales manager Sheryl Leleo. "Many go to local folks, but Japanese visitors buy them, too - everything from silk-screen to tie-dye."

"Pareo de Tahiti," a book explaining methods of tying the wrap, recently went out of print so that it could be updated. The new edition should be out in October, said publisher Hawaiian Service.

Kikepa are available at a wide - and growing - variety of shops, including Tahiti Imports, Musashiya, Otaheite and Woolworth's. Some highly regarded designs are coming out of Tutuvi, a tiny one-woman factory on South King.

That one woman is Colleen Kimura, who became entranced with the fabric-ial potential of kikepa while living in Fiji in the early 1980s. "It's called the sulu there, and a very tight, fitted version is the 'pocket sulu,' said Kimura. "There, it's mostly men's clothing, and I have vivid memories of the Fijian men wearing gaudy flowered sulus, purple shirts and heavy black leather sandals."

Kimura began experimenting with natural designs using contrasting and complementary colors, bringing a new tastefulness to the beach wrap.

Hawaiiana icon Haunani Kay Trask, for example, is rarely seen without kikepa, and she estimates that at least 60 percent of her kikepa closet is Tutuvi.

"It's beautiful!" said Trask. "In fact, I'm wearing a Tutuvi right now. The perfect clothing to wear in a hot climate. And not just because it makes a political statement - I'm pretty political, you know - because the muumuu is an imposed clothing style. The kikepa ties us in with the South Pacific.

"And it's just cloth! No zippers, no buttons, incredibly inexpensive, you don't have to accessorize. It's something about the way they fit - a fluidity of line that goes with the body. It's why Polynesian women look so good in them."

And men. Kimura said she loves seeing the high-school football kids lugging their gear after practice, wearing a lavalava. "After practice, you want to wearing something comfortable," she said.

They're also popular with canoe paddlers and other water-sports enthusiasts. "You can wear it with your bathing suit, and it gives the suit a chance to dry out, while you're dressed up enough to run errands on the way home," Kimura said.

Tutuvi pareo are generally printed on cotton, with the design bordering the bottom half so that it doesn't get lost in the tying. (Trask said she was partial to a recent design that featured he'e swimming in a massive school over the fabric. "Something about the tentacles - it seems to shimmer," she said.)

Tutuvi designs generally sell for $26 to $30 and are available at Native Books and Beautiful Things, Hula Supply Center, the Foster Gardens gift shop, Kauila Maxwell Co. and some locations on the neighbor islands.

And kikepa is not just a body wrap. "You can also use it for a picnic cloth, a canopy, a curtain, an overnight bag, anything that can be tied up," said Kimura.

"When they get old and faded, then you take them back to the beach," said Trask. "Even if it's too worn to be used as clothing, you can still get plenty of use out of kikepa. I have some older kikepa that are perfect for use at the beach."

And there's a certain full-circle aspect to that notion that ties things up nicely.

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Community] [Info] [Stylebook] [Feedback]