Apparel maker left imprint on isles


POSTED: Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Honolulu businessman Keiji Kawakami was honored last year as a patron of local artists, not only for buying their work, but for sharing it through donations to numerous island schools and organizations.

As one of the earliest manufacturers of aloha shirts, his own creations of island art are to be found in innumerable closet collections here and abroad. Kawakami and his wife, Edith, founded Iolani Sportswear in 1953.

Kawakami, 90, died April 21 at his home.

After serving with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in World War II, the Kauai native earned degrees in merchandising at New York University.

He and his wife began their business venture when postwar tourism began to flourish, and the unique casual and colorful island fashion was embraced by visitors as well as local people.

“;They started with just a couple of sewing machines in the back room of a Beretania Street service station,”; said daughter Pat Kawakami. “;He would cut the fabric, make the deliveries. When they started, they used 'kabe' silk from Japan.”; The company added a line of women's apparel, and its product is sold under the Iolani, Young Hawaii and Island Moments labels in department stores, Waikiki shops and in Japan and California.

Kawakami was named a director of several island companies, including Bank of Hawaii, Dillingham Corp. and the Queen's Medical Center when Japanese-Americans were scarce in boardrooms, his daughter said.

In 1991 he was given a U.S. Senate commendation recognizing his service on the East-West Center Board of Governors. In 2003 the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau presented its Maile Award to the Kawakamis for contributions to the quality of life and growth of tourism. Last year the Hawaii Arts Alliance presented the couple with its Alfred Preis Award for their lifetime commitment to the arts and arts education.

“;He was a tremendous supporter of Satoru Abe,”; said retired state Judge Jim Burns. He contributed works by Abe and other artists to Kauai Community College, Kapiolani Community College, Farrington High School and the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific.

“;He was never in the public light. He wasn't trying to be popular,”; said Burns. “;He was always donating his product to the governor to give distinguished visitors.”;

Kawakami is survived by wife Edith, son Lloyd F., daughters Patricia K. and Susan H., brothers Toru and Daniel, sisters Yukie Murakami and Mabel Hashisaka, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

A funeral service will be held at 6 p.m. Friday at Hosoi Garden Mortuary. The family requests that aloha attire be worn and flowers omitted. Memorial contributions may be made to charity or to the Kawakami Foundation.