From bowling shirts to tuxedos


POSTED: Thursday, October 22, 2009

Edward Kato was commonly found mowing his lawn wearing formal attire. Family and friends said he was a sharp dresser, trendy and up to date, wearing a coat and tie every day. Among his favorites were a red coat and yellow pants.

Kato decided to channel his keen fashion sense into a business, opening Hale Niu Sportswear in 1948 in his hometown of Waipahu. An old Hawaiian friend suggested that he name the store Hale Niu, which translates to House of Coconuts. The store originally focused on bowling shirts, which were eventually phased out in the late 1960s; tuxedos weren't added to the mix until 1958.

“;Edward was my uncle. My father, Kenneth (Kato), helped manage the shop,”; said current owner Karen Mukai. “;He had good vision. ... He was the only game in town back then.”;

The shop moved to Kilohana Square on Kapahulu Avenue in 1950. Kato operated a two-story business—downstairs was a showroom, and upstairs served as a manufacturing plant. He began manufacturing and creating original designs of bowling shirts, which could be specially monogrammed.





        Original owner: Edward Kato

Current owners: Karen Mukai, John Henry Felix and Julie Lumives


Number of years in business: 61




Kato was known for his clever marketing ploys that helped him maintain a flourishing business throughout the years. One of his popular promotions was a $2,500 cash award to whoever bowled a perfect game wearing his monogrammed Hale Niu bowling shirt.

The store remained on Kapahulu Avenue for 58 years, and Bert Sato, Edward's son, ran the business until 2008. Mukai, Kato's niece, took the reins last year to keep the family business open. It has since moved to 4210 Waialae Ave., across from Kahala Mall.

“;I thought I'd try to keep it going for another generation,”; Mukai said. Business is tough nowadays, and island demographics don't make it easy, she added. Tuxedos that normally would cost $150 to $160 are only $100 right now. “;It's a sign of the times and the economy,”; she said.

Weddings bring people in year-round and proms still stir up business. “;It's getting harder, though, because schools had more proms before, and at some junior functions they don't wear tuxedos,”; she said.

But, like her uncle and cousin, she continues to look for innovative ways to diversify the business. Mukai also runs Best Bridal Hawaii, a subsidiary of a wedding company in Japan.

“;This is the first time that we have owners that are outside of the family,”; she said. “;John Henry Felix is my business partner. Julie Lumives had 30 years' experience as a manager at Tuxedo Junction. We needed that kind of experience.”;

The repeat customers assure Mukai that things are right on track. “;We have a good record ... quality of service and trust. When customers pick up things, everything will fit and feel good.”;