“Aloha” was the first word I heard as I made my way through the densely packed wares of Exotical Hawaiian Apparel. “Aloha,” I replied, and the adventure began.
I will have lived in Downey for 50 years come August, and never until today had I gone into the iconic boutique with the palm leaf-thatched entrance facing on Firestone Boulevard. Downeyites tend to forget we have here a time capsule from the old Hawaii, as it used to be.
Owner Martin Orloff, whose family opened this store in 1964, personally went through his stock to find just what I needed. They have everything from 12-month-size hula dresses for keiki (little kids) to blossoming sarongs for wahine (women), and your choice of brilliant or subdued aloha shirts for kane (men). I needed a party frock with sleeves that would cover an Auntie’s drooping upper arms (no translation). Women will know what I mean.
Pictured next, a sophisticated no-no, a shift with bare shoulders and arms.
“They don’t wear long sleeves in Hawaii,” Barbara Orloff said, “dresses are mostly sleeveless.” So true. I was remembering the generous humidity (no translation) and warm tropical days and nights.
Martin showed me several pretty spaghetti-strap tube-top dresses with fitted boleros that would have done the job, and then he brought out a breathtaking long cotton number with puffy short leg o’mutton sleeves, a detail that is a legacy of missionary times, and two tiers of ruffles below the knees.
To me the print looked like Lily Pulitzer Goes to Hawaii, but “It’s the kind of dress worn especially for dancing the hula,” Martin said, and I could imagine that too, at a family luau (luau). “Amazing how dance transcends cultures,” I thought. If I had been a Cubaña, the design would have been perfect for doing the rhumba.
The black polished cotton sarong with the orchid flowers on the model form would never be for me, nor the red torch ginger, but this shocking pink hibiscus print and green palm leaves on the hand-stitched princess-line front panel was just right.
“I saw this on a lady at a trade show on Waikiki Beach, “said Barbara, “and I ran after her. I knew I just had to have it. It was her own design.”
The shop not only sells signature clothes from the Islands, but it is a living museum of artifacts, and some, like the intricate shell necklaces from Tahiti and the woven and dyed grass masks from Papua New Guinea, are for sale.
A larger-than-life green sea turtle carved entirely from one piece of monkeypod wood stood in the aisle. “Parents take their kids’ pictures on it, and it becomes memory for the family (‘ohana),” said Barbara. The Orloffs have named it Shelly.
“My parents had the shop from 1954 till they died in 2011, and Barbara and I have run it ever since,” said Martin. “When I was little my mother used to bring me here on Friday nights, when they were open late, till 9.”
Before they took over, Barbara worked for the Downey Unified School District, and then for a while at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey. “It was different then,” she said, referring to recent disclosures. “But,” she added, “there was always stuff going on.”
There are treasures made from seed and shells, and whalebone carvings from Oceania, the islands of the Pacific, but most items are from Hawaii, and were collected by Paul and Marian, Martin’s mother and father.
One cape, woven from 245,000 feathers in the red and gold colors of Hawaiian’s alii (the chiefs and royalty), is framed in glass, and priced only for a serious collector.
From the ceiling an outrigger canoe is suspended, and a beautifully carved and inlaid outsized fish hook made of koa wood hangs below it, like an anchor in the sea of Downey. Barbara drummed for me on an ipu, a percussion instrument made from a bottle gourd. The ipu was more than just an instrument: it was used for food, medicine, and as a dish, mug, calabash, and pot. There are vintage ukeleiles too.
So now I have a dress suitable for a beach wedding, and in my imagination this afternoon I revisited so many of Hawaii’s beauty spots. Mahalo for that. I remembered having dinner at the old Pau Hana Inn in Kaunakakai, on Molokai. Pau hana means, in Hawaiian, work’s done, time to chill.
Aloha nui loa, Martin and Barbara. No translation needed.