It’s no surprise that a Lebanese tycoon was the force behind the worldwide fame of the Aloha shirt. Alfred Shaheen’s decision to preside over the family business in the rag trade, which had its roots in Mount Lebanon, had consequences that stretched all the way to Hawaii. Famously known as the godfather of the Hawaiian shirt, Shaheen was the first to generate a fashion industry with a manufacturing empire in Hawaii, pinning the Hawaiian style on the global map. His memory is kept alive through his daughter Camille Shaheen-Tunberg, who Vogue reached out to in California to discover first-hand his legacy.
Alfred Shaheen’s family come from the Aarbanieh village in Mount Lebanon, home to a magnificent mill in the Silk Valley, famously known for its silk production during the Ottoman era. The majority of Mount Lebanon’s population worked in the trade and had great knowledge of the textile industry, considering Lebanon was a major producer and exporter of silk during the 19th century. Since antiquity, Lebanon had been part of the famed silk road that extended from China to the Levant. This cultural heritage was adopted by Shaheen’s grandparents, who exported their expertise and knowledge of the trade and migrated to America.
In 1902 Shaheen’s grandfather Assy established a silk mill in New Jersey, Shaheen’s and Son’s, and in New York, Assy manufactured his woven silk into negligees and undergarments. Naturally, Shaheen’s dad, George (born in Lebanon in 1897) and his wife Mary (also Lebanese), joined the family business, eventually branching out on their own and moving to Hawaii, bringing with them a rich heritage in the textiles industry.
Alfred, who was born in Cranford, New Jersey, in 1922, completed a degree in aeronautical engineering in California and at the end of World War II, moved back to Hawaii to join the family business in 1945. His parents operated a bespoke business of couture and bridal gowns made from luxury fabrics. Camille adds that “they brought with them all the knowledge, trained the local people, and established a garment industry.” Three years later, Shaheen decided to branch out on his own, specializing in ready-to-wear aloha shirts and women’s fashions.
Historically, native Hawaiians created their garments at home; however, in the 1920s a manufacturing industry emanated due to the need of military uniforms and traditional tapa shirts. By the 1930s, Hawaiians were becoming more Westernised, and this is when the aloha shirt emerged due to the myriad influences on Hawaiian culture. Initially, the shirts were made from imported Japanese Kimono fabrics with graphic prints; however, during World War II it became impossible to import the fabrics.
Shaheen’s survival instinct, wit, and entrepreneurship led him to set up his first home-grown print plant under the label Surf’n Sand Hand Prints. He quickly established himself as a unique textile producer. He was the first to hire in-house designers, who designed exclusive prints and patterns for the label. “Dad’s business grew very fast, because he printed his own fabrics and he built the equipment himself,” says Shaheen-Tunberg. “He even hired fulltime models and put them on the payroll,” she adds.
An avid collector and trader of vintage garments behind the aptly named online store, Shaheen Dream, she says, “The unique thing about Shaheen garments is how they are each individually printed. Starting in the 70s, he began branching out into huge placement prints that require a tremendous amount of work, and planning to ensure each piece was printed exactly the way it needed to be sewn together.”
Shaheen and his team travelled to different Asian and South Pacific countries for inspirational mood boards to create unique prints and motifs with a story to tell, inspired from local flora and fauna. Shaheen-Tunberg adds, “A trip to Lebanon after the war was very inspiring to my dad and he would bring back things from Lebanon. He incorporated Arabic writing in his prints.” Shaheen even pushed the limits with a new and revolutionary printing method. He innovated metallic printing by developing dyes such as gold and silver.
Shaheen had become the largest manufacturer in Hawaii and had built a unique business model in the state’s history. Much is owed to his mother Mary, who had trained and mentored Shaheen’s staff, from printers to screeners, seamstresses and models. “She was an artist herself”, says Shaheen-Tunberg. By 1956, Shaheen had built his own factory to produce the garments, including a series of showrooms and retail stores employing over 400 people. In awe, she adds, “Dad talked facts and not emotions. He started his business in 1948 and by 1956 he had created a multi-million factory in Hawaii. All in less than 10 years. He had hundreds of people relying on him for their jobs.” She recalls of asking him once, “whether he was scared of his huge venture and responsibility and he said to me, ‘I was so busy doing my job that I didn’t think of my feelings.’”
Shaheen revolutionized the world of couture by introducing island themes to beautifully sculpted bespoke gowns made by the skilled petites mains of his atelier; incorporating tropical themes and exclusively designed in-house prints. The dresses featured typical 50s couture elements such as inner constructed bras, elasticized bodices and optional halters that could be added to or taken off strapless gowns. The beauty and flexibility of his designs were featured in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar magazines.
In the mid 1960s, Shaheen created pop-up boutiques under the banner “East Meets West” in major department stores across the country, pushing boundaries and bringing cultural aesthetics and prints to the forefront of the fashion game.
Celebrities started wearing Shaheen’s shirts, most notably Elvis Presley in 1961, who donned a red Shaheen aloha shirt, the “Tiare Tapa,” featured on the album cover of his Blue Hawaii soundtrack and film in 1961. The shirt was emblazoned with tropical gardenias (Tiare), inspired by Tahitian flowers on traditional bark cloth (Tapa).
Shaheen had created an empire, elevating the Hawaiian style to high fashion, which made him the largest manufacturer of high-end shirts and tropical-themed dresses. His business grew until his retirement in 1988. Today, his pieces are highly sought-after as iconic vintage collectibles of Hawaiian fashion. In 2012, the US Postal Service released four postal stamps commemorating the work of Alfred Shaheen, featuring exclusive Shaheen printed shirts.
From the lush landscapes of Mount Lebanon to the new land of opportunities, Shaheen had kept true to his cultural heritage, skillfully weaving techniques of his forefathers in his new adopted home. “He was inspired by his Lebanese heritage. We were very Lebanese and we grew up with the Lebanese culture in Hawaii,” says Camille.
Shaheen created a dream, a wanderlust; concocted by skillfully hand-made shirts and impeccably constructed dresses that conjured ocean life and escapades. They were like wearable postcards that screamed, “Wish you were here.”
Originally published in the May 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia