Meleana Estes: Renowned Lei Maker | Designer | Granddaughter to Tutu Bailey | Mother | Hawaiian
Coco: Tell us about your childhood?
I was really lucky I grew up on Kauai in the country with Mom and my family. My Mom’s 4 brothers lived around us. I was always surrounded by nature. I lived outdoors, always making forts, playing the the dirt, I was quite a tomboy. We would come to Oahu every 2 months to see my Tutu who lived here in Manoa. Everytime we came it was such a festive event. She never picked us up from the airport without 3 Pu’u Keni Leis, for everybody and haku leis. From the moment she pulled up at the airport she had this sort of spirit of pure aloha. Festive is the word that comes to mind in describing her because she made every thing such a beautiful event. Literally every time I flew in or flew out of Honolulu I had a lei on. I grew up around that in my younger years. That was what Honolulu was to me. Arriving at Tutu’s was such an exciting moment, every trip. I moved to Oahu in 7th grade and went to Punahou. It was then that I got to really spend time with my Tutu. She is obviously someone who is such an inspiration to me in my lei making and my fashion design. To really see her in action. Wow! She was a lady around town that never showed up with our full regalia. A traditional muumuu, head lei on and leis for everyone. Being on Oahu I got to be around that. I feel so, so, so fortunate. And I don’t think I realized what a gift she was until now. Now I am trying to do the same thing for my friends and everytime I make a lei, I am like “Oh My God, that took so long”. She has so much aloha and love. In my workshops, I tell the story that I never had a sporting event or function that I didn’t have a lei on. Or a Molokai channel where everyone didn’t get a lei. My husbands crew, my crew, everybody had leis. She instilled this spirit my sister and I.. Tutu never made something that didn’t have thought in it. My sister and I were always running to pick up the perfect flower for her haku. She would think “Oh Wow, it”s someone Punahou reunion, it has to be blue and yellow.” So she would search high and low for the perfect hydrangea. That was how she took on everything. I feel so fortunate to have moved to Oahu so I got to experience her radiant personality daily. I grew up with so much color and aloha spirit. Priceless qualities that came so naturally to her.
Coco: Did your Tutu grow up making leis?
No. She grew up in Kalihi. She was the first of her 13 brothers and sisters to go to Kamehameha School. I think she always shined. She was always someone that took on everything with the utmost exuberance. She was an overachiever. She wanted to go to nursing school, and she did. Then she became the head nurse. She then met my Grandpa, got married, had a baby and then raised 5 kids in this house. Punahou School noticed she was a creative. She would sew costumes for different events. When I was in the 7th grade she was offered a job as the costume coordinator for Punahou School. Because of her job at the school a few of her kids went to Punahou.
After her nursing days and before her lei making days, she sewed. She had 5 kids who all had a few kids so imagine how many grand kids she had. Every year each grandkid got a Tutu made PJ. We are talking like 30 or more PJ sets! Every Christmas! She was so creative and so hard working. And I want to say ingenious. Her lei making life didn’t start until she was 50 years old. She was asked to be a judge at the May Day Lei Day show at Kapiolani Park. This contest still exists today. She saw for the first time a haku lei. This was in the 70’s, during the time of the Hawaiian Renaissance when Hawaiian music and language was revived. And people started naming their children Hawaiian names again. Tutu grew up very Hawaiian but at that time it was not very not ‘envogue” to be Hawaiian. Before the 50’s no one was really giving their kids Hawaiian names. Right around the 70’s everything started coming back. So this was the first time she had seen a haku lei, a more traditional style of lei making, and she just fell in love with it. She fell in love with the intricacy and the architecture.I think she was blown away by each lei and how they are so artfully put together. She became this student of lei making. She researched, apprenticed and found every haku lei maker in the state. She studied the craft and just became this amazing lei maker.
Coco: Did Tutu wear a lot of vintage, or is the vintage that you wear, similar to what she wore, which was actually not vintage at the time?
What I have now of hers wasn’t vintage of the time. But what ever fashion was in at the time she had in spades. Going through her closets after she passed away we found all of these hand made, embroidered, by her, big drindle skirts and little top outfits that were stylish in the 50’s. What ever was in at the time she would make several for herself. She always dressed my Mom to the 9’s for school; a Channel style suit, made by Tutu. My Mom always says I was the best dressed child in school. Later in her life, she became known for her muumuu collection. This is when she started collected muumuu’ s. She has amazing muumuus from the 70’s from amazing local artists. These curtains, (pointing to hand painted curtains on her lanai) and most of the paintings in this room are Alan Akina. Alan collaborated with the muumuu designer Nakehu who is still alive and made this muumuu. (Pointing to a muumuu in the room.) Tutu was a collector. We have wedding gowns from the 20’s, bags, hats, shell leis, whatever she liked. She was the fashionista of her time.
Coco: What was your fondest childhood memory?
For sure lying in bed with Tutu and the family. We would all pile into that king bed, sing songs and fall asleep. I literally slept with her until she passed away. I lived with her for awhile after college. I had my own set up in the studio but slept with her every night. So yeah, Tutu was fancy, a socialite, and so much in her life but she was also the best person to give a big hug to. So yeah, definitely sleeping with my Tutu.
Coco: What’s makes you the happiest?
In my artistic world? As an artist what makes me really happy…. fundamentally it’s color. I love color. I think that’s why I am so drawn to fabric and that has driven my fashion designs. Just the bright bold colors. I also think that is why I love lei making so much. Every time you make a lei you are experimenting with shades of gray or pops of pink. I think that’s why I am obsessed with making haku leis. It’s a color story every time you do it. And I am pretty picky about the look of it, If there is one color in there I don’t like I’ll pull the whole thing apart and start over to get it just right. I think what makes me really happy is the chance to work with colors in design and lei making.
Coco: What inspires you?
In fashion, color. But also lifestyle. I feel in Hawaii we have a very unique lifestyle. I am driven to design something for just us, our lifestyle. The person that’s running from the beach to a BBQ. Us being the someone that’s festive. Clothing that represents island wear in a chic, new way. We have such a unique history and style here, I don’t want that to be lost. Lifestyle really, really does inspire me. When I see people at a garden wedding wearing black, I think ‘What?”, we should all be wearing a hawaiian muumuu’s.
Coco: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I would love my clothing line to be established. I would love my clothing line and my leis to be in one place. To have a lei shop, grab a dress, or a pillow while you are in. Anything from my world, a bit of hawaii, a bit of modern. I would love to have a place for people to come and get a piece of that. And I would love to be able to show that to the world, do pop up shops in New York. So that’s where I see my brand in a few years, a tiny little hole in the wall shop, where people can come and get a piece of my vision.
Coco: What challenges you?
I guess with any artist, self doubt, and pulling the trigger on things. And not going back and making 700 decisions about a color story but to go with my instinct and gut. I think that is my biggest challenge.
Coco: What is your favorite past time?
I love to be in the ocean. It’s my reset button, jumping in, surfing, swimming. That comes from family. My Tutu was scared of the ocean. She got thrown in when she was little, “learn to swim”. And her Dad died in the ocean. But my Dad was raised in Waikiki, surfing. Everyday he would come home from work, load us in the car and go to the beach. We couldn’t really go through a day with out jumping in the ocean. That is definitely my happy place.
Coco: Where do you currently live?
“I live in Manoa in my Tutu’s historic home where she raised her family and where she passed away. And we are now living in this big house just the 3 of us. My son, my husband and myself.”
Coco: Who is your inspiration?
“Well Tutu, but also a lot of women of her generation. Take Mehana Souza who never shows up without a muu on strumming her ukelele. Certain woman of New York who are not worried about trends. It’s about what they feel evokes their own personal style and personality. I love that! I love Iris Apfel. People like that really inspire me. They are trend setters. They look for quality not quantity.”
Coco: When did you start making haku?
“I have been making leis my whole life. In the younger years it was much more stressful because I was young and it would take a really long time. So really after she passed to be honest. I all of the sudden started. It was like her energy seeped into me. All of the sudden I didn’t want to go to a birthday without a lei. And then now, at her home, I have all of the flowers at my fingertips. So I would say 2012 when she passed away. The sewing thing was the first thing that Tutu and I had in common and did together. Sometimes I wish she was here to see a lei like this (pointing to the lei she had just made) she would see that it was a little more unconventional, and say “that so neat that you paired those things together.”
Coco: What do you want to perpetuate with your trades?
In fashion I just want to perpetuate people buying things that make them happy. But with leis I really want to perpetuate that spirit of showing up with a lei, that aloha spirit. My Dad always showed up with a lei on Friday nights when he came to take my Mom out. It was aloha Friday, he brought a lei. She never got picked up for a date with out a lei. My husband, Will learned that from my family too. He’s made leis. It’s something so unique to our island home and culture.
I’ll tell you a story. I went to my Aunty’s award ceremony, Aunty Judy. I was floored. It made me realise that spirit isn’t lost in their generation. But we need to perpetuate it in our generation. Aunty Judy had leis 3 times graduation style coming up above her head. She started giving you your lei back. You would give her a rope pikake and she would give it right back to you. When I was younger I would ask my Mom, “do you really want to pick up a lei, she will have a lot of leis.” My Mom would always insist. I love that. I hope our generation will pick this tradition back up.
Coco: What is the goal behind your business? Do you consider your business at the moment lei making or fashion?
I would like it to be more fashion. After I had my son and then moving into Tutus house and being so inspired to make leis, fashion kind of got put to the side. I want to make things that are a representation of our island life. That old school aloha spirit, that old school Waikiki balmy air, hawaiian music type of feeling. When people come to me for a dress or a lei, I want them to feel like they are living that a little bit. I want people to feel that spirit of aloha in my goods. To transport them to that old dreamy Hawaii.
Coco: If you had to give a message to the world, what would that be?
“No Hawaiian girl should be without a lei needle in her drawer It’s essential..” Tutu Bailey
Meleana Estes Interview
Interview Date- Dec 1, 2016
Location- At her Tutu’s Manoa Home
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