Hilo Hattie, Don’t Leave Me!

Travel Blog  •  Pam Mandel  •  04.17.09 | 10:59 AM ET

Photo by lrargerich via Flickr (Creative Commons)

I confess: I love Hilo Hattie’s, the kitsch-tastic chain of retail stores where you can buy matching aloha wear for your entire family, hula girl lamps and beaded curtains, nightlights that have the word “Aloha” etched into their cowrie shell shades, coffee cups with your “Hawaiian” name on them, 73 different varieties of macadamia nut treat, straw hats, sun screen, flip-flops, tank tops ... oh, it goes on and on.

Most of the stuff they sell isn’t made in Hawaii; the shirts are from China, the mango candy from Thailand, even the shell leis they drop around your neck as you walk in the door are probably from some place other than Hawaii but never mind, never mind. I take the coupons from the airport brochures, I get on the shuttle bus and off I go to buy more ridiculous Aloha-themed junque. Don’t judge me. I openly admit I have a problem.

I was bummed when Hilo Hattie’s was sold to a California company—prior to that at least I could delude myself that the money I blew was going to a Hawaii-based parent company—but I was even more bummed to learn that the chain is in the middle of a messy bankruptcy. If the breezy doors to Hilo Hattie’s are shuttered when we arrive in the islands next, I don’t know how I’ll scratch that itch for Hawaiian kitsch.

The stores, first opened in 1963, were named after Clarissa Haili, a Hawaiian singer, dancer, actress and comedienne. She’s in “Blue Hawaii,” briefly, but she’s unforgettable—I knew she was Hilo Hattie before I knew she was Hilo Hattie. There’s a great write-up of both the actress and the store in this 2003 Rocktober Magazine article, Aloha Hilo Hattie!. In the story, the writer tells some young women he meets on a train—lectures them, really—on how, yes, they too can dress in the same Aloha wear that the Rock (you saw him in the controversial SNL skit) wears with such great style.

In 2003 it may have worked, but today when you click on the Hilo Hattie’s website, you get a message saying that the site is under construction. Given the news about the bankruptcy, this isn’t a promising sign. If I have to say “Aloha” to Hilo Hattie again, it will just break my heart.

Pam Mandel is a freelance writer and photographer from Seattle, Washington. Her work has appeared in a variety of print, radio, and web publications and she's contributed to two guidebooks, one on British Columbia and one on Hawaii. She plays the ukulele, has an internal beacon that is surprisingly capable of locating the best baked goods in town, almost any town, and speaks German with a Styrian accent. Learn more on her personal blog at Nerd's Eye View.

11 Comments for Hilo Hattie, Don’t Leave Me!

Jim Benning 04.17.09 | 11:34 AM ET

Great post, Pam. I used to love meandering through the local Hilo Hattie here in San Diego—made my feel as though I’d taken a quick trip to the islands. Sadly, it’s long gone, and I miss it.

Joanna Kakissis 04.17.09 | 11:35 AM ET

Great post, Pam. I’ve never been to Hawaii, alas, but when family first moved to Greece, my dad’s boss went there on vacation and brought back a lot of gifts—leis, candy, Hawaiian Barbie-like dolls. My parents got matching coffee cups with their Americanized Greek names in “Hawaiian.” It was the coolest day in South Dakota.

Maybe our gifts were from Hilo Hattie? I don’t know, but I still have the dolls and my mom still has the coffee cups.

Wandrin 04.17.09 | 1:08 PM ET

If a closet full of Hawaiian and tropical themed shirts (numbering close to 40) is a problem, I believe I have an addiction. A few of those shirts came from Hawaii when I visited. Now most of the shirts in that closet came from thrift stores. It’s easy to get to forty under those conditions. And ... The price is right.

pam 04.18.09 | 9:59 AM ET

@Joanna: Entirely possible that they’re from Hilo Hattie’s. Those coffee cups with the names on them are pretty widely available, but if they came with all kinds of other stuff… could be. I’d like to think so on your behalf.

@wandrin: i have the same problem, but now I rarely buy new ones—I find them in thrift stores too. I look at the tags—I’m always hunting for vintage aloha shirts—and I feel the fabric to see if it’s—oh, I’m giving away my secrets. But my husband has several very nice silk aloha shirts and in fact, the one he wore when we got married—on Maui—came from Hilo Hatties.

gloria 04.18.09 | 7:18 PM ET

nooooo, tell me it ain’t so!  i love hilo hatties.  on a recent trip to maui, i bought 20 of their famous .99cent calendars.  upon leaving the island and returning home, i couldn’t find the calendars.  i looked through everything i brought home over and over again, after 3 months, finally realized i must have left them at hilo hatties.  i took a chance and contacted the store, and lo and behold . . . they said they still had them under the counter and they proceeded to send them to me.  because of that i am a lifelong fan and customer of hilo hatties - hawaii is da bomb - what will we do if hilo’s not there anymore? :(

Andy 04.18.09 | 8:53 PM ET

I remember meeting Hilo Hattie in the International Marketplace when I lived in Hawaii in the 1960s.  Back then, it wasn’t a chain.  There was only one store, and while most of the stuff there was made by local people, the small touristy kitsch had begun to make its way into the store, especially near the registers.  Nobody came to Waikiki without stopping at Hattie’s to see the new muu’s and shirts, whether you were kama aina or a brand new tourist.  Hattie’s was the spirit of aloha for a long time. i hope someone finds a replacement.

Jon turner 04.20.09 | 12:50 AM ET

I lived on Oahu as a kid in the 60’s and met Hilo Hattie and Lucky Luck at a backyard luau in Mokuleia. I still remember what a nice fun group of people they were back then.  I have never been back as my friends told me it had all change and to remember the way it was. Sorry to hear such an icon is going away.  Keep the country in North Shore…

pam 04.20.09 | 8:34 PM ET

For the record, I’m unsure if Hilo Hattie’s IS going away. I’m following the news and hoping for the best. I sure wish Hilo Hattie’s would stop in and leave a comment on their business state…

Fingers crossed.

Seward Harvey 04.25.09 | 3:02 PM ET

I can’t believe it,,please tell me it is not so either !! Having been to Hawaii several times, Hilo Hattie’s is just about my first stop, one time before I even checked into my hotel. We are planning on another visit soon, hopefully things will be straightened out so we can visit one of most favorite places to shop. We just Love it, spend way too much—maybe but it’s worth it !!

Mary Jo 05.06.09 | 7:07 PM ET

Hilo Hattie’s has always been one of my guilty little pleasures.  I’d been driven underground by all the folks who would scoff at this touristy addiction. 

How many photos have I taken in front of the giant Aloha shirt?  How many Aloha shirts purchased, beach mats, bags, other tourist trapping?  It was a great stop for all the treats you needed to take to the poor slobs back home slaving away in the rain while you lounged in paradise.

It’s always a fun stop, and really—touristy doesn’t have to be all bad.

Johnny Bop 05.11.09 | 9:20 AM ET

Hi Pam a great artical.  I have been to Hawaii twice and evey time me and my girlfriend head straight for Hilo Hatties.  It will be a great shame to see such a company closes.  I know you can get loads of Kitsch aloha bits in the International Market, but there is just some thing about Hilo Hatties.  The staff really do have the Aloha feeling and truely make you welcome.  I will be sad to see the company fold.

Johnny Bop, London England

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