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The shirt for happy people

With bold florals and pared-down holiday prints, Hawaiian shirts are on course for a fashion comeback

A Kardo x Safomasi shirt.
A Kardo x Safomasi shirt.

The billowing silhouette of a Hawaiian shirt is akin to a wearable vacation portrait. Recognizable by their dazzling colours and prints, these shirts—also known as Aloha shirts—emerged in the 1950s from the multicultural heritage of native Hawaiians and immigrants, and are now sported by tourists from Miami to Calangute.

When Hawaiian shirts are written about, and that has been happening increasingly in recent years, a few pop culture references remain constant. Elvis Presley’s red tropical print shirt on the cover of Blue Hawaii is iconic and Leonardo DiCaprio’s multicoloured button-up in Romeo+Juliet is explained by the movie’s director Baz Luhrmann as a palimpsest of Romeo as a young boy “who literally ‘wore’ paradise on his back".

The Hawaiian shirt has been popular, yes, but stylish? Not quite. The tropical prints and bright hues are often associated with dad fashion stereotypes and qualified with adjectives like kitschy, or, worse still, tacky. But in recent seasons, with designers and labels turning the design on its head, the resurrected Hawaiian shirt is returning to runways and closets.

Ramp looks from Paul Smith’s Spring/Summer 2018 menswear show.

Not just dad fashion

Hawaiian shirts looked ready for a comeback when Hedi Slimane and Dries Van Noten put them on the runway in 2016. Celebrity sightings followed, with the likes of Jared Leto and Harry Styles sporting the shirt, courtesy luxury labels as well as high street brands like Zara and GAP.

Samantha Chilton, head of design at Koovs, attributes the trend to a new colourful wave in menswear. “In recent seasons, there has also been a lot of focus on the 1990s, when Cuban collared shirts were a big trend." Chilton says Indian consumers are leaning towards red-based monochromatic prints and large-scale florals.

While retaining its core appeal, today’s Hawaiian shirts boast of new patterns. Fashion stylist Kshitij Kankaria says, “When Louis Vuitton introduced them three seasons ago, it felt a bit much. But it has done well with consumers, especially their Spring 2018 collection that includes shirts layered with organza." The vocabulary of prints is also evolving—Prada showcased Hawaiian shirts for Spring 2018 with comic-book-inspired prints.

Rikki Kher, founder of Delhi-based menswear brand Kardo, has found a loyal following for his patterned shirts. “The Hawaiian camp collar open-neck pattern is completely on-trend. I have done a lot of geometric and one-colour, one-motif designs," he says. Kardo’s silhouettes are splashed with Ikat and tie-dye; in a recent collaboration with lifestyle label Safomasi, Kher dabbled with prints as varied as yachts and grazing deer.

Technology aids these pattern innovations. “In addition to the retro Americana 1950s prints, which were largely screen-printed, we are now able to achieve more complex patterns due to advancements in print techniques," says Chilton.

A look from Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer 2018 collection.

New-season rules

There is a movement towards reinventing the Hawaiian not only in design but styling too. Kankaria credits labels like Louis Vuitton, Ami, David Hart and Prada with showcasing new perspectives in Spring/Summer 2018. At Ami, prints played peekaboo under long jackets or were offset by neutral-hued trousers, while Hart accessorized busy banana prints and plain shirts with scarves and hats for a retro Cuban tribute.

The key to nailing the trend lies not just in what you wear, but how you wear it. “Bravehearts can go for a shirt with the same print as the bottoms, reminiscent of a half-sleeve safari suit," says Kankaria. If a head-to-toe print seems overwhelming, he suggests offsetting the look with khakis or washed-down denim.

A shirt by Zara.

Pairing Hawaiian shirts with formal wear can also be surprisingly effective. “These shirts act as a bold highlight under smart tailoring," says Chilton. Paul Smith, a long-time fan of the summery shirts, showcased vibrant primary-colour shirts with equally bright trousers and suits for his Spring 2018 collection. Kher recommends teaming Hawaiian prints with a suit and trainers for a smart casual look.

The Hawaiian shirt has evolved from a happy travel souvenir to a declaration of a blissfully relaxed lifestyle. Kankaria predicts the trend will only gain popularity: “The Hawaiian shirt is more about spirit than style. Wear it, and you automatically look like a happy person."

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