Fashion Tribe

Shaheen stars in Bishop Museum exhibition

November 1st, 2012

shaheen designsNadine Kam photos
Garments by Alfred Shaheen show the cultural inspirations that influenced his work.

The work of Alfred Shaheen will come to live through  an exhibition, "HI Fashion: The Legacy of Alfred Shaheen," opening Nov. 10 at Bishop Museum. I will be out of town but will be back in time to see his garments on the runway during a fashion show, "An Evening of HI Fashion," from  6 to 9 p.m. Nov. 17, featuring his work, along with that of Reyn Spooner and Andy South.

I was lucky enough to get a little preview while photographing the museum's staff models for my story in the paper today. It was so wonderful to see so many Shaheen pieces in one spot, including wall-to-wall aloha shirts. And in their workrooms, racks and boxes of Shaheen garments, courtesy of his daughter Camille Shaheen-Tunberg, waiting to be fit onto manikins. Usually, I only get to see Shaheens virtually, during late-night searches on eBay.

shaheen2I bought this later-period Shaheen dress on eBay for about $36 a couple of years ago.

Opening day festivities include talks by fashion historian Linda Bradley, Bishop Museum's DeSoto Brown, and Camille and her husband William Tunberg, who got her started on her mission to recover and preserve her father's creations.

Sometimes, in the day-to-day ordinariness of making a living, people don't realize they are creating something magical.

I always saw the beauty in his work and his factory was still open when I started writing about fashion, but I never sought him out, thinking there was always time. I was too young  to conceive that something here today might be gone tomorrow, and in a difficult economic period, he closed up shop in 1988.

As Camille explained, by then all his six children had other lives in other fields, so there was no one to carry on the family business.

But, a name and style like his couldn't be forgotten, and along with Camille's collecting, she's keeping the Shaheen name alive through licensing of his prints for apparel and home.

I'd like to see some smart manufacturer bring back some of his designs as well, after seeing some of the line shots of 1970s designs I'd never seen before. Getting the prints right would be difficult though, because Shaheen was a master in creating the unique textiles that made his garments stand out.

Guests who do attend the fashion show, at $75 general and $55 for museum members, are invited to "dress vintage." How fun is that?

shaheen exhibitExhibition designer Dave Kemble, with Bishop Museum vice-president of cultural collections Betty Lou Kam, said he was glad that experience from a prior showing of the collection led curators to recommend a specific manikin for the Shaheen dresses, often constructed to fit a voluptuous 1950s 36-24-36 figure.

I only have one Shaheen, that's probably from the 1980s. By then, styles were much simpler and casual and for me, more wearable. I just don't have that bombshell figure his earlier designs were built for. Not to mention his collectible 1940s to '50s bombshell and wiggle dresses regularly sell for $250 to $300 on eBay and Etsy.

But I had to laugh when I received the dress through eBay. As simple as the garment appears, it has a built in bra for a shelf bust that's pretty hard to fill!

I feel like the designer, who died in 2008, would enjoy knowing that women—in spite of their more stick-like or muscular 2012 bodies—still admire and covet his dresses. As Betty Lou Kam, vice president, cultural resources at the Bishop Museum said, staffers unpacking boxes of Shaheen garments were squealing over the designs, and putting imaginary dibs on them, saying, "This one's mine, so is this one ..."

On the 10th, there will also be gallery tours, a screening of "Blue Hawaii," educational activities for children and period-inspired food and drinks available for purchase.
Bishop Museum is at 1525 Bernice St. Call 847-3511 or visit

shaheen factoryBlack and white images courtesy Camille Shaheen-Tunberg
Alfred Shaheen on the factory floor with models, including Beverly Noa in front.

shaheen sketchShaheen designs, including a little Pucci-esque dress, below, that would look current today.

shaheen moreshaheenbevBeverly Noa in a 1950s photo of one of Alfred Shaheen's dresses under the label Surf 'N Sand. Although he was known for this brand, along with other eponymous labels, had many lines his daughter didn't know about until she started researching his work. This dress would likely sell for 30 to 40 times its original price.

shaheen setupAlfred Shaheen cared about brand image and sent detailed setup instructions to every department store that carried Shaheen's "East Meets West" designs. Their ranks included Bullock's, Macy's and Bergdorf Goodman.

shaheen drawingShaheen also published a booklet describing its silkscreen process, which was unique to the company because of the large size of the hand-done prints.

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