Lei Maker


Q: Where are you from originally? 

A: I’m Kauai born and raised.

Q: Where have you lived in your life? Why did you return to Hawaii?

A: I moved to Oahu in 7th grade, went to Boston College for undergrad, and later attended FIT in New York. I came back to Hawaii because I always knew I was a Hawaii girl! Also knew my tutu wouldn’t be around forever and that it was time to come home.

Q: How was the juxtaposition of Hawaii versus the east coast?

A:  It was a culture shock and weather shock! I did a term abroad in Sydney, then returned to Boston with a new perspective and loved it.

Q: When did you start lei-making?

A: I grew up making leis, my grandmother was well known for it. She planted her garden here in Manoa with lei materials. I grew up with tutu showing up to parties with leis for all eight grand kids and she did it with such aloha and care, she really thought about each recipient. When I moved home from New York I felt it in me and wanted to share it for things like birthdays and graduations. Someone asked me to teach a workshop and I didn’t realize so many people would show up wanting to make leis! I really enjoy the teaching aspect of my work.

Q: What is your inspiration for your leis?

A: I’m really driven by color! For example, I’ll start with a peach blossom which informs the next thing I incorporate. And I don’t feel like myself if I don’t show up to a party with a lei, so keeping the tradition alive also inspires me.

Q: Is there a particular lei you’ve made that you’ll never forget? Why? 

A: One of my first photoshoots for a friend’s brand. I hadn’t worked with Anthuriums in a haku lei before, I knew more the typical flower shop kind of lei. So when I branched out I felt this was when I really came into my own style, using materials not everyone used. I just whipped up this lei in the truck going from location to location for this shoot and the photo that resulted from it is still one of my favorites.

Q: What do you love about lei-making? 

A: It is an ultimate expression of aloha, it really is a labor of love. You have to pick and wash flowers before you start working with them. And I can make leis anywhere with whatever materials are available, like I did in New York. And the camaraderie is what I really enjoy, for example at my tutu’s funeral, we all sat in the basement, no one was using phones, everyone was present and with each other. You could really feel that sense of community and creating together.

Q: Do you ask the plant for permission to pick before doing so?

A: I do ask the plant for permission and clean around where I’m picking as a way of asking by helping and taking care of it.

Q: How do you make a lei: lei-making for dummies?

A: There are two styles. Kui lei – kui means to sew, with needle and thread – it’s a simpler, more modern style of lei. And haku lei – usually synonymous with head lei – haku refers to an older style of lei making. With haku leis, which is what I specialize in, you use three raffias, two make up the backbone and the third is what you use to wrap and then you lay flowers on top.

Q: Have you ever participated in the May Day competitions in the past?

A: No I actually haven’t ever participated! I’m usually working a lot around that time but I always make time to go and see all the beautiful leis other people create. May Day is actually how my tutu got started though, she was asked to judge a competition and had never seen a haku lei as intricate and beautiful before and it inspired her to learn that style of lei making.

Q: What are some of your favorite projects/collaborations you’ve worked on? Have you ever considered starting your own line?

A: I love working with different fashion brands to make leis for them because they can be so much more eccentric, which is very fun. And yes I’ve thought of starting my own line a million times! I do have a love for flowers but I also love textiles. That’s why I’m so inspired by Western Aloha and what they’ve created. I’ve always wanted to design something that’s a modern take on fabulous muu muu dresses I own. I actually used to cut up old ones and make handbags out of them and now I’m so mad at myself for cutting up these beautiful dresses! For now I only make clothes for myself though.

Q: Do your children participate/have an interest in learning?

A: My son will be like “oh we’re stopping to pick flowers again” but I can tell he has it in him. His friend will come over and I see he’s very interested every time I’m making something too.

Follow Meleana on IG and check out her website