Life in a Traditional
Hawaiian Fishing Village
Meet the Artist
Journalist. Painter. Home designer. Textile artist. In just the first chapter of his amazing life, John “Keoni” Meigs was all of these things. He began his career designing aloha shirts while living in Honolulu prior to World War II. Between 1938 and 1951, Meigs created as many as three hundred different textile designs, many of which are now recognized as classics. In his prints Meigs tried to depict, in his words, “what’s really Hawaiian without being pedestrian,” including a series of designs based on Gauguin’s Tahitian wood block prints and tapa patterns kept at the Bishop Museum.
Having cemented his status as a legendary designer of aloha shirts, in the early 1950s Meigs moved from Hawaii to New Mexico, trading his lauhala hat and tropical whites for a Stetson hat and snap shirts. While living in New Mexico, he became a well-received landscape artist. But Meigs did not leave behind his wardrobe of aloha shirts when he made his move to the Southwest, where pictures depict him in a cowboy hat and aloha shirt. In New Mexico, John “Keoni” Meigs became the personification of the connection between western and Aloha.
If you’re interested in learning more about Meigs’s life as Keoni of Hawaii, an exhibition of Meig’s Aloha shirts is currently touring the country. The exhibition, “Art of the Aloha Shirt: Keoni of Hawaii, 1938–51,” includes Meigs’s original textile artwork, production sketches and swatches, advertisements, and vintage shirts. Preserved through the efforts of Aloha shirt collector Dan Eskenazi, the collection offers viewers an opportunity to see an amazing collection of Aloha shirts, but also to gain insight into Meigs’s design process.
For more information, visit: http://eusa.org/exhibition/aloha-shirt/
Dale Hope on John Meigs
Dale Hope is the curator of the exhibition, Art of the Aloha Shirt: Keoni of Hawaii, 1938–51. Dale is a Hawaiian native and second generation veteran of the garment industry who authored the definitive book on the subject, The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands, published by Patagonia in 2016.
Dale is also the Art Director for Western Aloha. When we met Dale, we quickly realized we had a shared passion for Meig’s prints. While we knew the designs, Dale introduced us to the entire history. In Dale’s words:
“After being a shirt maker in Honolulu for over 30 years, I took a year off and left the company to research the history of the aloha shirt. I went on a quest to learn about the origin of the aloha shirt. Who were the manufacturers, retailers, work force, the coconut button makers, and who created the textile designs. I learned there were quite a few fine artists that contributed to the creation of the textile art for the local garment industry.
A standout with a great story I discovered was Keoni Meigs, a self-taught artist and an ardent painter whose talent became known to the early shirt manufacturers in Honolulu. In 1938 he created his first designs. After spending time with vintage collectors in Hawaii and California, several people mentioned Danny Eskenazi in Seattle who had a large collection of vintage aloha shirts. Eventually I was able to visit Danny and spend several days looking at his collection of shirts. On my last day, he unveiled his collection of John "Keoni" Meigs original aloha shirts, artwork, photos and copies of advertisements with his garments from national brands like Sears Roebuck. I realized then, that Keoni must have been the greatest single contributor of textile art to the Hawaii fashion community as well as national brands from coast to coast.
Keoni's art and shirts captured the spirit of the islands, identified a definite Hawaiian sense of place that the wearer could feel. His prints could transform you back to Hawaii if you were on the mainland. His designs were timeless and are still considered to be the standard of excellence to this day.”