Iconic Woman: Meleana Estes

Iconic Woman: Meleana Estes

While we are searching for our next irō guest, Meleana Estes walks into the store by happenstance. She shares an excitement for design and clothes, and we dig it. Widely known for her stunning haku leis and subsequent workshops hosted across the island, Meleana has created a lifestyle brand marrying Hawaiian traditions and modern aesthetic. In the presence of rapid change and a highly connected society, there is something so pacifying about commemorating our roots for inherited wisdom. Meleana is the embodiment of that sort of grace. We sit down with her to discuss the virtues of her family legacy and the ubiquitous beauty inspired by our Hawaii.


1. Please give us a little intro to Meleana.

Meleana is me, someone who LOVES and cherishes her Hawaiian roots, but feels so lucky to have spent time living in New York City, Boston and Sydney which really shaped me as a person; my style, my interests, my goals.  But, you can’t take the Hawaii out of the girl.  Everything the Meleana brand aims to do whether through Lei making or apparel design aims to evoke the spirit and ease of being raised in Hawaii with a sprinkle of sophistication and worldly wonder.

 2. The preservation of knowledge and culture through lineage is an essential part in knowing our cultural identity especially pertaining to life in Hawaii. What does that mean to you and your family in particular? How do you keep your family traditions well and alive, especially in raising your beautiful son?

I consider it such a privilege to be born and raised in Hawaii.  We are obviously blessed with beauty, weather and lifestyle, but Hawaii as you know is so much more than its external beauty.  It is our cultural identity and pride in this, that makes Hawaii so unique to other parts of the US.  Few states have even a smidge of this, maybe Texas is a close second!  Our music, our hula, our food, our language, and the big one for me is our lei.  I think if you have an extra added layer of lucky to being raised here, growing up in a family with a prolific practice of any of these customs, then it your Kuleana (responsibility) to share our knowledge and love for the custom.  If we don’t practice and share, then these traditions could evaporate!  In Hawaii, we share lei for special occasions, all occasions really.  But growing up with a Tutu like mine, who made a Haku lei and strung Puakenikeni lei from her own trees for every player on my volleyball team regularly, my Ohana’s immersion into this part of Hawaiian culture was huge.  We saw the Aloha that she put into her lei and the joy it brought the recipient and now it is something that we just do.  We make lei, because we know that it is how we share love and appreciation.  My son helps me pick and clean flowers.  He knows that we are making a lei for someone’s special day and he see’s the effort and importance of that… he is very helpful! 


3. Your work is stunning, the creative opportunity seems rich and anchored in tradition. How do you find balance in paying respect to history while forging a path forward in regards to your art of lei making?

This is a very good question!  Thank you for the compliments on my work!  I have been so lucky to have had the opportunity to work with brands and individuals who are excited about something new and different while acknowledging the importance of Lei.   With these projects, I feel entrusted with a certain vibe and I get to run with it, which I LOVE.  In my teaching, at first I worried that I was maybe not using only Hawaiian materials or not requiring strict size requirements on students.  I was worried that my tutu’s contemporaries and students would be raising their eyebrows to a more loose style, but I just focus on peoples excitement to try something new, or re-visit lei making from childhood and how important it is that the spirit in which a lei is made is learned.  I do not worry to much about rigid material use and I just share my love for color and texture (I have a fashion back ground and am OBSESSED with fabric) so I think it has something to do with that.  I always try to pay respect to the techniques and also the spirit of lei making and sharing lei which is so rooted in our culture.  I think if you are taking the time to make a lei you are putting Aloha into it and sharing that and that is at the root of being a Hawaiian.

 4. While there is no shortage of inspiration available in Hawaii from the majestic natural beauty to the diverse sense of community, what are some unusual sources of inspiration for you as of late?

You are so right.. Hawaii’s beauty provides HUGE amounts of inspiration, and we are so lucky to be immersed in that.  I am really inspired by other Hawaii artists!  Be it designers,  artist, photographers, other floral artisans, I love seeing the creativity that comes out of Hawaii.  Hawaii has always been filled with artisans but seeing recognition on a global level in the last couple years has been so awe inspiring and just creating more energy around us all.  We all push each other and marvel at one another hugely and that in an of itself is inspiring.  In my own medium… color color color.  I LOVE a good Pantone immersion moment with my color wheel,  and so many hues are reflected in flora and fauna all around us.  I grab hold of a color story in may head and search for the perfect green (there are many shades of green fern) to complement a flower I am using.  In my lei, I try to emulate the peace and happiness  that color and pattern evoke in me naturally through my own lei and hope my lei have the same effect on others. 

5. What are some tips you have on using natural resources that are seemingly abundant here in Hawaii but must be responsibly used and cared for?

 Well something we do as lei makers, is before you take from the land, you first clean the plants, weed around it, clean off old leaves.  You malama it as a thank you.  I also like to use what I have in abundance.  I LOVE liko lehua (leaves and buds of the lehua tree) but I am sure you are aware of ROD (Rapid Ohia Death) and how fast the precious Hawaiian native is dying where this disease is present.  Really it puts our entire Native rainforest in peril, if we loose Ohia Lehua.  So, I think it is important to be creative with our materials and use what we have in abundance native or non native, one of my favorite purple buds to use is a crazy weed that takes over fences!  If our native’s need a rest and time to rejuvenate and build immunities to the new landscape of Hawaii, then we should respect this and get creative with other greens and flowers.

6. What has stricken you as the most valuable themes of island living? What makes home home to you?

I think a sense of place is what makes Island living Island living.  Whether you are on a hike deep in the Ko’olau’s, surfing Waikiki at sunset, or listening to Hawaiian music on your back porch with Ohana and friends new and old, it is that feeling that you are in the just right spot.  I think because of our natural beauty and unique culture that feeling is more easily attained and we are so lucky to have that! 

7. How would you describe your style? What inspires and informs your style?

 Well I am very much on the go always… ocean to meeting, diamond head run to workshop and frequently these changes happen in the car, so its not to involved really!  I love pieces with classic feminine elements like ruffles or lace, but I usually pair that with a touch of edge maybe a leather cut off or ripped denim to balance it out.  I also love a perfect white button down or a perfectly tailored high waisted pant, I like to think I have a little chic French style in me.  Then there is my LOVE of vintage.  I am crazy for a 70’s mu’umu’u and can’t seem to get enough of those! 

8. Who are a few of your style icons?

 Jane Birkin, the original pretty tomboy, all day long… and my Tutu!  She rocked a mu’umu’u with the same grace as a fruit of the loom sweat suit with a bandana around her neck.  She had this air about her that was pure class and totally palpable and it carried through to what she wore.  She was always in perfect fashion for the time and for her own phase in life.  I attribute my own taste and eye to her for sure!

9. What daily practices keep you grounded?

 I am a total runner and love my runs and I jump in the ocean daily, even for a super quick dip. It is a salt water re-set. My dad instilled that in us. Everyday, growing up near the ocean on Kauai, rain or shine, he would pop us in the car and zoom down for a "quick dip" to end the day. I have at least two bikinis in my car at all times, because and ocean dip can happen on a whim with me and sometimes I need to outfit my friends! 

10.What is your definition of success and fulfillment?

 Wow, this is a hard one and something that has changed for me so much even in the last year.  I have always put so much pressure on myself to be this certain person… “Successful clothing designer, having a global life residing in Hawaii”, but although this is still in the works (wink wink), I no longer feel like a failure for not having achieved this quite  yet.  I am a total dreamer, but fulfillment and successes truly I am learning comes from within. I do put a ton of pressure on myself to grow my lifestyle brand and take my lei making and teaching to new levels, but when I let myself, I can feel like a total success because my son jumped in bed with me this morning and has morning snuggle ritual… how lucky am I!!?!?!?   So I guess, not to be to "loopy doopy” preachy, but while dreaming and goals are healthy, success and fulfillment comes from being present and grateful for where you are today because, WOW we are lucky!

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