Talking Story with Lei-Maker Meleana Estes

Talking Story with Lei-Maker Meleana Estes

It’s no secret that Hawai’i is head over heels for lei. As part of our culture, the people of Hawai’i celebrate our love for one another by creating and gifting lei. While this cultural art form has been engrained into the Islands for centuries, in recent years, it’s become increasingly popular across the country. And we think that’s a great thing. To get the scoop on one of the city’s most fashionable lei makers, we tapped the shoulder of Meleana Estes, a local girl with a background in fashion, who’s weaving some of the most beautiful and artful lei we’ve cast our eyes on.

When many visitors think of Hawai’i, images of lei are often some of the first things they picture. However, a lot of people may not realize the deeper cultural significance of giving and receiving lei. For those unfamiliar with the history and meaning of lei in Hawai’i, can you please describe it?

The tradition of lei sharing and wearing was introduced to Native Hawaiians by the Polynesians, where it was customary to honor each other and their gods with lei. The tradition of creating and sharing lei has continued throughout Polynesia (and Hawai’i) to adorn and recognize something of significance. Think of a celebration, a graduation, birthdays, promotions, welcoming someone to the Islands and even funerals. To me, this custom is our truest expression of Aloha in Hawai’i. I don’t think there is a time when a lei is not completely acceptable—to me at least! The thought and time that goes into making a lei shows love and care and people always, without fail, will break into a smile when they’re given a lei.

Haku lei

Sophisticated and beautiful, Mele’s lei are becoming ever-popular in the Islands.

How did you get into lei-making?

I was sort of born around lei-making. My tutu was an avid lei-maker and I loved watching her work and was always helping her pick and sort flowers. I’ve never celebrated a birthday, sporting event, or left the Islands without a haku on my head. When I moved back to Hawai’i from New York City, I started making a ton of lei for friends’ birthdays and special events. I always knew how to make lei, but I got really into it then and learned to really love it. I think being in fashion, it takes awhile for your idea to become a product. Lei-making is pretty instantaneous, a fabulous expression of creativity, and it’s also pretty meditative, at least when you’re not rushing on a quick delivery time.

Your work has been featured in a variety of different look-books for a mix of companies. Is making lei for fashion shoots something you ever envisioned and how has that experience been?

I never thought I would be doing this. I think everyone in my family is a bit surprised, actually. My older sister is a hula dancer and has always been more of a practitioner of Hawaiian culture and arts. The fact that I’ve taken such an interest and love doing this is catching all of us off guard! I’m a trained fashion designer, so the fashion shoot thing is a natural progression. I love when I get to make something new and big and different and I get free range to use new materials and try new techniques. Fashion campaigns are so fun to work on. I love the creative direction of the designer and the freedom I have to run with it. Plus, it’s a world I love and I enjoy staying connected to fashion.

I know that you’re also teaching a lot of classes that allow guests an opportunity to learn how to make haku and other forms of lei, using a variety of local plants and flowers. Can you please describe how you got into teaching classes and what potential guests can expect at one of your classes?

I really love teaching classes, which also is unexpected because I’ve never considered myself a teacher. My guests can expect to come away from a class feeling less intimidated by this art form. A lot of my students are from Hawai’i, but I think lei-making felt out of touch for them, or that it was too difficult or precise, or that you really needed a specific array of plants to do it right. I try to show that you can work with anything, any size is great, and all lei come out beautiful. I love the classes because everyone leaves so so happy.

Do you have a favorite / most memorable lei that you’ve made, either for a person or for a special event?

Yes, I do! It was a lei I made on a shoot for Samudra on the Big Island. My friend Tara Rock was styling, I was doing the flowers, and Jennifer Binney (the designer and another dear friend) really pushed me to be creative and go “outside of my box” with my lei for the shoot. It was the first shoot I worked on and I think I surprised myself. We swung by a market in Hilo and I couldn’t resist these cute red anthuriums. I had never made a haku with those flowers. Driving in between shots, I just sort of whipped up this cool lei. There have been more beautiful lei in my career, but I think that was the first time I realized that I had an eye and I could manipulate all sorts of materials into a beautiful haku. This lei opened my eyes and helped spur me to where we are today.

Puʻolo bag

With her tutu and experience in the fashion world behind her, Mele is crafting undeniably beautiful lei.

Is your lei-making style based on more traditional techniques, or are your adding your own unique style and aesthetic to your lei?

I think my technique is traditional. I usually will (wind) raffia to make my haku lei. It’s interesting because I think I use more native plants than my tutu did. She loved native plants, but wouldn’t necessarily combine native Lehua with non-native plant and so on. I go for color and texture and really don’t mind combing non-native with native flora. I love it all. I also try not to use all native flora all the time, because they are rare and need to be taken care of and used carefully.

It feels like there’s been a resurgence in lei-making and you’re really forging your own identity through your business. Do you see lei- making growing in popularity in the coming years?

I am amazed and so grateful and happy that I have been able to do this in the past couple years. I think flowers in general are becoming more appreciated world wide or maybe just now have been brought onto the younger scene. Stores like Paiko show a younger crowd this aesthetic and make it accessible. I think have to thank the “flower crown” trend also. You don’t see a bride from Hanalei to Maine without a Lei P’o on her head, no matter what technique it was created with. I just love that everyone is wearing flowers now! I offer a more traditionally Hawaiian technique, but all techniques are fabulous because they result in adornment with flowers and to me there is nothing better. I think this fascination with flora will continue to grow and hopefully, it will bring more awareness to being protective of our environment and nature and the incredible importance of taking care of all that Mother Earth provides.

Woman wearing haku lei

Everyone smiles when you’re wearing a lei. Just ask Meleana Estes.