French Actor George Brangier met Duke Kahanamoku in Los Angeles while both were acting. Brangier asked Kahanamoku to teach him how to surf. Kahanamoku agreed. Brangier moved to Hawai‘i in 1928. He later returned to the Islands after serving his French military obligations. (Nendel)
Brangier and a California surfer, Nat Norfleet Sr, started Branfleet in January 1936 at 1704 King Street. “We began like nearly everybody else in the business – not with a pair of shoestrings but with on shoestring between the two of us.” (Norfleet; Devine & Marcus)
“Red McQueen had brought back from the 1932 Olympics in Japan some shirts made out of silk kimono cloth. We copied them to produce our first aloha shirts. … Elmer Lee had a stand in front of the old Outrigger Canoe Club where he sold coconut milk and pineapple juice, and he sold our horrible shirts.” (Devine & Marcus)
The company was one of the first to switch from making strictly tailor-made shirts to making them through a manufacturing process. (On July 23, 1939, they moved into a factory on Kapiʻolani Boulevard. (Krauss))
“The factory will turn out a complete garment from the design and pattern of the finished product. A special designer, Betty Gregory, will design for Branfleet sports wear. A staff of 45 persons is employed by the company.” (Advertiser, July 23, 1939)
In 1937 Branfleet signed Duke Kahanamoku to a five-year contract allowing them to use the noted champion’s name on their sportswear. The shirt tag stated, “this is designed by Duke Kahanamoku, World’s Champion swimmer, and is made in the Hawaiian Islands.”
Kahanamoku’s name recognition allowed Branfleet to be the first Hawaiian company “to supply sportswear to the US mainland on a large scale.”
The agreement allowed Kahanamoku to make 35 cents per dozen shorts sold and $1.00 per dozen for shirts sold. Since a dozen shirts typically sold for an average of $12.00 wholesale, Kahanamoku’s take ended up being less than 10% of the sales. (Nendel)
“Branfleet is the originator of ‘Duke Kahanamoku’ shirts and swim suits, also the ‘Kahala’ brand of all types of women’s sportswear, and the popular island ‘in and ‘out’ shirt.” (Advertiser, July 23, 1939)
With both their “Kahala Sportswear” and “Duke Kahanamoku Beachwear” lines, under the Branfleet label, Brangier and Norfleet would eventually (1951) rename their company Kahala to avoid confusion.
Considering that the aloha wear industry and Branfleet were relative newcomers to the mainland marketplace this contract represented a reasonably fair deal for Kahanamoku.
However, due to the novelty and youth of the industry the company never approached the great success that they had envisioned at the start of the contract. (Nendel)
Branfleet popularized a fabric they trademarked as “Pineapple Tweed”, which was a rough but strong linen, and was used in simple long sleeved shirts adorned with the Hawaiian crest and its motto.
During World War II, the Aloha shirt industry thrived as GIs stationed on the Islands wore them while off-duty, and the shirt became popular with locals now deprived of imports.
After the war, servicemen transported them back to Mainland. Between the 1940s and ‘60s, Kahala’s complete line of women’s clothing met with great success across the country, and the firm went on to produce clothing for some of the era’s best surfers.
The “Duke” was associated with the company again in 1961. During this period a Duke Kahanamoku label was created with the words “made in Hawai‘i by Kahala” directly beneath Duke’s name. (Myers)
But by the 1970s the company had fallen into disarray. Once one of America’s leading clothiers, it finally went bankrupt. Dale Hope bought the Kahala name in 1979.
“We wanted to keep its legacy going with quality garments, and interesting art reflecting a passion for the Islands,” he recalls. “But it had a formidable reputation.” (Myers)
Hope had been working with his dad in the men’s shirt business under the label HRH (His Royal Highness.) “Our label was confused with the English royalty; it wasn’t romantic; and it was a hard name to advertise,” says Hope.
The name Kahala was also the name of a fashionable O‘ahu neighborhood bounded by Kahala Beach. “I wanted to change the name,” he says, “so we threw a big garden party and fashion show at a house on Kahala Beach.” He sold in 1991; then, Tori Richard bought the company in 2006.