Interview: Michael Chen of Aloha Sunday
The co-founder of the San Diego-based boutique discusses the contemporary men's market and gives us an exclusive preview of their F/W '13 lookbook
It's potentially easier to spot a killer whale off San Diego's coast than to find a one-stop men's clothing store that features up-and-coming local designers—at a reasonable price. Seeing the void in the market in the area, Aloha Sunday was started two years ago as a continually evolving retail experiment.
The name originates from the familiar Hawaiian phrase for TGIF, "Aloha Friday," where one says goodbye to the week and hello to the weekend. Taking a different spin, one that celebrates the start of a new week and inspires others to live every day to its fullest, Aloha Sunday is an in-house clothing line but also serves as a retail space that hosts uncommon brands, many of which are made in the USA. Their focus is on making stylish, well-fitting clothes accessible, with prices ranging from $10 to $250; the store also features grooming products, surfing equipment and other lifestyle accessories.
The brains behind Aloha Sunday are three friends—Michael Chen, Kahana Kalama, and Billy Wickens. Their youthful perspective and hands-on approach to running their store (Wickens built out the brick and mortar space himself, including all of the lighting, fixtures and racks) bring a refreshing approach to men's style to San Diego. We spoke with Michael Chen about his brand's mission and his favorite local hotspots, while getting an exclusive preview of Aloha Sunday's FW 2013 lookbook.
Can you tell us about your learning experience and background?
I managed to finish a quarter at Rochester (RIT), in upstate New York, before I dropped out of school. One: It was an economic factor—I didn't want to come out of school hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Second: I didn't feel like it was the best use of my time. I've always just learned more out of the classroom than in. One thing was my greatest advantage: many people don't know what they want to do and that feeling of being lost can be really debilitating and kind of just freeze you. After I dropped out; I knew what I wanted to do. I started interning at Jedidiah Clothing and that's how I eventually met the other two founders, Billy and Kahana.
How would you describe the Aloha Sunday clothing line?
Kahana designs it with longtime designer Julie DeAnda and draws from old Hawaii style designs it and draws from old Hawaii style. He's got a whole archive of photos of his family dating back to the 1960s. The line is entirely made in LA with imported fabrics from Italy, Japan, Spain—and some domestic. It's fun, it's smart and doesn't take itself too seriously.
You have a surfing section in your store; are any of you surfers?
I don't surf myself but Billy and Kahana surf. Kahana actually surfed professionally for a while. He grew up in Oahu, he's Hawaiian, so that's where a lot of the inspiration—like the name—comes from.
Surfing is a lot about the attitude and the style towards life behind it and that speaks to a lot of people. We have an online store so we get customers in Japan, New Zealand, France, Canada—there's no waves to Canada, I mean there are some, but not where we ship! Retail and clothing are just another language, another form of communication to reach people with. As much as we are a neighborhood store, and we are a San Diego store—we've all lived here for many, many years—we are an international brand as well. We try to bring a little bit of international flavor to San Diego and we also try to bring San Diego to our international audience.
What do you think differentiates Aloha Sunday from other boutiques?
We like to inspire people. One of my personal, biggest inspirations is Eddie Huang. He's Taiwanese, I'm Taiwanese, and growing up I kind of went through the same thing of being called names, trying to figure out how to be American but feel Taiwanese at the same time. I just love how he's channeled that into his restaurant BaoHaus, you can totally be into food, you can totally be into hip-hop, and it's all OK. With Aloha Sunday, I like to think that we are that diverse too. We're very open, it's OK to be into surfing or not be into surfing.
What are some of your favorite brands that you stock?
We have this brand called The West is Dead. They're based in LA, they make everything in LA, and it's very 1930s and '40s workwear-inspired: A lot of hard-wearing denim, chinos, chambray, stuff like that. Their story is just really rad because they met up in Montana. One of the guys was living in an abandoned barn, the other guy was living in an old school bus. They were just out of school, wanted to travel and somehow found their way working for this fishing tour guide company up there that did fly fishing tours. They found that they both really loved hunting and clothing, and were like, "We should start a brand that reflects these things." Another is Baxter of California, which was started in 1965 for men's grooming. It's like the difference between Bud Light and a good IPA, it's hard to go back once you've experienced the difference.
Many of the brands you stock are also USA-manufactured, and even Aloha Sunday is made in the USA. Is this an integral part of the store's mission?
I do most of the buying for our store and, as cheesy as it sounds, I do believe that we do have an impact and responsibility to make the world a better place. One of the ways that we do that is by keeping as many dollars here as possible. As much as possible, we really try to get to know the people behind the product because it makes it that much easier when we're talking to our customers, that we can personally back the product. That said, we're not exclusively a USA-made store because I think it's ridiculous to live in a bubble.
Are you stocking any new brands for Fall/Winter?
ourCASTE is based up in Newport. We've gotten to know them really well—they're very humble and genuine guys. Aloha Sunday allows us to support and advocate the brands that we think are doing really good things. Another brand is Skywatch—started by an industry veteran—Swiss-made dive watches (water-resistant up to 300 feet) and they are great everyday watches you don't mind getting dirty. They're one of those brands that's trying to fill the gap between a $100 crappy watch and the $1,000 one. They all retail from $300 to $500, which is, for the quality of the watch, kind of amazing.
So, what are your go-to places in San Diego?
For eating, Gang Kitchen. It's located downtown in the Gaslamp District which is a bit of a culinary desert, but this place has a killer appetizer menu ideal for sharing in a big group. Try the roast duck. For shopping, our friend Edwin just opened up a shop, Gym Standard, down the street from us. Clean sneakers like Tretorn, Clae, and Rivieras can be found here alongside hard to find magazines like MOOD, POPEYE, and Monocle. For drinking, one of the best cocktails can be had at Seven Grand. Originally from LA, the whiskey boys expanded to San Diego last year. A sazerac with three cherries is my drink of choice.
Aloha Sunday Supply Company's brick and mortar store is located in San Diego, CA. Check out the selection of clothing and goods on their website.
Lookbook images courtesy of Aloha Sunday, store images courtesy of Eli Arata-Reshes