The quiet history behind Hawaii's bespoke Makaha Drowners
Anyone who's surfed Makaha knows the waves there are as rough as the locals who run the beach they crash on. Located about 40 miles west of Waikiki, this Oahu outpost is the birthplace of big wave surfing, a phenomenon that began in the 1930s and gained full speed shortly after the end of WWII. While today the area is notoriously ruled by territorial Hawaiians, Makaha's status as a legendary big wave surf spot is mostly due to a collective of Californians who created the Hot Curl board to handle the waves, and a surfing contest to name a champion of the newly modified "sport of kings".
When the waves got the better of their board shorts, the surfers went to a little ramshackle shop in nearby Waianae to have them stitched up. The tailor, who went by M.Nii, began making twill shorts for the guys that were as durable and "bombproof" as the cutoff sailor pants many of them sported, but fitted for surfing. These are what became known as M.Nii's Makaha Drowners, a style and moniker coveted by this California crew during the '50s. The history surrounding the tailor and his distinct shorts is somewhat vague, but surf industry veterans Randy Hild and John Moore are changing that by bringing M.Nii back to life.
"We've gone through obituaries, ancestral searches, we're still really trying to find out if there are any heirs. All we know is this oral story from these guys that surfed," Hild recently told Cool Hunting. M.Nii's biography may still be somewhat unclear, but a few pairs of the original Drowners live on and Hild and Moore have recreated the pair of "Polynesian bespoke" shorts to obsessive detail. "We mimicked the original as close as possible," explains Hild. "This is a really heavy fabric, it feels great surfing in it but it takes a long time to dry, we're so used to lightweight shorts." Both modeled after Levi's 501 construction, the new version—which Hild rigorously put to the test on a surf trip to Mexico—is also cut from heavy cotton twill with the same button-fly front, follows the same style of tight stitching and has identical button flap back pockets.
Currently M.Nii shorts come in only one length that hit mid-thigh, which Hild describes as "the right length, the same as the original". Next season they will add a longer option, as well as new colors and styles with stripes in homage to M.Nii's extensive fabric and trimmings options—a selection that inspired Greg Noll "Da Bull" to create his notorious black-and-white "jailhouse" shorts. This season's collection pays tribute to the Windansea Surf Club—a group of California surfers who would travel to Makaha to charge the massive waves—with a surf club jacket that heralds this coming-of-age era of surfing. There's also a Hang Ten-inspired striped tee as a salute to founder Duke Boyd, who was a huge fan of M.Nii, and modeled the Hang Ten trunks after the Makaha Drowners.
Makaha Drowners were not only popular for their long-lasting construction. They also became a status symbol of hardcore surfing, and wearing a pair back on the beaches of California meant you had tackled Hawaii's monstrous waves and met with M.Nii. Because the Drowners were never sold commercially, the shorts are rare and belong to a particular crowd and time. Hild has tasked vintage dealers with finding the shorts and found that they're not really around today. "We only own three pairs in our collection," he explains. "And they all came from guys that had them originally." The dormant label is so obscure, he adds, "if you're under the age of 70 and surfing, you kind of don't know about it."
M.Nii tailor shop image by Tom McBride. All other black-and-white images by Grant Rohloff.