Leis are one of the most iconic images associated with Hawaii and Hawaiian culture. The colorful adornments are worn around the neck or on the head to commemorate special occasions and share the islands’ magical spirit of “aloha”. But for fashion designer and expert lei-maker Meleana Estes, creating leis is also about legacy and the preservation of tradition.
After returning to Honolulu from New York City, where she studied fashion design, and moving into her family’s historical home, Estes was inspired to follow in the footsteps of her beloved tutu (grandmother), who was a renowned lei-maker in her own right. Now recognized as one of Hawaii’s “master lei-makers”, Estes brings the colors and beauty of the Islands alive in custom leis for photo shoots and personal orders. She also shares lessons about the craft with others by teaching popular lei-making workshops all across the United States. But for Estes, teaching the haku (braiding) technique of lei-making is secondary to sharing her grandmother’s passion with people who may be discovering the artistry of leis for the first time. She says that the most important lesson she learned from her grandmother was that making and gifting a lei is a chance to share the aloha spirit with others – and you don’t have to be in the Islands to celebrate all that the aloha spirit signifies.