Flower Em­pow­ered

Me­leana Estes' f lair f or f lor als has ever yone clam­or­ing f or her haku lei creat ions.


Me­leana Estes' haku lei merge the tra­di­tional art with con­tem­po­rary panache

IT I S SAID THAT CICERO OPINED, MORE THAN TWO THOU­SAND YEARS AGO, “I F YOU HAVE A GAR­DEN AND A LI­BRARY, YOU HAVE EV­ERY THING YOU NEED.” Haku l ei maker and fash­ion de­signer Me­leana Estes would li kely agree. Estes grew up sur­rounded by gar­dens and f low­ers lov­ingly tended by her grand­mother, Amelia Bai­ley, mas­ter l ei maker and Pu­na­hou's beloved cos­tume co­or­di­na­tor for two decades. To­day, Estes car­ries on her grand­mother's l egacy, cre­at­ing stun­ning haku l ei that beau­ti­fully meld her grand­mother's tra­di­tional style with Estes' unique, con­tem­po­rary, cre­ative twist.

“I was raised with a l ei- mak­ing grandma,” Estes l aughs. “I al­ways had a l ei on my head!” What she didn't know grow­ing up was that she'd end up one of Hawai‘ i's most cov­eted haku l ei mak­ers, tak­ing her grand­mother's teach­ing and in­fus­ing it with her own unique style. She headed out doggedly pur­su­ing a ca­reer in fash­ion de­sign— a pas­sion she con­tin­ues to foster and cul­ti­vate— but the f low­ers kept show­ing up. “Flow­ers are my muse,” she says, inf lu­enc­ing her de­ci­sions on pal­ette and de­sign. Maybe her fel­low de­sign­ers and friends saw it be­fore she did. “My friend l aunched my l ei mak­ing by push­ing my cre­ativ­ity to make state­ment pieces for her photo shoot,” Estes re­calls. That was in 2015, and she's not slowed down since.

“A beau­ti­ful cro­ton l eaf can be my l aunch­ing point,” Estes says. “One hot neon or­ange l eaf changes ever ything!” Her f l air for cre­at­ing bold and unique pieces that ex­tend the imag­i­na­tion— big spikey cre­ations made from ma­te­ri­als not nor­mally seen in haku l ei— has re­de­fined the tra­di­tional craft and brought new gen­er­a­tions of as­pir­ing l ei mak­ers to the ta­ble.

Just check out her l ei mak­ing work­shops at Paiko, the botan­i­cal boutique and coffee shop nes­tled in Kaka‘ako's SALT com­plex. Maybe it's the draw of cock­tails and gor­geous f low­ers, but she packs the house al­most ever y time, many of them f irst- timers who've never picked up a l ei nee­dle. She rev­els in the joy of her stu­dents, watch­ing them cast of f some need for per­fec­tion and in­stead fol­low their own cre­ative muse. “Peo­ple are so happy at the end of the work­shops,” she says, ref l ect­ing on the lure and beauty of f low­ers. “No­body

To­day, [Estes’] cal­en­dar is packed with photo shoots and events where she’s charged with cre­at­ing flo­ral magic.

car­ries their l ei home. In­stead, they all walk out with it on their heads, happy, l augh­ing.” For Estes, the great­est re­ward comes weeks and months l ater, when she re­ceives pho­tos from workshop at­ten­dees, show­ing of f the cre­ations they 've made for fam­ily and spe­cial oc­ca­sions. “It's my great­est honor,” she says, “Know­ing that they 've gone home and col­lected f low­ers from their own yards— plants they maybe hadn't even no­ticed be­fore— and now they 're mak­ing l ei with them.”

Estes i s quick to push aside the term “mas­ter l ei maker” when de­scrib­ing her work. “There are way more tal­ented l ei mak­ers out there,” she says. “I 'm un­com­fort­able with that term.” In­stead, she fo­cuses on the pos­si­bil­ity, al­ways look­ing for in­spi­ra­tion , new i deas, new ma­te­rial for her cre­ations. “We live in this beau­ti­ful place,” she says. “No per­son in Hawai‘ i shouldn't have a l ei nee­dle!”

Her eyes are con­stantly fo­cused, f in­d­ing new col­ors, tex­tures, and ma­te­ri­als in her yard, at the beach with her son, driv­ing around town. “I al­ways tell peo­ple, ‘ Make friends with neigh­bors who have col­ors in their yard you li ke!'” she l aughs. But she's also quick to re­mind stu­dents to gather re­spon­si­bly. “It's not

just about pick­ing,” she says, “But also car­ing for the re­sources too.” To­day, her cal­en­dar i s packed with photo shoots and events where she's charged with cre­at­ing f lo­ral magic. From fash­ion shoots to mag­a­zine l ay­outs to pri­vate events, she's there, craft­ing l ei , ta­ble dé­cor, and stag­ing. Asked to re­call that piv­otal mo­ment when she re­al­ized a ca­reer had been born, Estes im­me­di­ately turned to a photo shoot and event on the North Shore. “There I was, do­ing the l ei and dé­cor for this event,” she says, “Work­ing fast, on the f ly, and it all came to­gether. I looked around and thought ‘ Wow, I 'm pretty good at this— prob­lem- solv­ing with f low­ers.'”

Tutu passed in 2012, be­fore Estes l aunched her l ei mak­ing en­deav­ors. But Estes knows she's watch­ing, maybe gig­gling at some of her cre­ations and proud that the tra­di­tion con­tin­ues. “Tutu in­stilled in me a love for f low­ers,” she says. “And I get to pass on that joy with my own cre­ative ex­pres­sion. I 'm just so grate­ful .”

To­day, Estes lives in that same house where she grew up wear­ing her grand­mother's cre­ations, sur­rounded by the same gar­dens and the books that her Tutu col­lected over her life­time. Just as Cicero said , she's got the li brar y and the gar­den, and for Estes and her fam­ily, that's just about ever ything they need.

Her eyes are con­stantly fo­cused, find­ing new col­ors, tex­tures and ma­te­ri­als …

Estes host s her pop­u­lar lei work­shops at the botan­i­cal hot spot Paiko in Kaka‘ ako ( t op) and also craf t s lei f or f ash­ion photo shoot s ( above).

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