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).