Hawaiian style with Double Rainbouu
It took a moment of overabundance for Toby Jones and Michael Nolan to notice a gap in the market. The pair were standing in the middle of Bangkok’s JJ Market, sourcing textiles for a design project, when they were struck by rack after rack of vintage Hawaiian shirts. There were thousands of them, from faded to lurid; a visual cacophony of hibiscus and hula girls. In all this vintage plenty, one thing was missing: panache.
Hawaiian references have been steadily creeping into vogue – in 2012 womenswear collections such as Stella McCartney’s Resort presentation and Maarten van der Horst’s Spring/Summer range were filled with them; in 2013 palms, cane furniture and tiki flourishes dominated the spreads of interiors magazines, and continue to do so. On the street and at music festivals, men have been resurrecting vintage Hawaiian shirts and injecting them with irony, while tropical house-tinged tracks (courtesy of Skrillex and Justin Bieber) linger at the top of the charts for months. And yet, at that moment in the market towards the back end of 2015, there was no one making a decent, modern update on the Hawaiian shirt. By January of 2016, Jones and Nolan rectified that, launching a winkingly chic single product brand: Double Rainbouu.
With backgrounds in multidisciplinary design and art direction respectively, Jones and Nolan first became colleagues at surf-lifestyle brand Insight in 2002. Later, they worked together at the acclaimed but financially embattled Australian fashion label Ksubi. After departing Ksubi, they continued to collaborate, working on consulting gigs, while dreaming up their own business ventures. Originally, they planned to call Double Rainbouu “The Permanent Holiday Objective” (“I liked how long and weirdly formal it was,” says Jones), after their ambition to work primarily by the water in the sunshine. Then, as they were debating the merits of the name, “we were staring out our north-facing window in our old Surry Hills studio, and a big storm had just rolled through,” says Jones. “This double rainbow appeared. Everyone was out on the street taking photos of it, and it was really ridiculous and stupid, but we liked the name.” Originally conceived as an ecommerce-led business, replacing the w in rainbow with two u’s had Google-optimisation benefits, but it has also become a neat brand marker for the label: invert the u’s, and they become the double rainbow. It’s a great piece of shorthand for a project that’s remarkably well articulated for something so new.
“There are a lot of brands out there, especially in the beach- and resort-wear market, that are selling a Tumblr-ised aspirational dream,” says Nolan. “It was yachts and Mediterranean, or deserted island holidays. It was all a bit serious.”
This imagery presented Double Rainbouu with both a problem and a solution: one cannot be serious in a Hawaiian shirt. So their brand is not serious. This has resulted in some blowback. “We’ve had a few people not get it,” offers Nolan. “They’ll say, ‘Hawaiian shirts? Oh, cool, I’ll tell my Dad.’ ” The buyers of Barneys, however, had no trouble taking Double Rainbouu seriously. The high-end American department store recently ordered a batch of the brand’s shirts for immediate delivery. “It’s exciting, and a little terrifying,” Nolan says. From August, Double Rainbouu will also be stocked in United States-based retailer Opening Ceremony.
Double Rainbouu’s attitude can be summed up by a pair of collages that sit proudly framed in the pair’s studio and on their website. Both feature images from Poolside with Slim Aarons, a photography book of jetsetters at play in modernist houses that is treated with biblical reverence by resort-wear designers. Dropped directly into the eyeline of Aarons’ well-heeled and sun-bright subjects are black-and-white action shots of pro-skaters by Glen E. Friedman. They appear to be pulling tricks on the lips of the pristine blue pools. The result is joyously stupid – and cool.
Double Rainbouu changes its prints every three months, offering just a handful of options at a time. Their shirts are ultra-soft rayon, designed for a loose fit, and are officially unisex. They come sized from extra-small to extra-large. Their designs are clean and brightly coloured, but they’re not explicitly tropical, the way a Hawaiian shirt from Lowes would be. Their first collection was inspired by Southern Californian skaters. Their second, which they dubbed “Riviera Punk”, featured that classic Hawaiian shirt motif, a repeated palm print, but theirs was the titular palm of the Palme d’Or. “In everything we’ve done there’s a juxtaposition of high and low cultures,” says Nolan. “What we wanted to make was something fun, inclusive and accessible.”
“We’ve created some that didn’t look like Hawaiian shirts and they didn’t make it into the collection,” adds Jones. “Our approach is to make something that looks a lot more contemporary than your usual Hawaiian shirt, but the art itself isn’t too advanced. There needs to be an acceptability to it. It needs to be fun, have a sense of energy and a sense of escape.”
In May this year, the pair put on a small presentation off-schedule during Australian Fashion Week. Alongside the live presentation was a series of collaged images created by fine art photographer Samuel Hodge. For that collection they also collaborated with Richard Nicoll, a lauded London-based fashion designer with Australian roots. Fresh from a stint as the creative at Jack Wills, Nicoll was summering in Australia and working from the Double Rainbouu office. “It just happened organically,” he says. “There wasn’t anything strategic behind working together.” The trio spent their days listening to US group DIIV’s album Is the Is Are. The band became a “major muse” for the collaboration with Nicoll, and when they played live in Australia, “we threw a few shirts on stage to them,” says Nolan.
Nicoll describes the project as “an antidote to traditional resort collections”, which tend to peddle a lifestyle few truly enjoy. Instead it “was about a celebration of diversity … a sort of gang that everyone’s invited to join”. He designed floppy hats and a poncho-towel, and helped Nolan and Jones style the collection for the presentation. “Toby came up with a genius skirt idea, of wrapping a shirt around a waist. We made these intentionally bad spiritual neck charms, the process of putting the looks together was free and fun.”
Nicoll, Jones and Nolan have all worked on large brands, with very expansive offerings. Each of them has found relief in working on a very niche, focused project. Making one thing, and making it well, works for a digital business, but it has also curried favour with retailers, who find it easy to understand the brand and slot it into their existing buys for the season. As a result of Double Rainbouu’s rapid success, the three plan to work together on other similarly tight product ranges. The plan to diversify outside of, rather than within, Double Rainbouu, is also a smart insurance policy. Once they finish the hard work of making Hawaiian shirts seem cool, it won’t be hard for mass-market retailers to swoop in and offer a similar product at a much lower price.
But that moment is yet to come. “There are a few items of clothing even a conservative person can wear a loud print on,” says Nolan. “A Hawaiian shirt straddles a more ‘out there’ and a more conservative person.” That means there’s an entire pool of inbetweeners, neither conservative nor “out there”, for Double Rainbouu to win over. In a way, the brand is banking on this. Especially in Australia. “Because the beach in Australia is such a huge aspect of everyone’s lives, it doesn’t just mean one thing. There’s the urban beach. Then you’ve got the small town beaches. Deserted beaches and crappy suburban beaches.” Double Rainbouu aims to reflect all of them, with a cheeky grin. “It’s everyday life, not paradise.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 9, 2016 as "Rainbouu collection". Subscribe here.