Find Your Ritual

“The Ocean Is Essential”—Meleana Estes on the Art of Making Leis

Every day calls for a swim.

By Isabelle Eyman
Find Your Ritual Meleana Estes

They say physical appearance is what you notice first about a person. Their eyes, their hair color, or how tall they stand. We pretend that these facts, and how we interpret them, mean something. But there are others who instead capture us with their energy—their warmth and curiosity. Meleana Estes immediately pulls you in with her passion. Her love, interest, and excitement for the natural world is infectious. It’s Meleana’s connection to her family, her art, and to her native Hawai’i that weaves a narrative thread through her everyday rhythms and routines.

Meleana knows that nothing is created within a vacuum. Inspiration surrounds us, and it’s our responsibility to attune our perspective to the potential within everything we confront. It’s this understanding—the connection between and the potential within everything—that brought Meleana to her work as a stylist, lei expert, and author of the recently released book, Lei Aloha: Celebrating the Vibrant Flowers and Lei of Hawai‘i.

Find Your Ritual: Meleana Estes

“Lei Aloha” Copyright © 2023 by Meleana Estes with Jennifer Fiedler. Photographs copyright © 2023 by Tara Rock. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House.”

Meleana Estes Shares the Rituals That Inspire Her Creativity and Keep Her Close to Nature

Her book serves not just as an ode to the art of lei making, but as a love story to the culture surrounding it. It’s clear, from speaking with Meleana, that the beauty of lei surpasses its aesthetic hold. Layered within the native flowers are stories of her tutu’s generosity, of moments where she would adorn Meleana and her friends in lei. There are the birthdays, surf contests, and other celebrations where lei are abundant. As Meleana shares, “it is woven into all parts of our lives.”

In our conversation, Meleana shares how she fuels her creative life—peppering her work with pauses for surfing, swimming, and treasured moments with family. She speaks about the essentials: why she needs to jump in the water before she touches her computer and why noticing the day’s “small beauties” is a practice integral to her work, her art, and her world. Dive in.

What’s the first thing you do each morning?

My morning ritual is a long cuddle session with my 10-year-old son. I have big goals every week to wake up earlier than him and stretch and do my breathing but it never seems to happen before he jumps in my bed. That time with him is so important to me and fleeting—any day he could be “too cool”!

Tell us about your life as a designer. What does a typical day look like?

I finally get to my routine after my son heads off to school.  I start my day with a walk around Diamond Head, a lovely coastal walk near my house. If I’m planning to make lei that day, I’ll carry a pair of clippers and a bag with me so that I can pick materials as I walk. If the water is beautiful, I might jump in the ocean for a quick surf. I try to do this first thing before opening my computer.

It is a balance, tackling that list of to-do’s and giving my brain the space to feel creative and calm so I can notice the small beauties that inspire me in my world.  

There are lots of emails to read through these days as I’m deep in promotion for my new book, Lei Aloha and I just launched a jewelry brand, HIE Heirlooms of Hawai’i. But, I do start to melt if I am at my computer for too long, so I break it up with creative pauses where I am able to dream up new projects or work on existing ones. These breaks can be color coordinating my hanging mu‘umu‘u collection or strolling down the street to pick some fallen coconut seed pods I saw on my walk for a table runner I plan to make. It is a balance, tackling that list of to-do’s and giving my brain the space to feel creative and calm so I can notice the small beauties that inspire me in my world.  

You just released your book, Lei Aloha. What do you hope readers will take away from its pages?

I am so excited for Lei Aloha to be out in the world. It is a culmination of beautiful stories collected from treasured individuals in the lei community of Hawai’i and transporting photos into this unique part of our Hawaiian culture. 

I hope people feel the Aloha (love) in which people in Hawai‘i share and receive lei, as it is woven into all parts of our lives. Lei is used to celebrate birthdays, surf contests, weddings, and even funerals. Sometimes there is no particular occasion but you feel inspired to make a lei because you see a certain coastal plant you don’t always get to use or your own trees are blooming. You are celebrating the joy of using these materials—and somehow, I find, the perfect lei recipient always shows up. 

I hope people feel the Aloha (love) in which people in Hawai‘i share and receive lei, as it is woven into all parts of our lives.

It doesn’t matter if you make it yourself or pick one out from a local lei shop, it’s always an act of Aloha.  The health of the practice relies on the health of our people and our environment. If Hawai‘i becomes overcrowded, we’ll lose space to grow our flowers. If our native forest is compromised with invasive species, we’ll lose materials that way, too. We touch upon these issues in Lei Aloha. So as much as I hope this book shares the beauty of lei, I hope it also highlights the fragility of these resources and the importance of the health of Hawai‘i as a state. 

Your love of lei spans cultural and personal significance. Can you share how lei making connects you to Hawai‘i and your family?

I was born and raised in Hawai‘i. When I lived on the mainland for college in Boston and Fashion School in New York City, I still remained extremely rooted in Hawai‘i. My tutu on my mom’s side is native Hawaiian. She was a renowned lei maker and is still remembered for the aloha in which she shared lei to not only her ‘ohana (my family), but to all of Hawai‘i. Her generosity was endless; my whole volleyball team would have beautiful head lei after important games. And after paddling races, she was on the beach with armfuls of lei hanging for my entire crew. Even when I moved out of the state, she always carefully packaged a box of lei to send to me and my roommates for my birthday.

I credit the importance of lei to me to her. She was also a musician and made sure I knew how to play a few songs on the ukulele and encouraged us to have at least one hula in our back pocket for when you get called up unexpectedly to dance at a lu‘au. While I loved spending time outside of Hawai‘i, I always knew that I had an extra layer of blessing being raised in a place with a strong culture. I wanted that for my life indefinitely.  

My tutu would make lei for all of us for a pa‘ina (party). There were lei po‘o for her six granddaughters and more for my mom and her four sister in-laws. There was tightly strung puakenikeni for her two grandsons, my dad, and her four sons. And if wasn’t our party, then there were always lei for the host or guest of honor. My whole family has taken this on, she instilled it in all of us. My sister and I always make sure the “important” person has a special head lei. And my Uncle Speedy and Aunty Polly never show up to a party without armfuls of freshly strung pua kenikeni. We are all, in our own way, carrying on her love of lei and sharing lei.  

We are all, in our own way, carrying on her love of lei and sharing lei.  

Your jewelry collection, HIE | Heirlooms of Hawai‘i, is “inspired by the women of Hawai‘i, past and present.” How does this intention manifest in your designs?

As children, my partner Noël and I always loved and admired both our own ‘ohana’s (family) bracelets along with favorites of aunties or older cousins. We grow up associating certain bracelet styles with women we love and admire. HIE was created to continue the tradition of this style of bangle being made and passed on through generations, as it had become less commonplace for our generation. We draw inspiration not only from the bangles that these women wore, but the strength and beauty they exude as well.  

What’s something you’re committed to doing every single day, no matter what?

(Almost) every single day I jump in the ocean. Of course, there are days missed here and there, but whether I quickly submerge in my workout clothes after a walk or get in an evening surf with my son, the ocean is essential and cleansing for me. My dad instilled this in me. He would go for a quick exercise swim on his lunch breaks, and when he arrived home from work we would hop in the car for the quick five-minute drive down the hill to our local beach. We would joke that his gills needed water. But it passed on to my sister and me. It’s a reset. If things feel crazy, I can scream them under water to let go or just float on my back and take in the sky view. It centers me.

How does the design of your space reflect your priorities and goals?

Like any creative, the look and feel of my space affects my productivity. As someone who also loves to collect beautiful things, balancing the clutter is a challenge. I am so fortunate to have a cottage on our property where I can keep my colorful mu‘umu‘u collection, my vibrant textiles, my lauhala (woven) hats and where my big flower projects can explode. I have this open wall where I can hang fabric swatches, a recently-found vintage postcard I love and I always have the words to an ‘oli or chant in Hawaiian that we recite before gathering in our native forest hanging on the wall. It is a thank you for the plants, for the ‘aina (land) and for their gifts. This chant focuses on lei, but it encompasses gratitude for all of our surroundings. When I look at this on my wall during hectic moments, I feel grounded in my work, the book and my intention to share lei, bracelets and whatever else I decide to design next with the world.

Are there any daily or weekly “chores” you always enjoy?

I love to weed plants! I find clearing a hillside of weeds and giving what you have planted room to breathe. My mom lives on Kaua‘i (where I grew up) on the same land as her three brothers. I grew up with big family yard work days, followed by ocean cool-off dips and pau hana (post-work) pupu (appetizer) potlucks out in the citrus orchard. Maybe it’s nostalgic, the feeling of a long day outside working together to take care of our land and the loving warmth of my family, but either way, it’s a chore that makes me smile.

Is there a scent you use to relax? 

This is a great question for a lei maker because the fragrance of the flowers and foliage is so much a part of the creation! There is something about the pua kenikeni flower that calms me. It takes me to the cool flowers of my tutu’s garage where she would string lei for orders and to share with family and friends. Now I never throw away extra flowers after stringing lei. There are little bowls around the house, keeping that feeling of lei sharing close.

Does music play a part in your daily life?

Music is such a part of my life. I always have Spotify going. Music at home is a constant. I love Hawaiian music for dinnertime. My Uncles inherited my tutu’s love of music and Hawaiian music played a big part in family parties.  The steel guitar or the sound of a stand-up base brings that nostalgia of a family gathering and the warmth I felt there.

How do you keep yourself energized throughout the day?

Every day feels so busy that I barely have time to realize I am tired! To keep my focus, I take stretching breaks for my sore back. I truly I snack all day and love a big, lovely sit-down dinner. I am not sure if this is the best thing for metabolism and this and that, but I love to cook for my family. Small meals during the day (avocado toast, string cheese, apples, and way too many peanut butter pretzels) are my go-to’s!

Where do you turn for inspiration when you’re feeling creatively blocked?

When I am creatively blocked, it is usually because I have a big decision to make. Aside from happily thumbing through my collection of vintage photos and books, my creative block is usually a paralyzing decision I have to make. My brain bounces back and forth between creative mode to task-oriented mode probably at an unhealthy pace. But I have learned in the last year that I can not be productive in either mode if I have a pending decision weighing on me—be it the vibe for an upcoming photo shoot or hiring a new assistant. So, I try to check those boxes first which is really a challenge for me because I tend to avoid hard decisions. But I realize now how clearing those as fast as possible helps keep my brain on track to make room for those creative moments.  

What do you do to prioritize health and wellness?

I feel lucky to have grown up with a mom who would take us to the playground to play as she ran laps on the field while keeping a watchful eye and a dad who would do stretching and (embarrassing at the time) the occasional jumping jack set during my day-long volleyball tournaments in high school. For them, exercise equated to mental health, not to weight loss. My dad was a psychiatrist and would take his patients on walks during their sessions. Blood flow and movement—walks, runs, surfing, yoga, pilates—these are essential for me. But I will say, I know that movement is not the whole picture for me anymore. Stillness is becoming more and more necessary for me to prioritize business goals. I can feel more acutely when I need to stop and sit and breathe or tap for five minutes to get to a calm place.  

What’s the best career advice anyone ever gave you? 

The best career advice anyone ever gave me came from a dear friend who has had an illustrious career in fashion. She said, “Just start. Mele, you are a perfectionist and have this beautiful grand picture that it is holding you back from just starting”. 

I learned that I am my biggest roadblock. That is why I am SO proud of my book and HIE. They are two tangible items that have been in my mind for over 10 years. I cried when I got my first copy of Lei Aloha, I was astonished to have actually pulled it off. My co-author Jenny Fiedler and publishing team at Ten Speed Press are also to credit for this. There’s nothing like a hard deadline to get me to make decisions.   

How would you describe your work/life balance?

My work has peaks and valleys. There can be huge photoshoots on a deadline with table runners and lei to make and then it’ll be quiet for weeks. I could not have pulled off my book without my husband knowing that there might be two days where I just need him to do all the drop-offs and pick-ups and run a flower errand for me. He is amazing. But on these hectic days, I always take the time to make a meal for us to sit with and read before bedtime. I try my best to be less distracted and stressed in these moments, and I am grateful my husband gives me this grace. He knows I am doing my best to be present even in those high peaks of work stress.  

What’s the best spot in your house?

I love our cute back porch. It looks out to Leahi or Diamond Head, this landmark mountain at the end of Waikiki Beach, and is framed by majestic, vibrant green coconut trees. In the evenings, Diamond Head turns pink at sunset and the moon rises between the coco palms. It is so calming to sit there.  

Name one fashion or self-care product you can’t live without:

I can’t live without a pareu, or sarong. They are beach cover-ups, sun protection, lei-making blankets, or a towel if you forgot one. And if you have to pop into a nice lunch from the beach, you can tie it around your neck and it becomes a lovely dress!  

You need to unwind after a long day. What’s your go-to method?

I love to take a shower, put on something lovely and comfy, and start chopping—with a crisp glass of wine. Whether it is a simple pasta, a salad for just me, or even plating a small cheese platter because my husband is making dinner, closing the day with my family and sharing food and time together is a grounding priority for me. Kaiea sets the table, we light a candle, hold hands, say what we are grateful for in our day, and give a small thank you to whomever we feel is right that day.  

What’s your favorite time of day and why?

I am a sunset-loving person. (I also never quite get up in time for sunrise.)  I love the way the mountain walls take on an orange-pink glow, the clouds turn a lavender color, and that people pause to watch the sun sink into the ocean. Sometimes we are in the ocean as a family, sometimes on the sea wall, and sometimes in our backyard, but we always recognize that this change in the day is happening and notice something beautiful that marks it.