So many people collect so many different things that you know if you delve hard enough you can find collections on just about anything.
I collect articles on travel destinations I would one day like to visit – or perhaps have already visited but wish to return to. I have so many, they’re now filed, by country or, in some cases by specific place where there seems to be endless different things to do, see, stay, eat … that you need multiple visits to truly appreciate the place.
For someone like Hawaii-based Australian Deb Mascia, it was the shock of seeing so many unwanted Hawaiian mu’umu’u dresses (a loose dress from Hawaii that hangs from the shoulder; a bit like a house dress) being dumped at a charity she once volunteered for that jump-started her collection. And which inadvertently led her to create a business making and designing clothes, bedspreads, cushions and homewares from upcycled mu’umu’us.
So what’s her story got to do with mine, you’re asking?
Deb and I first ‘met’ via a newspaper article a few months ago. I so loved the concept of her business and the stories she told that I thought if I’m ever visiting Hawaii, I’d like to pay her shop a visit. I kept the article. I filed it under Hawaii with two other articles I had already collected on swimming with manta rays and things to do on the island of Oahu.
Skip forward to just recently and a holiday in Hawaii in which I managed to persuade my family to visit the seaside town of Kailua on the south-eastern side of Oahu, a half-hour drive from Waikiki, to see Deb’s store.
When a girl, commenting on Deb’s original collection, called her bedroom ‘mu’umu’u hell’, Deb, of course, had other ideas and Mu’umu’u Heaven was born. Teaching herself to sew, Deb started making skirts for herself, her friends, then strangers in the street who asked where she got her skirts from.
In 2005, when her home-based business got too big, she and her husband Eric (a marine biologist from New Jersey) opened a retail shop and did it up themselves using only recycled/upcycled materials. To show their wares, they painted it all white. Even the furniture – the upholstery recovered with cushions from vintage mu’umu’u – the second-hand mirrors, chandeliers, tables and trunks. It is an upycycler’s heaven. And every item in it, one-of-a-kind.
Not only that, it is also home to Barack Obama’s grandmother’s hat collection.
Little did I know that our short visit would lead to a chance meeting with Deb and the opportunity to feature her story on the blog and represent her wares in our store – thanks to my husband who recognised her when she popped into the shop while I was in the change room trying on a gorgeous full-length ex-70s mu’umu’u dress!
Come and meet the effervescent Deb whose extroversion is practically contagious – even for an introvert!
You seem to have had a very peripatetic past – being a bit of a nomad, travelling the world and doing different types of jobs from selling window frames in Byron Bay to advertising in Manhattan. Tell me how you ended up where you are today?
I guess I ended up in Hawaii because that’s where I am meant to be. I met my husband, Eric, here in 1995 and it has a very special place in both our hearts. We finally chose to settle here and make it our home once we were ready to start our family. My husband’s parents are from New Jersey and my family is in Australia so Hawaii is the most perfect middle spot. It’s also not too tricky to get people to visit us here, so it is great.
Why mu’umu’us? What’s the appeal and how/why did you start collecting them?
Mu’umu’u’s were not something I was really into or anything; it happened by chance. I was doing some volunteer work and bags and bags of mu’umu’u would come across my hands intended for the rubbish and that’s when my new addiction started. The fabrics were amazing. The texture and designs were unbelievable to me. I absolutely loved all of the vibrant 60s and 70s designs and they were only getting tossed because people in Hawaii don’t wear as many mu’umu’u as they used to. I couldn’t bear to throw these gorgeous textiles out, so off I went to buy a new sewing machine and scissors and my new career began. It started with pillows and bedspreads and then onto skirts and dresses.
What else do you / have you collected?
I love to collect vintage things in general. I love anything old. I have a few trouble areas: fashion, sunglasses, furniture, homewares. One of my current strangest collections is Japanese wedding dolls and antique sickles. I also have a few too many babushka nesting dolls.
Tell me about the creative fit-out of the store and some of the features you are most proud of?
Our store is heaven. Recycled heaven. Everything in the fit-out of our store has been made using found or recycled materials. I have used old polka records to build walls, old doors and windows to make jewellery display cases, pieces of old tow trucks as dress racks and one of the silliest things I get pleasure out of is a hand towel rack/holder that I made using a broken chair from the side of the road.
What’s the appeal of upcycling and rescuing other’s unwanted items?
The appeal for me mostly, in the beginning, was that uniqueness. I was remodelling our house and I just couldn’t find anything that I thought was either worth the money or interesting. While I was shopping for home products and things that are not really that exciting, like bathroom vanities, I realised nothing was very cool and a lot of the stuff I was looking at was not made very well. It wasn’t made locally or in the US and not made to last. It really forced me to get more creative with things. The more I came up with, the more friends wanted me to make for them.
What’s the oldest mu’umu’u you’ve found?
The oldest mu’umu’u I own is a Kamehameha. It was a gift from a beautiful local girl, Jyoti Mau. I believe it is from the 40’s but cannot say for sure. I have sooooo many treasures. Some of my absolute favourites are from the 60s and 70s as the fabric designs are so vibrant and fun.
How did you go about finding the ideal styles for the mu’umu’u clothing?
I have always loved fashion and vintage so I went to my wardrobe for inspiration. The very first dress I made was a style that I copied from an old photograph of my mum. It was probably around 1974-75 and she was standing on the beach with a halter dress on and a scarf on her head and giant sunglasses. I thought she looked so beautiful.
I copied her halter and it is still one of my favourite designs today, even after making them for eight years. The other designs I create come from all kinds of inspiration. Sometimes I see someone on the street and make a sketch and sometimes I don’t know where they come from.
Explain your connection to the Obamas and how did you get to own Barack Obama’s grandmother’s hats?
My connection to the Obama’s is through Barack’s sister Maya. We have been close friends for the past 10 years. I worked with her husband Konrad at the Honolulu Museum of Art. When Barack and Maya’s grandmother [Madelyn ‘Toot’ Dunham] passed away, it was just before the inauguration [in 2008]. Maya and Konrad already had their house furnished and Maya knows how much I love old things, so she asked me to help clean out Tutu’s apartment in Honolulu. While we were cleaning, we found so many cool things, and most of it came to me. I was commissioned to create clothes for the entire family using Tutu’s old mu’umu’u’s and her hats came to be on my wall as a decoration because I loved them.
Your dresses became immensely popular with the Japanese that you had a store in Tokyo for a couple of years. Tell me about the Japan connection and how you still ‘show’ over there even though your store closed.
My Japanese connection? I do not know! As soon as we opened this store, we had the most amazing reaction. I was given business cards from Paris, New York to London and Japan all asking me to open a business. I guess I just chose to focus on Japan as I had been everywhere else and it was the most interesting to me at the time. I’d always wanted to go to Japan and absolutely loved it. I love the people, the food, the energy and I have made great friendships there and love being invited to go back each year.
What do you think/hope the future holds for Mu’umu’u Heaven?
Right now I am passionate about the bees and their preservation, so all I can say for sure is we’ll be here as long as the bees are.
Do you have any other upcycling projects in the pipeline?
I do. I always have a few things going on or about to. Right now we are in the midst of doing a whole range of upcycled products for Jack Johnson’s tour. We are creating a few different products, bags and blankets using Jack’s old concert t-shirts and sweaters. Also we are about to open another store in Kailua called Hana Hou Vintage. Hana Hou is the Hawaiian saying for one more time. I have so many items that I have collected that are too special to cut up so this store will be where all the untouchables can go to new happy homes.
Who or what inspires you?
Kind people inspire me. Anyone who does something nice and doesn’t expect anything in return really gets me to smile. The tiniest gesture of kindness really makes me happy.
What do you love most about living in Hawaii?
I love my house and my family and my business, my friends, the beaches, our view. I love visitors and the ‘aloha’ spirit.
My guilty pleasure is …
Beer. I don’t know how it happened. But I love a nice cold beer on these hot Hawaiian days.
P.S Although we didn’t get to swim with mantra rays, We did try ‘snuba’ diving – the next best thing to scuba diving – and I swam with a turtle 20 feet under as if it was the most normal thing in the world.
P.P.S If you are ever in Kailua, you must stay and spend time at one of the beaches – Kailua, Kalama or Lanikai – calm turquoise seas, white sand … you get the picture. And have lunch or dinner at the iconic Buzz’s place.