The Tori Richard Story
Mort Feldman retired from his children’s wear manufacturing business in Chicago in 1953 and headed for Hawai‘i, planning only a visit. Three years later he had settled in Honolulu and teamed up with Janet Moody, a designer whom he later married. Together, with pattern maker Mitsue Aka they launched Tori Richard, a sophisticated women's resort wear company, named after Moody's daughter Victoria, and Feldman's son Richard. More than a half-century later, the thriving business remains one of the oldest apparel companies in Hawai‘i with the couple’s youngest son Josh at the helm.
The first factory was on Pier 7 in downtown Honolulu. At high tide it was not unusual to see wet floorboards. As the business quickly grew, Feldman moved the factory to a Quonset hut on Beretania Street in Honolulu.
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The Tori Richard story mirrors the coming of statehood of Hawai‘i, says Josh Feldman, CEO of the company. "My dad had a cosmopolitan sense and when he got to Hawai‘i he saw the need for sophisticated apparel that would still be appealing when people took it back to the mainland or elsewhere.”
In 1966, Mort Feldman & Howard Hope of Sun Fashions, as vice president and president of the Hawaii Fashion Guild, lobbied the state legislature to proclaim every Friday between memorial day and labor day, “aloha Friday. The successful campaign to allow business people to dress casually on "Aloha Fridays" was another boon for the business. Shortly after, Liberty House requested that Tori Richard fashion men's shirts out of women's prints. By the end of the ‘80s the company manufactured mostly men's apparel.
Feldman recalled the foundations that his father, who passed away in 2004, laid in the business. "He was an artist, though he didn't paint. He had a keen eye and he'd edit art and prints, and would even direct the artists. Hawaiian culture is a fusion of Asian, European, Polynesian sensibilities and apparel is no different."
“Our philosophy is based in the honor of making genuinely fine garments for individuals who appreciate hand-painted designs reflective of exotic destinations around the world.
In each piece of exquisite fabric one might find a thread with the balance of Kyoto, the mystery of Marrakech, the serenity of Hanalei and the sophistication of St. Tropez. Crafted of such fabrics as our proprietary Cotton Lawn, Silk, custom Jacquards, and flowing Chiffon, these exquisite items feature printed art that is often applied in as many as 18 distinct colors to capture brilliant hues and intricate design. A Tori Richard is like no other garment. It is our legacy and honor to create each exclusive new edition to be a delight to the eye, a pleasure to the skin, and a joy to the spirit.”
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Japan was known for its high quality prints and textiles and Mort realized that forging this tie was crucial in ensuring Tori Richard's quality. In fact his close relationship with one of Japan's oldest textile mills led to his developing "Polyester Suede" in the 1960s; the fabric was widely employed for years and is still associated with the Disco era. "He set down aesthetic rules that we follow today,” says Feldman. "For example, we ensure motifs are balanced so no single element jumps out. Each motif is grounded, everything we do is right side up in contrast to the upside down motifs in the early Hawaiian shirts."
Feldman prides himself on inheriting his dad's keen eyes and aesthetic sense. "I guess it's partly genetic, partly learned,” he muses. “My Mum loved to shop and when I was young I'd accompany her to the big fashion stores in New York. I developed an eye for women's fashions. I also had a college minor in art."
In the late 1960s, at the request of an important national department store, Tori Richard started offering some men’s shirts made from the same dramatic and bold prints the women’s collection came from. Colors were changed but the print inspiration was the same. By the 1970s, Tori Richard was completely enmeshed in the men’s resort apparel business.
Early in the 1970’s, “Tegaki” handprints were introduced. Created in Osaka, Japan, 12-yard pieces of fabric were strung between bamboo poles and actually hand painted by teams of artisans working in pairs. This resulted in beautiful prints with no two garments alike. Tori Richard, Ltd. printed over one million yards of Tegaki in the 1970s, entirely by hand! These fabrics made unique dresses and shirts with the guarantee the wearer would never see another just like it.
A company signature and proprietary fabrication, Cotton Lawn, was first used by the company. With an exclusive finish, and construction and process available only from Tori Richard, Ltd. this fabric remains a staple today.
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Though Feldman vowed he'd never enter the family business, he decided to delay law school for a year out of love for his aging father. It was 1994 and the business, left in the care of new management during the 1980s when Mort moved the family to New Zealand, had fallen into disarray. Josh took on production and sales while Mort managed operations and finances. "It was a mutually respectful relationship,” he says. “I'd take my problems to my Dad who had wisdom and experience and he gave me free reign to change the product."
In the 1980’s, Tori Richard continued to be defined by dramatic, resort-inspired prints. Styles and patterns were influenced by art and fashion trends of the decade. Color palettes shifted, and geometric lines and shapes came to the forefront.
Men’s business became the company’s fastest growing sector during the 80s and by the end of the decade had eclipsed women’s dress and lounge business.
Then an incident occurred which was a turning point for Josh. "I got a phone call from an elderly woman whose husband had just died. She wanted to bury him in a Tori Richard relic from the 1970s. I found a bolt of the old fabric and fashioned a shirt for her, but it was a wake up call for me. Our customers -- along with our styles -- were dying off. It was time to revive timeless products like silk in men's and women's lines, develop new ones and kill the non-viable ones. In 1996 we re-launched our women's line.” In Josh's capable hands, company sales grew 500% between 1997 and 2000.
Inspired by the company’s 1950s and 60s print engineering in women’s dresses, Tori Richard re-introduced the engineered men’s shirt in 1996. This became a new trend for printed men’s shirts having a hallmark of both front panel matching and motif placement of large scale, whimsical prints.
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"We have a Tori Richard look,” says Amy Renshaw, art co-coordinator. "It's a sophisticated look that someone could wear to dinner at a world class resort or just sightseeing." Some items have many details from different painting techniques. There might be up to 18 distinct colors in the design with perhaps a Rothko color feel or a Jackson Pollock touch, says Feldman.
Fabrications like the high quality "cotton lawn" remain very popular; embroidery may accent things and "there are real shell buttons on everything we make." We have seven resident artists,” Feldman explains, “but because we generate at least 500 prints per year, we commission work out to artists around the world. We bring back designs from shows in France or mainland USA, or from visiting exotic places like Marrakesh or Istanbul, and maybe enlarge or shrink them so they're unrecognizable. We might employ a Hawaiian motif like a palm tree, or a monstera leaf but the final painting or drawing that goes to print may be more geometric, a more tasteful palm with a universal look. I don't think we've ever taken a design and printed it as is.”
Some men's shirts offer humorous touches such as goldfish in a martini glass on the back, or a Christmas ornament hidden in a pocket. One shirt with a monkey in the pocket had only his tail sticking out. “When people purchase from us they won’t see it elsewhere unless it’s a knock-off,” Feldman promises.
With showrooms around the world, and buyers like Bergdorf s and Saks, Tori Richard can afford to be selective about who they distribute to, Feldman says. In the 1960s they had 12 retail shops but closed them down when Liberty House threatened to withdraw business if they remained a retailer. Now Feldman proudly reports that Tori Richard is back in the retail business with four new stores in Hawai‘i.
The men's line is stronger then ever and the large, dramatic prints from the 1950s are back in the women's line with a contemporary focus. “Each print is unique,” says Feldman. “We infuse, mix and join local cultural references with outside influences. We’re the new wave cuisine of the textile worlds.”
Committed to their Honolulu family business roots, the company retains its headquarters in Kalihi, and added 20,000 square feet to the facility, creating a working environment that is nearly an acre in size, encompassing the administrative, design, operations, light manufacturing, distribution and warehousing.
The memory of the late Mort Feldman remains a guiding light and "we often ask ourselves what he would say about things,” says Josh Feldman. And the sophisticated art on fabric that began with Mort remains central to Tori Richard and to Josh Feldman’s ongoing vision. It truly is art on a hanger.
Tori Richard can be found in more than 2500 better department stores and specialty stores in all 50 United States, Puerto Rico, Guam, Mexico, Asia, Europe and the Caribbean.
Written by Aviva Meyers (originally published in Hawaiian Style magazine January 2009) with additional material from ToriRichard.com