Dig Doug: Inside the Pacific Textile Archive
Doug Bunting is grinning at me like a man who knows the secret of Ali Baba’s cave of wondrous treasure. He is beaming as he carefully lifts and gently places each of these meticulously cared for and curated vintage textile prints he is allowing me a private audience with. He flips over another—a blast of shimmering blues, golds and reds, as wildly psychedelic as the day the were made—some 60 years ago—leap off the thick card they were hand painted on to as if it were yesterday. He flips another and he shoots me that look again, it’s the understated look of knowing cool—you gettin’ this buddy? How’s the transmission? Five-by-five? Are you feeling the enormity of what I’ve got going on here? Can you dig it? Well, damn you Doug. I can dig it. Truly, truly, I can dig it.
Doug Bunting is lanky, salt-and-pepper crowned, mild of both tan and manner and an otherwise spotless specimen of Californian salt-water persuasions. He pads softly around his impeccable, modernist Laguna hideaway in a relaxed disposition best summed up in the phrase ‘barefoot bungalow.’ His svelte, capable surfboard lingers just outside the front door invitingly. It’s unclear if he’s just returned from a regular, scheduled surf session or if I am delaying him in getting to one, but one thing is obvious from the outset; Doug Bunting eats, sleeps, drinks, and weeps surfing and all that surf-culture has to give. There is a part of me which is immensely pleased that it is Doug who stumbled onto the treasure trove of heritage Pacific textile design and art which he is currently allowing me a private audience with. There is another part of me, which we shall not speak of here, which is boiling in its own envy-juices because this is more than just “a find” for a design collector, this is a coup d’état; a lottery win, a very favorable turn of life’s fickle roulette wheel. And here is patient and easy, surf-washed Doug flicking through the stacks of this impressive collection in the same way that I imagine the Pope might casually flick through one of the original hand-printed gospels from the Vatican vaults to pass the time on a slow weekend.
The contents of Doug Bunting’s Pacific Textile Archive are a lot like that—heavy with time, hand-inked, patinated pages from history—if your history happens to be Aloha prints, Batik designs, woodblocks, psychedelic textile patterns and Asian hand painted prints that is, the very building blocks of fashion, the way it got done in the Pacific rim for the last 60 years. Think of them as the original stone tablets the surf-gods handed down to mankind, sending man forth to make plentiful the Aloha shirt and a few other salt-water inspired beauties. Bunting’s Pacific Textile Archive is a lost city if you will, of textile design history from the last century, an Indiana Jones-grade treasure trove of gorgeous hand-painted, drawn and colored design which is unlike anything you’ve ever seen or can even remember. At best these heritage designs are only imitated now, a vague copy-of-a-copy-of-a-half-remembered-copy with so much post-modern inflation applied that contemporary iterations of these classics simply have no chops, no teeth, no real gravity or juice of their own. And, in many ways, Doug chancing upon this archive was as casual and pleasantly unsurprising as the very spirit of the islands themselves. Whilst reconnecting with an old friend and veteran of the island textile trade Dwight Hamai, Doug recalls the talk turning to classic Aloha shirts, vintage textile design and the dearth of this incredible art in modern fashion. It was then that Dwight, something of an expert in this field in his own right, casually suggested that Doug take a look at a few pieces he’d been slowly collecting and storing over the years. “A few pieces” turned out to be a more than impressive collection of not just Aloha designs but epic border prints, Batik patterns, floral surface art, hell you name it, it’s in there, and Doug, as casual as you like, stepped up and and found himself curating this huge collection so that it could be brought back into the world, impressively intact. This story then, both begins and ends in the same place, in a kind of karmic loop for Doug, in the birthplace of surfing and surf culture: Hawaii.
Hawaii’s great gift to the world is unquestionably the art of surfing and with it the promise of the eternally Halcyonic island, best symbolized not by the surfboard, but by the Aloha shirt. Sadly, and for the most part, the Aloha shirt has become the clichéd, pre-chewed, guaranteed bullseye re-gift you can bring back from a vacation on the islands to prove you were there man, like bringing rocks back from the moon, or a hangover from Vegas. But before the Aloha shirt became so ubiquitous and obvious that it incarnated as the very symbol of island life and laissez-faire beachiness, it was first, and foremost, a genuine original fashion item in its own right, virtually exclusive to this volcanic corner of Pacific and damned well made, from the tailoring to the coconut husk buttons, to the truly, truly exquisite art and printing. So much so that the Aloha shirt has adorned the backs of movie and TV stars, presidents, rock gods, surf bums and preppy Ivy leaguers alike. As fashion classics go, the original Aloha shirt is the little black dress of the beach-bound community, a solid, always wearable classic.
One thing the kings of Hawaiian surfing could never have predicted is how catchy the surf-bug could be as it spread steadily around the world. Bunting caught a dose of it as a young kid and it took an anaconda-like death grip on him from the outset and has never let him go. He surfed his way through young adulthood bussing tables and fell in with local outfit Surfing magazine—helping to ship back issues and surf posters to equally enthusiastic fin-heads across the globe. The fuse which lit the ‘earth shattering Kaboom’ of surf culture around the world had only just been ignited by that fresh breed of radical surfers from Australia and South Africa who were busy carving a name for themselves out of the North Shore of Hawaii, names like Rabbit Bartholomew, Mark Richards and South African cousins Shaun and Mike Tomson. Having a good relationship with the handful of South African surfers based in Southern California, Doug could easily ‘translate’ the textured twang of the South African accent and, once his unique skill had been identified, he was quickly drafted into service at Surfing to help the editorial team transcribe and make heads and tails of the audio taped stories Mike Tomson was sending into Surfing magazine from the far flung corners of a pro tour still in its infancy. By then, surfing was already in his breakfast cereal and his blood, and young Doug Bunting began a career dedicated to keeping himself in and around the water and at the forefront of the ever cresting wave of the surf-culture explosion.
His ambitions led him to the heights of the rigging of surf retail in the edgiest of street-wear stores in Laguna in the mid eighties just as the crest of the surf-culture wave advanced across the world; he blended hip-hop, gritty street-, and skate-wear and surf culture in a, now legendary store named Équipe—part cultural yardstick part retail store—he partnered in this venture with no one less than the inimitable Shawn Stüssy and Équipe, by all accounts, was light years ahead of its time in predicting the ultimate blending of street and surf cultures in the now familiar soft, nougatey mix we’ve come to expect these days. Stüssy and Bunting thrived in this landmark location and set the pace for much of what was to move through surf culture trends int he years to come. By the time Doug opened his second retail store, Toes on the Nose, yet another Laguna-based institution, Bunting was so steeped in surf lore, culture and artifacts that Toes became an unofficial trading post for surf culture aficionados in search of collectibles and the kind of hallowed objets d’art which are discussed in hushed voices by collectors and devout surf-geeks alike. It wasn’t just collecting though, as Doug has it, “I was religious about it,” he says, transforming his passion and himself into a kind of surfing Indiana Jones—with boardies and a leash instead of a fedora and a whip—digging through garage sales, decoding byzantine swap meets, rummaging through flea markets and antique stores to unearth the golden Buddhas of surf lore and trade them with other beach-nuts who, like himself, could just not get enough of this good and salty thing. After earning his stripes in retail Doug made a name for himself backstage, in the textile industry where he stayed for some time. Then, more than a decade of dedicated digging for surfing’s Holy Grails and even more than that working in front and behind the scenes of the big name surf apparel marquees Doug reconnected with his old buddy Dwight Hamai, who was still working in textile production on the islands and agreed that it might be a good time to have a gander at the collection of art and design that had been building up in Dwight’s storeroom for a little while. And there they were—reams of them—untouched, and sleeping the salty sleep of the islands, safely tucked away in a warehouse, just waiting to be rediscovered by the right kind of eyes.
You’ll recognize the names of familiar textile heavyweights from the heyday of the Hawaiian fabric industry stamped on the backs of the broad, thick card stock backing these hand-painted designs; hallowed fashion industry stalwarts like Gunter Von Hamm, S. Hata & Co., Trendex, Marlo Designs, Hawaii Print, Hawaiian Textiles, and so the list proceeds backwards into fashion history. These were the original competing forces which brought much of Pacific fashion and design to life through exceptional artwork, astute textile printing, even sharper design choices and a desire to create sumptuous textiles which unique to the Pacific and its very special lifestyle, whilst avoiding the junky, clichéd , mass produced stuff being churned out by the ton from the mills of the imposing textile giants of the mainland.
Looking at this archive of textile art now, on the other side of the chasm of a half-century between when this iconic Hawaiian textile industry started and the current day, it is clear what an unmistakable treasure trove of design this is and how easy it would be to revive these patterns and elegant designs into a modern textile print for say, a contemporary bikini, a swimsuit, board shorts, t-shirts, a modern take on a heritage Aloha shirt, drapery and even some proper funky upholstery. And now I’m starting to get a better sense of why Doug Bunting is beaming with delight. For anyone else these might be some quaint nick-nacks with a mildly fleeting historical interest. For a surf-head like Doug, and anyone else with an interest in fabric design, it is a veritable goldmine of original material sourced from the stone tablets the commandments of Pacific fashions were first carved into. It’s like finding the lost Library of Alexandria stashed behind the local 7-11 on a quick trip to the store to pick up a gallon of milk.
But Doug is cautious. He has the regard of a man who has thought about the difference between ‘selling out’ and ‘buying in’ more than once in his life. His attitude has the air of a careful, practiced and considered approach. With a desire to assist his clients match these unique, heritage designs with their specific needs and their industry objectives. For Doug, as he curates, sorts and catalogs each of these pieces of iconic design history, his approach to industry hounds striving for the next new-new thing is simply to cool their boots. “I’m working with people who want to use unique, heritage designs in a modern way,” he says, “it’s not about just making a billion trendy swimsuits this summer and then disappearing.” It’s an approach you don’t see everyday, which speaks of Doug’s own maturity within the industry and his deep connection with, and understanding of, the history of surf culture and how easily this incredible pastime can easily be polluted by the greed of an eternally hungry fashion industry. For Doug Bunting and the Pacific Textile Archive, this project is about simultaneously sharing and preserving this library of beauty, and matching this unique art and design to special clients who are looking for the select, the exceptional, and art which transcends the ubiquity and interchangeable brand-ability of much of the merchandise emanating from a modern fashion industry; to create something truly distinctive and fresh indeed. A small selection of Doug’s unique Pacific Textile archive can be viewed online here.
SpectraUSA is now creating their own rotary printed textiles for full-print garments. That’s a print extending across the entire garment, of whatever artwork you can imagine; from the heritage art of historical surf-wear classics like the gems in Doug Bunting’s Pacific Textile Archive, to prints to match the designs of the modern internet age. Get in touch with SpectraUSA to review of this new direction for SpectraUSA and the virtually limitless possibilities it opens up for apparel creation and garment production.