Kevin Cody

Lei Lady Lei: Lei maker Leilani Kanaauano Huggins

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Lei maker Leilani Kanaauao Huggins (center) with Hawaii newcaster Kori Harvey and Brazilian model Marcia Ardito. Phto by Jim Russi (

First Lady of leis

by Kevin Cody

Just four hours prior to the Monday 7 a.m. deadline for entries in the 90th Annual May Day Lei Celebration, Kahiwalani Miller told her older sister Leilani Kanaauao Huggins, “You haven’t come all the way from Redondo Beach to enter just two leis. Make one more. I’ll stay up with you and cut flowers.”

Kahiwalani suggested her sister make a papale, or hat lei, because they are 22-inches and quicker to make than an a’i or neck lei, which must be 30- to 36-inches. In addition to length, the rules required “All lei shall be made with natural plant materials and limited to flowers, leaves, stems, roots, fruits, and seeds.”

Huggins had flown to Hawaii a week earlier with Pat Shimamoto of Hawthorne, one of her lei students. They were staying with her cousins in Maunalani, a Honolulu suburb. Their first few days were spent foraging for flowers and leaves.

“Honolulu isn’t like LA. There’s no downtown flower mart,” Huggins said.

Huggins’ father Eric is Hawaiian and her mother Ana, Mexican. They met on the beach in Hermosa Beach shortly before he shipped out to Vietnam. After the war, the family lived in Hawaii until Huggins was six, when her parents divorced. She and her mother then moved back to the South Bay.

Huggins studied art at El Camino and became a fashion buyer for local clothing stores. She and her husband Scott, a project manager at Northrop Grumman, raised three boys, Dylan, Ryan and Nathan. During last month’s Redondo Union High School graduation ceremony, Ryan wore a half dozen leis made by his mother. She also made leis for his football teammates and cheerleaders who were graduating. In keeping with Hawaiian tradition, many of the graduation 60 leis were strung with cereal boxes and candy wrappers.

Huggins learned wili lei making from her Uncle Moses Crabbe in 2011, when she returned to Honolulu for her grandmother’s funeral. Wili is a style that involves weaving as many as a dozen flowers an inch into a braid woven from raffia or banana leaves.

Leilani Kanaauao Huggins at work in her Redondo Beach studio. Photo by John English

For the May Day Lei Celebration, Uncle Moses brought his Huggins yellow speckled Moas and the deep green fern Palapalai from his home in Hilo. Her cousins’ neighbor gave her highly coveted, yellow Oahu Mamo Lehuas. Huggins found purple Anthuriums at a farmers market in Honolulu. From her godfather’s home in Torrance, she had brought over purple Stathis and Oregon moss.

At her uncle’s suggestion, Huggins planned to enter an a’i lei in the beginners division. Her lei would have nine different flowers and ferns, including the Palapalai from Hilo and Oregon moss from Torrance.

She also planned to enter an a’i lei in the silver and white division. But her uncle didn’t like the flowers she had gathered and suggested, instead, that she enter the more prestigious red and pink division. In deference to her uncle, a third generation leis maker and veteran of many May Day Lei Celebrations, she followed his advice. But she didn’t have any pink and red flowers.

“So I had to scramble all over the island on Saturday to find pink Clerodendrum and Bougainvillea and red Lehua ula ula and Ohi’a,” she said.

Lei ribbons from the May Day Lei Competition. Photo by John English

That was the reason she was just finishing her first two leis at 3 a.m Monday morning.

For the papale lei Huggins’ sister then insisted she make and offered to work with her on through the the night, Huggins interwove purple Statice she had bought at the LA Flower Mart and the purple Anthuriums from the Honolulu farmers market with the yellow Moas from her uncle and the yellow Mamo Lehuas from the Maunalani neighbors.

“I paint and from studying art at El Camino I know the color wheel and that helps in my designs. Plus, I’m a Laker fan. And those were the only flowers I had left,” she said. Purple and Yellow are complementary colors.

Uncle Moses showed her how to conceal the required, two-inch loop so when her leis hung the judges would see only flowers.

At 7 a.m. Monday morning, Huggins joined a line of hundreds of fellow lei makers at Queen Kapiolani Park in Waikiki. Their leis soon filled an exhibition area the size of a football field.

“It was intimidating,” she said.

Huggins had saved for a year to pay for the trip and had no expectations of winning a ribbon.

“I just went for the experience,” she said.

Shortly after noon, the lei makers and public were invited into the exhibition area. The judges’ top three selections in each division hung at the front of the hundreds of other entries. The blue, red and white ribbons, representing first, second and third places, were as long as the leis.

Huggins and her family rushed first to the beginners competition area. A blue ribbon hung next to her green and brown lei. The California Girl, as she quickly became known as, was the first mainlander in the 90 year history of the May Day Lei Competition to win a blue ribbon. Huggins student Shimamoto placed second.

Then, she and her family went to the red and pink competition area. A red ribbon hung next to her lei. Huggins hugged her uncle.

The anxiety she had felt in line that morning, when she questioned if she was good enough even to enter the prestigious competition, had given way to euphoria.

“I just wanted to make my family proud. I wanted them to know that even though I had moved away, I was still a Hawaiian,” Huggins said.

The euphoria remained with Huggins all the way across the field to the papale lei exhibition area.

Then she burst into tears. A blue ribbon hung next to her purple and yellow lei her sister had convinced her to make. A red ribbon hung next to Uncle Moses’ lei.

To view more of Leilani Huggins leis and to learn about her classes visit 


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