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Gretchen Clarke dies at 78; Waltah Clarke's Hawaiian Shops executive

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Gretchen Clarke, who with her husband, Waltah, built what was once the nation's largest retailer of aloha wear, has died. She was 78.

Clarke died Jan. 22 of kidney failure at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, her son Cameron said.

Waltah Clarke's Hawaiian Shops started in the 1950s and grew to more than 30 stores on the mainland and in Hawaii. His first store opened in Palm Springs in 1952 before the Clarkes met, but over the years Gretchen designed most of the company's clothes and prints and "ran the business," Cameron said.

"We were innovative and kept up with the trends but always with the Hawaiian flair," Gretchen Clarke said in 2002. There were matching prints for men and women. The muumuu was transformed in the 1960s into "more of a fashion garment — cocktail dresses and resort wear — and not just a baggy dress," she said. And when miniskirts became popular they shortened the muumuu to create a "mini muu."

They had stores in Palm Springs, Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, Beverly Hills, Pasadena, Las Vegas, Chicago and Dallas as well as several in Florida and Hawaii, Cameron Clarke said.

"They were pretty innovative in how they captured the Hawaii feeling and spirit and brought it back to the mainland," said Dale Hope, author of "The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands."

Thanks to the Clarkes, people on the mainland "were able to outfit themselves with pretty authentic Hawaiian goods" that also were "kitschy and corny and fun," Hope said. "They sold the Hawaiian dream."

Gretchen Mary Klaus was born Oct. 24, 1932, in Chicago and graduated from Northwestern University. Her parents, Virginia and Rolf Klaus, took her to Hawaii in 1953 as a graduation present, and she met her future husband during hula lessons at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.

Waltah Clarke was born in Los Angeles but moved to Hawaii in 1938 and "he knew everybody," Cameron said. "He winked at the hula instructor, who introduced them." Gretchen was engaged to another man when she met Waltah, Cameron said, but "she mailed her engagement ring back to the other gentleman." She briefly worked for American Airlines before they were married in 1954.

The business "took off like gangbusters," Gretchen recalled in 2002. They "were there" when Disneyland opened, she said, and in 1956 they moved their Palm Springs location from the El Mirador Hotel to Palm Canyon Drive, where they stayed for more than 35 years. The Clarkes were longtime residents of Rancho Mirage.

She became company president in the early 1990s after her husband retired. Waltah, who changed the spelling of his name from Walter because that's how it was pronounced by locals in Hawaii, died in 2002. Their last store was sold in 2001.

In addition to her son Cameron of Rancho Mirage, Clarke is survived by daughters Heather Salsbury of Los Angeles, Gretchen Clarke Plemmons of Eureka, Mont., and Cissy Clarke Milauskas of Glendale; sons Walter Jr. of Honolulu and Rolf of Memphis; and six grandchildren.

keith.thursby@latimes.com

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