A profile of the Watumulls of Hawaii, a Sindhi family that moved to Honolulu 106 years ago and is now among the island’s most prominent clans.
The son of a brick contractor in Hyderabad, Sindh, Jhamandas Watumull first migrated to Manila, Philippines after an accident left his father significantly debilitated. Jhamandas stayed with an older brother and worked in Manila’s textile mills, before starting a retail business that specialized in imports from the Orient. After World War I disabled the Philippine economy, Watamull moved to Hawaii in 1914 and opened a retail store in downtown Honolulu with his business partner Dharamdas, which would eventually be named the “East India Store.” He opened the East India Store in the old Blaisdell Hotel building on Fort Street in downtown Honolulu.
In 1917, Dharamdas returned to India, and Jhamandas’ brother, Gobindram took over as his only business partner. The East India Store flourished, selling raw silk goods and “aloha shirts” on the island, turning into a major department store, before eventually opening additional branch stores in Waikiki and the downtown Honolulu area. In 1937, Gobindram Watumull built the Watumull Building, to house the company’s headquarters. By 1957, their properties included ten stores, a Waikiki apartment house, and assorted commercial developments. In 1973, the number of stores expanded to twenty-nine.
The Watumull family was also involved in setting up several local philanthropic and educational institutions, including the Rama Watumull Fund, the J. Watumull Estate, and the Watumull Foundation. Ellen Watumull, the wife of Gobindram, was involved with the League of Women Voters in Hawaii to rescind the Cable Act of 1922, which prevented American-born women from retaining U.S. Citizenship when marrying non-citizens. She also worked with the Watumull foundation and Margaret Sanger to organize the first International Planned Parenthood Conference ever held in India.
Gulab Jhamandas Watumull also proved the leader in garment manufacturing and retail in Hawaii after his father Jhamandas and uncle Gobindram. He also supported the arts community and sponsored theatrical productions.
Gulab, a patriarch of the Aloha wear industry, passed away on May 18, 2020 leaving an indelible print on garment manufacturing, apparel retailing and arts philanthropy in Hawaii. He was 95.
Gulab long led the now 106-year-old local fashion retailer Watumull’s, established by his father, and helped diversify the family business into areas that included commercial real estate holdings in Hawaii and on the mainland.
Dale Hope, a local fashion industry veteran and author of “The Aloha Shirt” book, said Watumull likely was the last surviving “garmento” from Hawaii’s early era of garment manufacturing.
Hope said Watumull was an impressive merchant whose early accomplishments of authentic creativity have been forgotten by many. He noted the Watumull family had a very early hand in the transition from Asian to Hawaiian-inspired clothing designs.
According to Jaidev “JD” Watumull, grandson to Jhamandas, and president of Watumull’s parent company, Watumull Brothers Ltd., Gulab Watumull came to Hawaii in 1948 for school, intending to build on his college degree in India and become an engineer. But he joined his dad’s business instead because Hawaii universities had few openings after World War II.
The shift to Aloha wear for the company had begun when artist Elsie Das was commissioned in 1935 to paint 15 Hawaiian floral designs that were sent to Japan for printing on silk and then returned to Honolulu, where the fabric was made into Hawaiian wear. The company also became known for the matching family Aloha wear it introduced in 1941.
In 1956, Gulab Watumull became general manager of the enterprise with seven stores, and continued building the business into a powerhouse of Aloha wear with its own manufacturing operations and a collection of about 30 stores under a variety of names.
The stores, which grew with the development of hotels and shopping centers, operated under the names Leilani Gift Shop, Aloha Fashions and Moana Gifts and Sundries, in addition to Watumulls.
Gulab Watumull capitalized on growing tourism to Hawaii, and in the mid-1950s had acquired Royal Hawaiian Manufacturing and closed out lines of merchandise from the mainland to concentrate exclusively on aloha wear and gifts.
“More and more we are finding out that Watumull has become a synonym for Hawaiian fashions,” Gulab Watumull had said in a 1966 interview in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.
Sam Shenkus, who was marketing director for Ala Moana Center in the 1980s, regards Gulab Watumull as one of several “rock stars” in local retailing who deftly adapted as tourism grew.
In the face of changing times, Watumull’s winnowed its chain of stores while diversifying into commercial real estate and other areas. Today, there is just one Watumull’s store in Hawaii. The store, at Ala Moana Center, is a rare remaining charter tenant from when Hawaii’s largest shopping mall opened in 1959.
JD Watumull said his father never retired, but gradually shared more responsibility for running the company while staying involved with key decision-making.
Two siblings to JD Watumull also are partners in the family business: Jyoti “Jojo” Watumull, who runs affiliate American T-Shirts Co. in Kalihi, and Vikram Watumull, who also operates the independent business Happy Shirts Hawaii.
Throughout his life, Gulab Watumull and his wife, Indru, were ardent supporters of the arts, serving on boards of organizations that include Bishop Museum, sponsoring theatrical productions and helping pay for art acquisitions and exhibits.
A statue of Gandhi fronting the Honolulu Zoo was made possible by the family, and the Honolulu Museum of Art dedicated its gift shop to Gulab and Indru Watumull for their long-lasting support.
Gulab Watumull was also recognized for his prowess on local tennis courts as a ranked player in his youth who continued playing the game until six years ago.
“Be Useful!” This was the goal Gulab Watumull, a young engineering graduate, brought with him when he left India and arrived in Honolulu in 1948.
The third son of Jhamandas Watumull and Radhibai Dharamdas, Gulab was born in Hyderabad, Sindh, India in 1924. Gulab met his future wife Indru Mukhi on the tennis courts in India. When it was time to wed he knew she was the one. After marrying in 1953 in Bombay, India, Gulab brought Indru to Honolulu. Together, they became a formidable team, raising four children, running a successful business and generously supporting Honolulu’s community over 67 years of marriage.
In addition to his wife Indru, Gulab is survived by their four children, Jaidev “JD” (Julie), Chitra (Scot) Wright, Vikram (Tanya) and Jyoti “Jojo” He is also blessed by his grandchildren, Jared (Kristin) Watumull, Ashley Watumull, Jenica Wright, Jaron (Jaya) Wright, Anjuli Wright, Kiley, Easton, Pierce and Drew Watumull and Subash Bratton. He also had two great grandchildren, Jade and Jemma Watumull.
Gulab’s slim stature, broad smile and pleasant nature contrasted with his sharp business acumen. These characteristics proved to be the traits that led a young Sindhi to prosper throughout a long and successful life in his beloved community of Honolulu.
Beside Gulab Jhamandas Watumull, the off-springs of Gobindram also run separate businesses. Here is the story of Gobindram and his off-springs.
Jhamandas stayed in the Far East to source goods for the East India Store and, soon, to open branches in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Canton and elsewhere, but in 1922, his brother Gobindram and Ellen Jensen, a Hanahau‘oli School music teacher, decided to marry. They traveled in separate ships to California, where they had to search for a court that wouldn’t refuse them a license. When they succeeded, Ellen was promptly stripped of her U.S. citizenship.
Proving that activism and commerce can also mix, and profitably, back in Hawai‘i the couple joined efforts that, after decades, did succeed in amending and then ending national racial restrictions. Ellen worked closely with Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood. His grandparents’ examples would inspire a grandson, Rann, who has combined community service with entrepreneurship. In fact, he says, “Philanthropy is our business.”
Meanwhile, their union blessed the stores with creativity and a local focus. When the first aloha shirts debuted in the 1930s, G.J. asked Ellen’s artist sister, Elsie Das, to work with him on a Watumull variation, one that used Hawaiian designs. “They felt they could market for the Lurline crop,” says their eldest grandson, David, referring to the beloved tourist liners that introduced well-off travelers to the Islands.
The Watumull stores prospered in an age of emporiums: shopping as entertainment. Even World War II led to expansion, as the family’s shirt-makers turned to sewing camouflage and the stores, led by Jhamandas’ son Rama, sourced Mainland goods to serve civilians and the military. Post-war, anticipating a boom in the U.S. and the breakup of India, Jhamandas relocated to Honolulu to join Rama and another son, Gulab. Differences over company direction arose after Rama died in an air crash; Jhamandas split the business in 1955, keeping retail for himself and Gulab, while Gobindram and Ellen took over real estate.
Both sides saw the jet-age tourist boom coming. The retail Watumulls went in hot pursuit of the tourist market, the store becoming one of the first 10 tenants of the new Ala Moana Shopping Center in 1959. By 1971, there were 29 stores under various names. At one point, 95 percent of Watumull sportswear was designed and manufactured in Hawai‘i.
In 1957, Gobindram created Hawaiian Paradise Park, one of the first subdivisions on the Big Island. But his untimely death in 1959 cut short his plans.
Retail magic faded nationwide in the 1990s. But, once again, the family saw the shift coming, moving into real estate on the Mainland. Meanwhile, Jhamandas endowed Island educational institutions, including the University of Hawai‘i, Chaminade and Hawai‘i Pacific University, as well as the Honolulu Museum of Art, a special concern of Indru, Gulab’s wife.
Today there is only one store remaining, in Ala Moana Center. But, as sometimes happens with great families, just as things finally seem to be quieting down, a new generation flexes its muscles. Since the 1970s, Rann, currently president of Hawai‘i Film Partners, has partnered with his wife, Gina. They’ve developed software, helped spark the first solar energy wave, created the video-enabled security system for the airport and then segued into film and animation. Having honed their vision on projects for the Korean and Japanese markets, the couple will debut their latest series, Guardians of the Masks, on the Starz channel this fall.
Even their philanthropy has a tech edge: He’s director of Child & Family Service, which, along with its fostering and counseling programs, matches donated frozen embryos to prospective parents. More traditionally, for two decades he’s been president of the River of Life Foundation, supporting the Chinatown mission that feeds clothes and counsels the homeless.
In January 2017, Rann’s elder brother, David, president and CEO of biopharmaceutical startup Cardax, concluded an 11-year research effort with the market launch of a new anti-inflammatory compound, astaxanthin CDX-085. Faced with spending years and millions trying to gain Food and Drug Administration approval as a drug, Watumull led Cardax on a more direct path, marketing it as an over-the-counter supplement, ZanthoSyn. After obtaining the cooperation of 80 Hawai‘i physicians and health providers who successfully treated 100,000 patients, it was picked up by GNC for 29 stores in Hawai‘i, aiming for a national rollout.
Same year in March, David took the stage with UH John A. Burns School of Medicine scientists to announce an animal study showed the compound could also significantly increase the expression of a longevity gene, FOXO3. In June, the National Institutes of Health announced that it had selected ZanthoSyn for a key research program that will evaluate its anti-aging properties. This puts the product into a very elite club of compounds that have the potential to become true anti-aging therapies.