Staying close all through high school, even attending the same university, the pair drifted into ‘serious’ jobs but both dreamed of doing something with their mutual passion. However, neither was interested in opening a vintage clothes store, or creating faithful reproductions of classic 1940s and 1950s Hawaiian shirts. Mike and Chris were convinced that in the right hands, this iconic trans-Pacific garment, which fuses Japanese tailoring with Californian surf culture and Polynesian influences, could find a place in the modern wardrobe that was not merely retro or tongue-in-cheek ironic. For Sard and Galasso, the Hawaiian shirt is “the ultimate wearable form of self-expression”.
Finally, after a long period of testing the market and trialing prototype shirts, the pair launched Tombolo in the summer of 2018. The brand took off almost immediately, striking a chord with clients who felt hemmed in by the diktats that the fashion world applies even to items as casual as tracksuits and straw hats. Tombolo put the fun back into summer beach fashion, but Chris and Mike also did plenty of historical and iconographical research to root their reboot of the Hawaiian shirt in solid ground, while seeking out young artists and illustrators like Ana Leovy or Amber Vittoria to give the collection a refreshing, contemporary spin.
In 2019, Tombolo added a range of camp-collar cabana shirts and matching shorts in terry cotton to their range, embroidered with quirky flora or fauna, from lobsters to flamingos and exotic fungi. These too have proved to be a huge hit – both with men and women, who account for almost half of the brand’s sales despite the fact that the boxy, unisex sizes are styled more for the male physique.
Le Sirenuse had been on Chris Galasso’s style radar for years. A fan of the resort, he also admired the way in which Carla Sersale’s Emporio Sirenuse brand had taken the dolce vita legend of Positano and translated it into a contemporary resortwear line that dipped into Amalfi Coast art and design history and made it new – in much the same way that he and Mike were referencing and refreshing the culture surrounding mid-century Aloha shirts. A New York connection with Francesco Sersale, younger son of Carla and Antonio Sersale, led Tombolo to propose an ‘odd couple’ collaboration between Tombolo and Le Sirenuse. Francesco was enthusiastic, and to Chris and Mike’s joy, Carla and Antonio also embraced the idea.
Emporio Sirenuse has chosen the launch of the Tombolo capsule to inaugurate IL NEGOZIO Le Sirenuse: a small, curated collection of Le Sirenuse hotel merchandise, running parallel with Emporio Sirenuse’s fashion and lifestyle lines, that pins its colours on the hotel’s reputation as an arbiter of style and relaxed chic. IL NEGOZIO will be enriched and refreshed regularly by forthcoming collaborations with artists and brands whose work and aesthetic we love.
Currently, alongside the Tombolo cabanas and shorts, it also includes a pair of t-shirts and an ashtray by French artist and designer Louis Barthélemy, a beach towel by Pierre Marie, plates and mugs by young British talent Luke Edward Hall, and editions of some of the items that have become style totems for generations of visitors to Le Sirenuse – among them our legendary brass mermaid keyrings, here recast in a lighter key fob version, and those cute straw beach bags that transform a saunter through Positano’s lanes into a dolce vita film shoot.
Earlier this week, the Sirenuse Journal sat down with Tombolo co-founders Chris Galasso and Mike Sard to talk about the birth of the brand, the inspirations behind the range, and how the Le Sirenuse collaboration arose.
Read the interview below, and shop the Tombolo capsule collection now at Emporio Sirenuse.
So how did you both meet?
Chris & Mike
We met long, long ago at a small all boys’ school on the upper west side of New York City. We were six years old, and westayed together all the way through high school. As if that weren't enough, we even went to university together after that! We're very lucky to work together. It's rare to be given the opportunity to do a job you love with your best friend.
What was your aim in setting up Tombolo?
Chris & Mike
Our aim has always been to bring pieces into the world that transport the wearer to a different time, place or state of mind. Nothing brings us more joy than the smiles we see spread over customers' faces when they put on a Tombolo. And while our aim is to chase smiles with whimsical, often irreverent designs, we still strive to ground the brand in a commitment to sustainability and social responsibility. We have always sought to run the business responsibly without being overbearing or too serious about it.
If you were to communicate the spirit of Tombolo via a multimedia moodboard, what would be on it?
Chris & Mike
Our inspiration is all over the place ... some might say scattered, but I prefer to call it "eclectic"! The common thread is that we like to draw from the past, but always add a creative twist to update those references for the present. We have an expression for this – "Don't get dusty exploring the attic."
Our latest mood boards feature a rambling assortment of references from different places and times: antique yacht club burgees, airline steward uniforms from the '50s and '60s, Russian and Japanese matchbox labels, Asafo flags from Ghana, and old lobster bibs from Cape Cod. As natives of New York City – the ultimate melting pot – we love to put all sorts of different cultural references into the proverbial sartorial 'blender' and see what comes out.
How did the collaboration with Le Sirenuse happen?
I originally met Francesco Sersale years ago in New York City because he is good friends with my wife's younger brother. I've always been enchanted by Le Sirenuse and Positano, so I reached out about doing something together in a very open-ended way. To my surprise, Francesco embraced the idea whole-heartedly and was tireless in bringing the concept to fruition alongside us.
Chris & Mike
It's an unlikely marriage between a young American brand and a storied European brand, but the marriage blossomed into a really charismatic capsule we're so excited to release to the world. Francesco's mother Carla has an amazing eye and creative wit that brought the designs to life. For instance, on our long-sleeve cabana, it was Carla who suggested having the mermaid peek out from behind the stripes to beckon the onlooker to the underwater party at Le Sirenuse.
Tell me about Cabana shirts and sets and what fascinates you about them.
Chris & Mike
The cabana set first became popular at pools and beaches in the USA and Europe in the 1940s and '50s. Back then, men's fashion was pretty somber; think shades of gray and brown. Cabana sets offered men a rare opportunity to wear outfits at play on vacation that would normally be more suited for children – think plush terry cloth, matching sets and zipper closures. They have a very relatable nostalgia for us, while at the same time serving as the perfect canvas for playful story-telling. We like to embroider motifs that emerge from the pockets and interact with each other – for instance, an alligator poking his head out of a pocket to stalk a flamingo. The result is a get up that lets you feel like a kid again.
Talk me through the design process of this capsule collection – the choice of textile, the colors, the embroidered mermaids and that funky fish…
Chris & Mike
We immersed ourselves in the colors, textures and symbols of Le Sirenuse to brainstorm the collection. For instance, the mint color we used on one of the cabana sets is drawn from the tablecloths on the terrace of Le Sirenuse's restaurant, La Sponda. For the reds, we of course used the famous Pompeian Red that features on the exterior of the hotel, and the blues were selected to evoke the intense, happy blue of the Mediterranean.
As for the motifs that adorn the shirts, we would be remiss not to include ‘le sirenuse’ or the Sirens that are said to inhabit the islands you see from the hotel's balconies. We drew upon older representations of these playful mermaids from the hotel's archives that tended to be a bit more tongue-and-cheek. We also included a cheerful looking fish on a hook and line slung over the wearer's shoulder for a shirt we envisioned as a boat-day uniform.
Throughout all of this, we worked to find the right balance between joyousness and elegance – a tightrope the hotel has walked with casual confidence for 70 years.
Photos © Mariam Wo Ching
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