Kanvas by Katin was mainland America’s first go-to surf trunk brand. The store, located in Surfside, California, opened in 1956, and was owned and operated by Nancy Katin and her husband, Walter. They began making trunks in 1959—heavy-duty, rip-proof trunks that, when new, could stand upright on the floor after you took them off. “They were so strong and lasted so long,” Corky Carroll wrote in 2007, “that some of those early pairs are no doubt still alive and well today.”
At first, Walter himself did the sewing. As the business grew, Katin hired seamstresses, and the best of the lot was a nimble-fingered woman named Sato Hughes, who had arrived from Japan just a few months earlier. The years passed. Walter died in 1967. The company’s fortunes went up and down, but never out. Sato remained. When Nancy died in 1986, she left Kanvas by Katin to Sato, who still owns it today, along with her son Glenn Hughes. At age 89, Sato is still making Katins.
In 2005, Ben Marcus drove to the Katin store and interviewed Glenn Hughes about Walter and Nancy, Sato, and the Katin legacy.
* * *
Can we go through there, into the backroom where they sew?
Sure. Start this way. It was a little different from when I was a kid. There was a wall right here, you can still see the line on the floor. My mom’s sewing machine was here. This whole area was filled with sewing machines at one time.
How many sewers did they employ at the most?
How many pairs of trunks a day do you think each woman was doing?
Probably the slow ones could make eight pair, the fast ones 12 to 14. My mom would do 19 or 20.
Is that a grommet puncher?
Yeah, Walter bought this used in ’64.
And it’s still in use?
Still in use.
That photo of the guy in the hat there on the wall . . . is that Walter?
Everybody called him Cap because he loved boats.
And this picture is your mom?
That’s my mom. with Claude Codgen. That’s taken in 1967, just a few months before Walter passed away.
How far back does Katin go as a business?
The company started somewhere in the early- to mid-’50s. It was called Kanvas by Katin, but it was just boat covers and sails.
Were they in this same building?
It was another building, just down the way. My mom might know. But if I remember correctly, the postmaster here at Surfside showed me a form from 1964 when Walter applied for a PO Box. So they probably moved here in 1964.
Where were they from?
Somewhere back east, that’s all I know. Nancy was the business person. Walter was the happy-go-lucky nice guy who actually sewed. Nancy never sewed. A lot of people think Nancy did the sewing, but she took the measurements and handled the business side.
Corky Carroll claims that surfer who talked the Katins into making trunks was none other than Corky Carroll.
I’m not sure. All I know is, in the late ’50s a surfer asked them to make a pair of trunks out of heavy canvas. The canvas then was not like the canvas we wear now, it was really stiff and hard. So Nancy drew a pattern and made a pair of trunks, and that guy told his buddies, and so on and so forth. In 1961 they hired a little Japanese lady named Sato, just to make the custom trunks.
Where did your mom come from?
Japan. My father was in the Air Force and they met in Japan. I was born in 1959 on an air force base. First we moved to New Jersey, then we moved here to Seal Beach, and my mom got a little job at a dry cleaners. Walter and Nancy Katin came in one day and started talking with my mom. They liked her and hired her on the spot and she’s been working here ever since.
She still works?
She still works. Today is her day off.
Wow. Quite a work ethic.
Oh God yes. She just turned 77.
When did Katin first take off as a company?
In the early- or mid-’60s, but it was probably biggest in early ’70s, before Quiksilver got started. Katin was shipping product all around the world. Like I said, at one time Nancy had 20 sewers.
She was a tough little bird, wasn’t she?
She was. And yes, she was really little!
Did your mom buy the company?
Nancy left it to my mom.
That’s a nice gift.
Walter and Nancy didn’t have kids. The closest thing they had to a kid was me.
Did you go to college or study business?
A little bit, but it wasn’t my thing. I learned business at the feet of Nancy the Great. I remember sitting in a chair, right over there. This was summer, and I was 14, so that would be 1974. This guy in a nice suit comes in to talk to Nancy, and she says, ‘Oh don’t mind him”—pointing to me—”he won’t say a word.” The guy in the suit was a buyer from May Company, who wanted to buy Nancy’s shorts. Nancy listens, and then just reads him the riot act. “I ain’t never gonna to sell to you. You’re going to give me a good price now, then next year you’ll knock it down, a little bit more the year after, then a little more, and we’ll be making these trunks for nothing. I don’t even want to start with this thing, so just get out of here and don’t come back.”
So the guy leaves, she turns and points a little bony finger at me and says, “What that guy wanted to do, don’t you ever let it happen.” So she knew when I was 14 that eventually I’d be running this place.
Your mom ran it for a few years until you were ready?
For the last few years of her life, Nancy was incapacitated. She couldn’t move or do anything but she would call in like eight or ten times a day. But yeah, my mom ran the shop.
Mike Doyle wrote a story about Catalina Sportswear buying Katin in ’60s for a little while, and he said it was a disaster.
It was a disaster. They were going to cheapen the product, and Nancy saw that. She had a clause in the contract saying that in six months, if she didn’t like how they were running the company, she could buy it right back.
Did Catalina actually produce some Katin trunks?
I think they did, but not many.
Was it called Katin by Catalina?
I don’t know.
Doyle said Nancy paid quite a bit to buy it back.
I don’t know that either, but I do know that Catalina paid $75,000 to buy Katin. Except they didn’t get the building or anything, just the name.
Was Nancy at least brought on as a consultant, or were they out of the thing completely?
Nancy was out, but my mom was the one showing them how to make the trunks. I remember my mom flew off to Utah, where the Catalina sewers were. She went back for a full week to show them how she made the Katin trunks. They said, “So how long does it take you to make a pair of trunks?” Mom said, “About 20 minutes.” They didn’t believe her. “No way, nobody can make a pair of those trunks that fast.” My mom told me later that it was kind of hard because she was dressed in nice clothes, and had to use a sewing machine she’d never used before, but she punched out a pair of trunks in like 21 minutes.
So there was the Catalina deal in the ’60s that didn’t work, and then in the ’90s there was another attempt to take Katin big again.
In 1991, Bill Sharp and Rick Lohr came to me and I signed a licensee deal. They started building the thing up and everything was going really well until demand got too great and they couldn’t finance the demand.
Jim Jenks [former CEO of Op] calls that “crossing the street.”
Then K2 got involved, and that didn’t go well, and long story short I ended up running it myself.
Katin is a semi-thriving concern now, yes?
The retail shop does well. Everybody thinks I’m worth millions. I’m not.
Most of us aren’t.
I don’t do this because I’m going to make a mint. I do it because I love the industry.
Why has Katin never gone big?
I mean, how big is big? Do I want to be a Quiksilver? No. Not at all. I want to be able to service and stay with hardcore local shops, all the time.
Is Katin doing $20 million a year?
No, not even close. I do a good business here, but $20 million, that’s huge.
I can’t believe your mom is taking an entire day off. Is she lazy or something?
All my mom does now is custom sewing. The old-style trunks. The same trunks she was making 40 years ago, with the snap fly and the wax pocket. She’ll do 10 or 12 pair over the weekend, probably.
What is this fabric here? What’s it made of?
It’s a poly-cotton blend. We’ve been using that fabric for years. This is what came after the canvas. It was still really stiff and strong.
But it wouldn’t rub you the wrong way.
Not like the original stuff. Nothing I would have here today compares to that original canvas.