Photo by Rin TanakaGlenn Hughes was probably Kanvas By Katin's first independent distributor—lucky for him his mom never figured it out. It was one of those, uh, under-the-counter things, back when Glenn was in high school and felt like he needed a little extra money: “Mom,” he'd say—he slips into a calculating teenage whine to fit the story—”I need some new shorts. . . .” And since his mom was Sato Hughes, the lead seamstress for Nancy Katin, whose handmade Kanvas By Katin boardshorts invented an entire industry, little Glenn could get the best new boardshorts in the world.
Which he would then take to school and immediately sell—uh, sorry, mom—to his friends. But as it turned out, besides a short stint at the Arco on Fifth and PCH (“I was a petroleum-distribution engineer,” says Glenn), that little process would soon become Glenn Hughes' entire professional career: mom stitches the best boardshorts in the world, and Glenn sells them to his friends. And now to a lot of other people, too.
“We try to do the best we can,” he says, sitting at his desk in the backroom of the same shop that saw Kanvas By Katin start back in 1959, when a mythic Ur-Surfer asked boat-cover-makers Nancy and Walt Katin to stitch him a set of shorts that wouldn't rip and rot at sea. Those first prototypes had their quirks—”So rough on the nuts,” says Glenn, with troubling solemnity—but because they were boat canvas—thick and indestructible—they also lasted forever. When more and more surfers (including early Katin supporter Corky Carroll) came padding across the Surfside sand to the Katins' shop, Nancy recruited seamstress Sato Hughes (a Japanese-born former housekeeper for an Air Force colonel) in 1961 to meet demand. This was basically the birth of boardshorts, and although they're so familiar and popular now that people might not realize what they're designed for (the only explanation, Glenn says, shaking his head, as to why Katin has customers in Kansas), they started here in this little shop next to Sam's Seafood on PCH, with Glenn's mom (and Nancy and Walt and, at the company's peak, about 20 auxiliaries) pecking out every stitch by hand.
Which Sato still does, Glenn says, though she's down to eight pairs per day from her former record of 15. He thinks she's done about 30,000 pairs so far. The oldest still-active set he's seen belongs to one of those charcoaled old-soul surfers, a guy who stops in once every three or four years to have a seam or two tightened. He bought his pair of Katins back in the early '70s. Most people have to trade up to larger sizes—”The American waistline keeps growing,” Glenn laughs. “That's a good thing for us!”—but this guy still hasn't grown out of his Katins. Which is also a good thing for Glenn and his mom. There's a lot of loyalty to Katin, he says—an almost anachronistic amount, which fits Katin exactly.
There's something happily old-fashioned about Katin's in-the-family independence: Glenn matter-of-factly says he was like a kid to the childless Katins, who slyly began indoctrinating him into the business as early as 14, when Nancy had him watch her send a corporate carpetbagger chastised and embarrassed from her office. “I will not sell to you!” she cried, warning Glenn not to ever let anyone else get a hold of her company. And he hasn't: Katin doesn't sell to major department stores. They've had to buy their independence back out of two bad-news big-time deals—the last time, Glenn had to refinance his house to get the Katin brand back. And yet they've had record sales for 14 years. “Maybe it's the Katin aura,” he says. “Maybe we've been kissed by God.” And then in comes the famous Sato herself, in pearly owl glasses and a flowered shirt, flaps of brown canvas piled in her arms. Enough for eight pairs, at least. This is OCWeekly,says Glenn. They're going to write about us. But Sato doesn't stop on the way back to her sewing machine. “Hope it's something good!” she calls back through the hall.
“It is, Mom,” says Glenn.
KANVAS BY KATIN, 16250 PACIFIC COAST HWY., HUNTINGTON BEACH, (562) 592-2052; WWW.KANVASBYKATIN.COM. HANDMADE BOARDSHORTS START AT $39.99 AND COME WITH A LIFETIME GUARANTEE.