In 1954, Nancy and Walter Katin opened a small boat cover business called Kanvas by Katin in Surfside, California, just north of Huntington Beach. Walter, a seemingly endlessly friendly man, was short, robust, and wore powder-blue jumpsuits zipped up to the neck. His nickname was “Captain” because of the captain’s hat that donned his head, his passion for the ocean and because he was the captain of his boat “The Southern Seas”. He was the craftsman while Nancy, his wife, was the salesperson. Though she stood less than 5 feet tall, she had a personality far larger than her stature and a mind as bright as her red hair. She too had a never-ending supply of enthusiasm and positivity.
Their canvas boat covers were practically bulletproof, using hundred-pound-test, waxed-nylon thread and nickel grommets. They had to be durable as the ocean and it’s effects - salt, wind, water - eroded lesser materials quickly. The “Captain” made a few custom boat shorts for select friends but focused on creating the best canvas boat covers and sails that he could for locals.
That changed in 1957 when a young man in his early teens who lived across the street, a wave rider or “surfer,” walked into Walter Katin’s shop to ask for a new kind of short, made specifically for surfing and using the same indestructible canvas he used for his covers. When out on his board, the surfer would wear cut off jeans but found the threads would unravel quickly. It wasn’t uncommon for him to exit the water after a surfing session half naked. That alleged teenager’s name was Corky Carroll, and he would go on to be one of the first professional surfers. The custom surf trunks that Walter made for Corky would become one of if not the first ever surf trunks made in California.
Walter’s store was near a surfboard shop run by young surfers, and the canvas trunks worked so well for Corky that word of mouth drove many local surfers to Walter Katin’s door asking for their own custom trunks. Walter obligingly would measure each individually when they came into his shop and then make specifically tailored surf trunks for the surfers. Eventually, enough people were asking for trunks that he hired two seamstresses to help him keep up with demand.
The sport of surfing reached mainstream popularity in the mid-1960s with the help of the film and television show Gidget and the music of the Beach Boys. And by then, the Katins were firmly entrenched in the surfing community and creating the best surf trunks around.
Shaun Tomson, Peter Townsend, Reno Abillero, Gerry Lopez and many other championship surfers at the time wore Katin not because they were paid to (which they weren’t) but because they loved both the shorts and Walter and Nancy.
Even as big corporate brands like Quicksilver began to move in to mass produce boardshorts and pay surfers to wear their clothing, Katin’s popularity remained steady. (Look closely at the iconic Quicksilver photo featuring Eddie Aikau; he was actually wearing Katin surf trunks.)
The couple helped sponsor early California surf contests and organizations, including starting the "Katin Underdog Contest" for competitors who had never won a contest. When Walter died in 1967, Nancy didn’t just kept the business going, she expanded her involvement in the surf world by providing surfing scholarships and starting the Katin Pro/Am Team Challenge in 1977. The annual Pro/Am held at the Huntington Beach Pier featured not just a competition with the world’s best surfers, but a showcase for the hot young kids from beaches all over the United States. It also gave them the rare opportunity to surf side-by-side with their heroes.
By the early 1980s, the popularity of surf wear began to skyrocket, and many other manufactures were quick to take advantage of the trend, aggressively attacking the market with advertising and worldwide promotional blitzes. Though there were overtures made to Nancy to sell her business, she was content to keep Katin low-key. She continued to make the surf trunks in the back room of the Surfside store, selling them up front and relying on the existing loyal network of surf shops for additional distribution.
Over time Nancy Katin became known as the “First Lady of Surfing,” not just because of her quality clothing, but because she befriended the surfers and became their second mom. When she began in the 1950s and into the early 1960s surfing wasn’t a fashionable sport. It certainly wasn’t cool. In fact, those kids who jumped on a board and caught waves in the ocean were considered weirdoes and beachcombers. But Nancy made sure that Katin’s small surf shop had a counter, with a couch and a few chairs, so Nancy could sit there and talk to the local kids about anything and everything.
"In 1986 Nancy Katin passed on. Although they were like parents to a generation of surfers, the Katins never had any children of their own"
Nancy left the business to her loyal friend and seamstress, Sato Hughes, who had begun sewing trunks for the Katins back in 1961.
Along with her son Glenn, Sato continued to run the Katin operation in the same low-key manner. They focused on the retail store, and the keeping the quality of the Katin surf trunks they produced the best they could be.
"Quality, durability and good looks has long been the Katin motto and it’s our attention to detail which continues to separate Katin from the rest of the surfing pack."
The Katin quality remains better than ever. Walt and Nancy wouldn't have it any other way.