The Godmother of Surf Trunks

Sato Hughes at her trusty sewing machine.

Sato Hughes at her trusty sewing machine.

All around 85-year-old Sato Hughes, the landscape is shifting. Looking outside her sewing room window in the Katin Surf Shop, condos and strip malls have sprouted on Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach, California. The yellowed newspaper clippings pinned on her wall are relics of a bygone era. The kids working the cash register are young enough to be her grandchildren. And Hughes’ rhythmic pace from the cutting table to her foot pedaled sewing machine scuffles steadily, as she cuts and sews surf trunks no differently from the day she was hired by the Katin family back in 1961.

I recently shadowed Sato while she worked, with a mini film and camera crew in tow for a story in Without Walls. Katin smells like a real surf shop — surf wax and neoprene — and the parts of its never renovated decor is past the point of outdated, now charmingly vintage.

Katin is said to be one of the first brands in California to make trunks just for surfing. Opened by Walter and Nancy Katin in 1954 in Seal Beach, the Katin store started as a maker of canvas boat covers and sailcloths. Legend goes that around 1955 an unknown surfer came into the shop and asked the Katins if they could sew a pair of shorts out of sailcloth canvas to replace the cotton cut-offs that got destroyed in the saltwater.

“These [original surf trunks] were so strong and stiff they could actually stand up in the corner,” says Glenn Hughes, Sato’s son who grew up in the Katin shop since he was two-years-old. Word of the indestructible shorts spread through the surf line-up and the demand soon outpaced Nancy Katin’s ability to hand sew them all.

“In 1961 they hired their first seamstress. That happened to be my mom,” Glenn says. Sato was discovered at a nearby drycleaner working as an alterations expert. She was hired on the spot.

“[The Katins] didn’t have any kids so I became their surrogate child,” Glenn says. “They used to go on vacation and took my mom and myself. We were all just one big happy family.”

When Nancy Katin passed away in 1986, she willed the business to Sato. In honor of the Katin legacy, Glenn continues the traditions of the past. Five days a week you can still walk into the shop and get measured by Sato for a pair of custom surf trunks. Though Sato’s hearing is fading, her memory lights up at familiar face.

“Oh I remember you!” she exclaims to a customer who has returned for a second pair of custom baggies. She loops her measuring tape around his waist, pulls it taut, and sends him to the dressing room with a pair of shorts off-the-rack to see how they fit.

Being personally measured by Sato feels like you're back in grade school and your mom peeks in the dressing room at the department store. When I got measured, she jiggles at my waist, told me I was a child size and advised her expert opinion. "I think that’s better because when you sit you need room. Is that comfortable or too tight?" she asks. She scribbled down my waist and desired leg inseam measurements onto a carbon copy order ticket.

“What color material do you like? Come here,” and we walk to the back room of the shop with all the fabric bolts. She gestures to the stack of fabric bolts in a rainbow of hues. After I made my choice, she snipped a swatch of the fabric and staples it to the order ticket.

Back in Sato’s sewing room, she picks up an unfinished pair of floral printed trunks and her nimble wrinkled fingers slide the waist opening under her sewing machine needle.

“Only mine has this,” she points to the patch that reads “Custom Made Kanvas by Katin. Surfside, California.” The embroidered patch is a signature for solely Sato’s needlework. “They never bring back because lifetime guarantee all sewing,” Sato explains. Her broken English and Japanese accent annunciates each syllable in a staccato.

When getting personally measured by Sato in Huntington Beach is out of reach, the Katin clothing brand is the next best thing. Based on the same patterns drafted by Walter Katin in the 1950s, the nylon and canvas sailcloth trunks are modern adaptations of the originals worn by surfing pioneers.

“Watching Sato work, you see how diligent she is, and how dedicated to the craft that she is,” says Jason Rodriguez, creative director of the Katin men’s license clothing. “She really pays attention to every stitch and detail that she puts into the trunks. That’s something I’ve seen first-hand and can put it into what I do. I would want [Sato and the Katin family] to be proud of what we create from start to finish, inside and out.”

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