Friday, November 27, 2015         

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The t-shirt: 100 years of evolution

By Mike Gordon


In this, the 100th birthday year of the T-shirt, it seems fitting that the T-shirt king was wearing one when he stepped onto the porch of his Round Top home.

But Rick Ralston, who turned T-shirts into a canvas of self-expression for millions of people, has never shied away from making a statement. So he trumped the centennial by wearing a T-shirt with his name on the chest.

No celebration would be complete without acknowledging Ralston, the 71-year-old founder of Crazy Shirts, and the fashion statement he made to the world in the early 1960s. They went from skivvies to art, from something you never saw to a platform for protest slogans and advertising, from something at the bottom of your dresser drawers to a treasured souvenir you can't part with. 

"It's gone from plain underwear to being acceptable outerwear," Ralston said. "Now it's odd to see a blank T-shirt on anybody these days."

According to CustomInk, the online T-shirt design company leading the centennial celebration, the U.S. Navy began issuing white T-shirts in 1913. Now an estimated 95 percent of Americans wear T-shirts. Perhaps more amazing: Nine out of 10 Americans own a T-shirt they refuse to part with because it has sentimental value.

Ralston believes people in Hawaii wear T-shirts more often than anywhere else.

"We're one of the most casual places in the U.S.," he said. "And the weather is perfect, and it's extremely acceptable and a natural and comfortable thing."

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Ralston's story is well known. He arrived in Hawaii in 1962 and sold hand-painted shirts on the sidewalk in Waikiki. The next year, he opened Ricky's Crazy Shirts in the International Market Place.

From there, as his company evolved to become Crazy Shirts, business exploded to more than $90 million in annual sales in the mid-1990s.

Ralston, who left the company in 2000 and serves as a consultant, estimates Crazy Shirts has sold more than 100 million T-shirts. The designs ranged from surf slogans to humorous (but fake) company logos. The Kliban Cat series of fat felines was hugely popular.

Through the years, as the public embraced the new uniform of casual, Crazy Shirts spawned thousands of imitators. T-shirts with clever designs sell just about everywhere.

"It would be interesting to know how many imprinted T-shirts there are," Ralston said. "A million a day? Five million a day? I have no idea."

Some of them have been Grant Kagimoto's Cane Haul Road T-shirts, inspired in 1977 by a humorous take on Hawaii's multi-ethnic food, cultural themes and pidgin expressions. One of his more popular series of designs turned musubi into characters.

"We were saying this was a unique and special culture, and it needs to be celebrated," Kagimoto said. "My guess is it was a question of identity -- seeing the Hawaii we grew up with slowly slipping away and trying to hang onto it in any way we can."

The 65-year-old Kagimoto has always wanted his shirts to be part of a conversation between the wearer and those who see the message. But he ran into problems with that, he said.

"Iprefer to print the design on the front, but local people want the design on the back because they are shy and modest," he said. "Locally, if it is on the front of the shirt and they look at the caption and they look at your face, they have a direct connection. Local people don't want to be confronted that way."

The designs that spark conversation are always changing, but the goal among those who wear T-shirts remains the same: Stand apart from the crowd.

Daniel Ng, the 32-year-old owner of the custom T-shirt company Blank Canvas on Bethel Street, said some designs have taken that to extremes.

"Before, you wouldn't see a risque design, like girls in lingerie, or even words that are profane," he said. "But now it's pretty much more acceptable."

At In4mation in Chinatown and Pearlridge, the shop's line of graphic T-shirts was inspired by trendy urban designs from major cities such as New York and Tokyo, said Jun Jo, one of the store's four owners. 

Initially the shop sold mostly to artists and musicians, but about five years ago surfers and skaters started buying shirts and business "blew up," the 40-year-old Jo said.

"I feel our shirts give a person who wears them a feeling, and that feeling is individualism," Jo said. "That's where our niche is. It's like their identity."

The t-shirt king doesn't think that today's designs are too outrageous or controversial. (Remember, his original designs included "Smoke Marijuana," "Fly the Friendly Skies of Vietnam" and a guy with a mouth full of vomit.)

Occasionally, though, something raises an eyebrow with Ralston. He takes it in stride.

"It's an expression of free speech," he said. "That was one of our mottos: Get it off your mind and on your chest. Express yourself."


Whether it’s from a family reunion, a sporting event or concert, or a favorite slogan or design, almost everyone has a T-shirt they just can’t part with. Put on your sentimental favorite and email a photo to us at We’ll post them in the features section or as they come in.

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