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Blast from past recalls origins of Crazy Shirts

  • COURTESY PHOTO
    Herbert Awaya and Rick Ralston hold up a sweatshirt that Ralston airbrushed nearly 50 years ago for Awaya.
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For nearly 50 years, Herbert Awaya held on to an old sweatshirt, the one piece of clothing that reminded him of his youth.

"People look at me today and would never say, ‘You look like a surfer.’"

But surf he did, at Canoes and Queen’s Surf in Waikiki, and emerging from the water at a time when there were no high-rises on Kalakaua Avenue, he would look across the boulevard at the handful of artists airbrushing shirts for tourists.

One day, he stopped to have a sweatshirt custom-painted for himself, and on Nov. 2, he hand delivered the shirt, signed "Ricky 1962," to its creator, Crazy Shirts founder Rick Ralston.

His timing could not have been better, as Ralston prepared to launch his newest clothing venture, Rix Island Wear, which opened its doors two weeks ago in the middle of Ward Warehouse.

"I told him I was sorry it wasn’t in better shape, but he thought it was in great condition, considering it’s 48 years old," said Awaya. "I actually didn’t wear it too often because it had my name spray painted in front in orange.

"Awhile back, I saw a story about Crazy Shirts and how Rick Ralston got his start, and I started to wonder if he was the one who did my shirt, but I didn’t want to bother him. He might think, ‘Here’s this kook.’"

But eventually, Awaya said, his wife pestered him to get rid of things he didn’t need.

"Only half of me could get into it anyway," he said, so he tracked Ralston down through the Internet, and to his surprise, Ralston wanted to see the shirt and recognized his "Quasimodo" design right away, featuring a surfer with his head down and one arm straight out.

"That was my first year in Hawaii," said Ralston, who got his start selling shirts to tourists in 1960 on Catalina Island. There, he met a girl from Hawaii who invited him to come over and check out Oahu.

"I thought, it’s a resort island, too, why not give it a try?"

Ralston said he wasn’t a surfer when he arrived, but, hard to believe today, tourism was seasonal in the 1960s, and after Labor Day, business plunged. "You could shoot a cannon down Kalakaua and not hit anybody," he said.

That gave him time to learn to surf and ply his trade downtown, where military personnel were also fans of his humorous, surf and hotrod designs.

"I didn’t need much. If I had a bag of rice I was all set," Ralston said. "I’d paint one shirt one day, two the next, and the business started taking off. It evolved into screen-printing, which allowed mass production."

Although there’s a promotional poster on Rix’s wall from a 1964 concert featuring Jan & Dean, the Rivingtons, Peter & Gordon, the Kingsmen and seven other acts, with tickets advertised at $2 and $3, Ralston said he didn’t go to the concert. "I don’t think I had $2," he said.

The first Crazy Shirts store was a temporary one in International Market Place during the summer of 1963, intended to shut down at the end of the tourism season. Today, we’d call it a pop-up store. The rest is history.

The sweatshirt he painted for Awaya had been a source of good memories over the years, although he doesn’t know what made him buy that shirt.

"I was 21 years old. I didn’t have too much money for clothes," Awaya said. "I was more concerned about eating. In those days, we didn’t care about clothes. We were happy if we had a clean T-shirt and rubber slippers. As long as the T-shirt didn’t have a hole in it, you were doing pretty good."

He’s worn many a Crazy Shirt over the years, although these days, he’s careful to avoid those with funny sayings.

"I don’t want people thinking, ‘Look at that old man. He’s lost his mind.’"

 

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