The man who transformed T-shirts from underwear into fashion – Rick Ralston; Crazy Shirts Inc

Sharon Nelton

The Man Who Transformed T-Shirts From Underwear Into Fashion

He has been called the T-shirt king of America and the father of the modern T-shirt. And although he says of such encomiums that they are “not that important to me,” Frederick Carleton “Rick” Ralston, 49, doesn’t deny their accuracy.

Thirty years ago, Ralston spray-painted a design on a T-shirt, turning it from underwear into fashion and launching a mass passion for T-shirts that just won’t die. His company, Crazy Shirts Inc., in suburban Honolulu, comprises two factories and 42 retail stores in Hawaii and on the mainland. It takes in $65 million a year–twice the revenues of just five years ago.

Ralston’s entrepreneurial odyssey began in the summer of 1960, when he was a skinny teenager just out of high school in Montebello, Calif. He and a buddy known as “Crazy Arab” headed for Santa Catalina Island to spray-paint designs on beach towels and sell them. “I practiced on an old T-shirt, doing an ugly monster shape,” recalls Ralston. “I wore it down the street, and a tourist stopped me and bought it off my back for his daughter.”

“Forget beach towels,” he told Crazy Arab. “We’re going into the T-shirt business.”

They set up shop on the sidewalk. Tourists had to buy their own blank T-shirts from a local sporting-goods shop, and Ralston and Crazy Arab embelished them with depictions of monsters, surfers, or hot rods at $2.85 apiece, sometimes making as much as $100 a day.

Two years later, after another summer on Catalina and two years studying automotive design at the Los Angeles Art Center School of Design, Ralston thought he’d try his luck with T-shirts on the sidewalks of Waikiki. He fell under Hawaii’s spell and decided to stay. The summer’s tourism season had put enough money in his pockets, he says, “to pay rent, buy a bag of rice, do a little surfing, chase girls, and do the things that young men 20 years old do.”

In 1964, he opened a tiny shop in the bustling Waikiki bazaar known as the International Market Place. It was called Ricky’s Crazy Shirts, and, to Ralston’s knowledge, it was the first store anywhere devoted exclusively to T-shirts and sweatshirts. For greater speed, he turned from spray-painting to screen-printing the designs.

In 1970, Crazy Shirts, as it was called by then, expanded with a second shop in Honolulu’s Ala Moana shopping center, and Ralston began to get his first competitors. “All of a sudden there were T-shirt shops opening every place,” he says.

But most of them applied their designs with heat transfers. “We never did that,” says Ralston, explaining that heat transfers tend to crack and peel. Even before the competition came along, he says, he wanted to “upgrade the image of underwear” and make T-shirts the best they could be, with the best artwork and “the finest T-shirt that I could get.”

When he started out, he bought plain T-shirts at retail from J.C. Penney. As he grew, he was able to buy direct from the manufacturer. And when his volume grew large enough to enable him to specify what he wanted, he ordered shirts of heavier weight than most T-shirts, with more stitches per inch, more tailoring, and Lycra fibers in collars and cuffs so they would hold their shape after repeated washing.

The company’s shirts still sport an occasional hot rod or surfer, but they are more likely to portray fishing boats and porpoises. Among the most popular designs are those featuring the late B. Kliban’s famous cat–as lifeguard, surfer, or fitness nut.

Ralston says that his business decisions are guided by three factors, with about 60 percent of the weight going to what he calls image, or “offering the best possible product so that our customer is going to think well of our product and our service.”

The next 30 percent is personnel, under which he considers such questions as: How is the decision going to affect the company’s 750 employees? Are they going to feel positive about it? Is it going to create an undue workload?

Profit is given a 10 percent weight. “You can’t carry on if you don’t make a profit,” Ralston acknowledges, but he adds that Crazy Shirts’ experience indicates that “if you have the image and you’ve got happy people,” the profit will follow.

Crazy Shirts now comes under the umbrella of a parent company called Ralston Enterprises. Ralston has expanded to a number of other ventures, including one that acquires and restores historic properties.

Ralston admits to being a “Type A” personality. But he has chosen to live in a “Type B” environment, where the spirit of aloha–with its complex meanings of welcome, love, caring, and respect–holds sway.

Does that spirit affect the way Ralston manages?

“It sure does,” he says, explaining that he sees Hawaii’s management style as more laid-back, more patient with people, and more caring about them.

Although he is still “an aggressive, assertive, let’s-get-it-done kind of person,” Ralston says, he has learned to temper himself.

“We should enjoy our work,” he says. “We should enjoy life. That’s the first thing. Business should support that.”

PHOTO : Rick Ralston took a casual idea–spray-painting designs on T-shirts–to Hawaii 28 years ago. Now his company takes in $65 million a year.

COPYRIGHT 1991 U.S. Chamber of Commerce

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

You May Also Like

The decision to franchise – includes list of issues to consider before becoming a franchisor

The decision to franchise – includes list of issues to consider before becoming a franchisor – Franchising: Special Guide Roberta Maynard<…

Getting Control Of All The Paper

Getting Control Of All The Paper – document management systems for small business Tim McCollum Document-management software and oth…

Changing Our Look – the December 1998 issue of Nation’s Business magazine

Changing Our Look – the December 1998 issue of Nation’s Business magazine – Brief Article Producing a more visually appealing magazine is…

Fighting for limits on an IRS plan – opposition to proposal to tax earnings of limited partners and limited-liability company members

Fighting for limits on an IRS plan – opposition to proposal to tax earnings of limited partners and limited-liability company members – Taxation…