In the early ’00s it was totally okay to wear head-to-toe surfer brands, even if you had never set foot on a beach. You could wear Quiksilver with a wooden beaded necklace, maybe some Mambo cargo shorts and still be valid, cool, even. The goal was to look like a surfer, not actually be one. It speaks a lot about the inauthenticity of fashion trends but that’s another story for another time.
The surfer-bubble was dominated by a few big labels, Australia’s “big three”; Quiksilver, Billabong and Rip Curl, as well as California brand Volcom. All four brands established a visual identity that played up to the idea that looking like a surfer was inherently desirable, and it was. The popularity of a few high-profile surfers like Kelly Slater helped to further this -they even had video games. As popular as it was, dressing to meet the cultural dimensions of the beach with flip flops, board shorts and frosted tips (yikes) had nothing to do with fashion. Perhaps that’s why it couldn’t sustain its growth. Following years of declining sales, Billabong filed for bankruptcy in 2014, along with Quiksilver. So why did these brands wipe out?
Firstly, the growth of competing new retailers fostered a dramatic new approach to fashion, flipping the industry on its head. Fast-fashion empires like H&M and Zara could now target young customers with a more disposable, trend-focused consumerism.
Along with new competition in the IRL retail space, it can’t be ignored that the dissolution of the millennium’s big surf-wear brands was also due to the internet exposing a Pandora’s box of subcultures to the world. It meant you could, in theory, identify however you want. Suddenly the carefree appeal of performative surf-wear paled in comparison to stanning your favorite band or streetwear label. As a final nail in the coffin, the cultural attachments of a laid back “surfer dude/chick” were crumbling too. What was an iconic look for the counter-cultural movements of the ’60s had aged quite badly, into the very middle-aged dads looking like shit in an old Billabong tee.
But before we start exploring why surf-wear is critically overdue a comeback, we need to talk about Stüssy and streetwear’s underpinning connections to surfing.
The OG streetwear label, and precursor to streetwear culture as we know it, found its genesis with surfing. In an interview with WWD in 1993, Shawn Stüssy (an avid surfer) explains how the iconic logo was first seen on a surfboard.
“I’ve made surfboards since I was 13. In the late 1979, I scribbled my name on the boards. It was seen as ‘new wave,’ anarchic. I had the logo screen-printed on T-shirts and sweatshirts, but it had nothing to do with producing clothes. I was trying to promote the boards. A couple of my buddies and I used to go to the Army-Navy surplus stores and buy size 40 khakis and cut them off way up at the knees. Everybody used to say, ‘Those are fly!’— so we started making them. My mom made a pattern off of them. We started taking orders, and in 1985 I took on my partner, Frank. The surfboards went by the wayside, and the clothes took over.”
Earlier this year, Stüssy re-released some of their archive T-shirts in Dover Street Market, including an infamous “Charlie Don’t Surf” graphic featuring a print of Chairman Mao with the classic line from Apocalypse Now underneath. The brand even took their annual International Stüssy Gathering to surfing-haven Bali this year.
Surfing and the culture surrounding it was indicative of the anti-authoritarian and underground values that would become a foundation of streetwear. Although, as the culture picked up momentum, surfing was superseded by skateboarding, which held more cultural capital in the big cities where streetwear labels and fashion circles were thriving. The associations to surf culture wilted, but the cyclical nature of fashion means that everything comes back around – and it should, surfing as a stand-alone sport still looks cool AF.
In this post-modern fashion landscape of irony, sportswear and a myriad brands showing up all over the world, some are laying down the foundations for surfwear’s big comeback.
Here’s a rundown of the brands that are making some, er, big waves right now.
Ex Infinitas comes from Australian designer Lukas Vincent, who is arguably leading the way in repurposing surfer aesthetics into interesting, wearable clothing that has been compared to Vetements on more than once occasion. Although comparisons to Vetements aren’t always necessarily a good thing, in this case the abstract designs and unusual materials are all tied in under a vision that channels the ‘bad taste’ bogan culture and rogue surfer sentimentality into some covetable garms.
LA-based brand Surf Is Dead emerged when founder Christopher Josol wanted to bring underground values to a surf culture that he proclaimed as “stale”. Surf Is Dead’s graphic tees react to the more anti-corporate elements of underground surf culture – including strip clubs – and are cut and sewn locally with an enzyme and silicon wash that gives the tees a vintage – possibly surfed in – kind of feel.
Token Surfboards are a NYC brand making long-sleeve graphic tees, scarves, hooded sweatshirts, pins, chinos, tape cassettes and surfboards. The wavy graphics include explosions, garbage bags and one of the brand’s strongest items, their ‘maintain’ T-shirt, featuring Japanese hiragana and vintage cellphones. They also have some fire mixes on their music page Noise Bleed Radio.
This label, which started as an after school project by John Margaritis explores the best elements of surf culture and then splices them with inspirations from basketball, streetwear and the aesthetics of underground NYC – picture a basketball hoop appearing from the crest of wave. The unique combination of references propelled New York Sunshine into a brand known for creating next-level art installations to express its collections, i.e. the invisible mirrored cube lookbook above.
One of the brand’s strongest pieces, a hoodie with “It’s just like, Dude…” on the back is a reference to this moment of viral surfing/internet culture from 2007.
Moon Collective is a brand operating from California via Hawaii. The label’s ethos centers around rejecting the incessant pace of modern society, instead focusing on inward reflection, nature, and psychedelics. They make t-shirts, hooded sweatshirts, beanies, caps and long-sleeve tees. A key piece would be there Mother/Father/Brother/Daughter tee, which came about as a collaboration from Australian photographer Melanie Tjoeng, who used to shoot from Billabong, Quiksilver and Stüssy.
Noah emerged from Supreme’s former creative director, Brandon Babenzian. Stocked in the New York flagship, Dover Street Market in London and Noah’s clubhouse in Tokyo, NOAH re-launched in 2015 as an amalgamation of surf, skate and music subcultures with a rejection of mainstream corporate capitalism. Having worked in a surf shop when he was growing up, Noah encapsulates Babenzian’s focus on ethically-minded consumption and a respect for the planet that is ingrained in surf culture.
From artistic director of Moncler, Francesco Ragazzi’s LA-infused brand Palm Angels began with an exploration of the skater subcultures from the West coast. Palm Angels established itself through a range of highly colorful tracksuits, and ‘Legalize It’ hoodies, but for SS18 Palm Angels shifted its focus away from skaters and instead explored the style codes of California’s surfers. The recent collection which showed in Milan presented an urban spin on scuba suits, board shorts, palm tree prints all tinged with a pseudo-gothic, streetwear edge.
As the brands above, some dipping their toes into their surf roots, others – let’s call them nu-surf – re-appropriating the culture altogether, grow and spread their aesthetic into the mainstream, is there room for has-been antipodean labels like Billabong to find cultural traction again? The current style climate, obsessed with sportswear and nostalgia, has created space for brands that would have got you beaten up at school to climb to the top of the pile. Prime examples such as Kappa have found relevance again in a new context where wearing tracksuits has been normalized. Is it so wild to think that a Billabong logo could soon wield the same clout?
The vehicle for this would probably be an off-piste collaboration. Volcom recently teamed up with iconic American artist Barbara Kruger for her performance art piece “The Drop”, which could signal a new kind of cultural relevance for the west coast surf brand.
Nearly decades on from surf-wear’s heyday, the fashion industry is thankfully shifting towards ethical consumption and environmentally-friendly means of production, which could allow surf-culture’s holistic roots to find new ground with modern customers. Combined with the current zeitgeist’s predilection for unbounded irony and throwback references, it feels like just a matter of time before surf-wear brands come back full circle. Until then, RIP the big three.
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