When we think of streetwear, we tend to think of gritty, urban centers and expensive sneakers more than West Coast surfers with sun-bleached hair. Which is strange, really, because there’s an argument to be made that if it weren’t for surfing, we might not even have “streetwear” as we know it today. After all, the original skateboarders were surfers who attached roller-skate wheels to the bottoms of old surfboards so they could “surf” on land. When you watch old footage of early skateboarders on cruiser boards, it’s easy to see the lineage between their fluid tricks and the kind surfers were performing on the waves at the same time.
As for the fashion, while skate brands certainly dominate our understanding of streetwear today, the earliest brands to define that term were the ones started by surfers. But whereas skateboarding transitioned throughout the late 20th century from land-surfing to street skating, to the heyday of the X-Games in the early millennium, to its current, more independent and DIY-driven form, surfing remained largely consigned to the coasts.
But when you talk to the heads behind Quiksilver, a brand that created some of the world’s first board shorts, the question of ‘cool’ is a complicated one. With the brand now approaching its 50th anniversary, I sat down with the Quiksilver team to discuss surfing’s legacy in culture, as well as its future in a world that’s increasingly environmentally precarious.
From the Beaches to the Boardroom
“In the fifties, the average person viewed surfers as anti-establishment bums who dressed in rags and drove beat up old cars down the southern California coast,” explains Jeff Hakman, the former pro-surfer who co-founded Quiksilver’s American division in the mid-’70s. “It wasn’t until around 1965 when Hollywood started portraying it as this fun-loving lifestyle full of beach parties and music, that everyone wanted to be a surfer. And even then, there was still no real industry. So in 1976, we tried to change that, and as an Australian brand setting up at a time when Australian surfers were dominating the scene, our timing really couldn’t have been better.”
“It’s an interesting evolution, the way counter-culture becomes mainstream,” says brand director Gary Wall. “It moves in waves, depending on exposure, perhaps overexposure. With the way that media is consumed today, that can happen overnight, but that things seem to self-correct over time, as it did after the surfing boom of the ‘60s.”
For a brand like Quiksilver, which now has 50 years of heritage to draw upon, there’s a constant need to strike a balance between past, present, and future. “Like any other sport, boardriding has required technical product that evolves to enhance the experience. But it’s the blending of that technical element with a ‘fuck you’, counter-culture attitude that has set the culture apart over the decades.”
Skip forward to the new millennium, and now high fashion brands are creating luxury surfboards retailing for thousands of dollars. Though surfing as a culture remains largely on the periphery, the spirit and attitude that it signifies have been fertile ground for establishment labels looking to inject a bit of edge into their brand.
The irony isn’t lost on Ronnie Reyes, Quiksilver’s head of design, who joined the brand in 2003 and has witnessed the rise of streetwear from fashion sideshow to runway phenomenon. “I think most surfers and skateboarders have this innate desire to avoid the mainstream – in both sport and how they present themselves. They have their own vision. That kind of pursuit of originality was bound to get noticed by the commercial fashion houses and people trying to suss out the street.”
“It's kind of a two-part thing. If we go back to the '80s when surfing was, in my opinion, at its peak of originality, there was virtually no competition, no reference to compare it against. There was an urgency and a passion to create something that had never been done before. It was all new.”
“But by the time the '90s hit, skateboarding had started to come up, particularly street skating. There was suddenly this realization that apparel could be a legitimate business, and it began to change how brands operated; what was once a subculture enjoying a private moment somehow became this full-blown industry with spreadsheets and forecasts and all that shit. By the '90s, surfing was just trying to keep up with the popularity of skateboarding. You can see that influence in the clothes. Boardshorts in the '80s were over the top, with really garish colors and radical styles. Then the '90s came and the surf brands had to start making baggier clothes. The shorts got bigger, longer, ‘grungier’.”
“I don’t think that the original idea of surfing, skateboarding or punk music was ever to become a fashion commodity,” says the brand’s art director, Matthew Cater. “If anything, the pioneers of our cultures were reacting to the mainstream. Surfers dodging the Vietnam War draft, skaters ditching school, punks rejecting the establishment – they were about their craft and their expression.”
“Clothing was part of it, but a secondary part. After all, there wasn’t any money in it. Ditching work for a new swell actually meant less money in your pocket. Priorities were straight! But, that brand of rebellion is attractive, and people were ready to capitalize – some more creatively and honestly than others. I mean, Ralph Lauren made the Prep School aesthetic available to a larger set, but you didn’t need to be an Ivy-Leaguer to wear Ivy League clothing. It was pretty smart, right?”
“So with surf and skate, our industries have built a good living being inspired by the legends, telling their stories and making that feeling and aesthetic more accessible to a larger audience. But it doesn’t change the thing at the center of the equation. People want authenticity.”
Pick up Your Trash!
What stands out at the center of our discussion is the fact that, for the past 50 years, surfing’s evolution is easiest to see in the aesthetics. The beaches and waves were the constant – it was how you used those tools, and how you presented yourself on them, that defined the era.
But with climate change and environmental issues looming ever-larger over the horizon, the one thing that surfers took for granted is now under increasing threat. From whales washing up on shores with tons of discarded plastic in their guts, to the danger that rising sea levels pose to coastal communities around the globe, to increased chances of environmental disasters such as drought, so much of the dangers posed by climate change trace back to water – the ocean.
Many brands are now making efforts to change their operations to be more sustainable and environmentally friendly, and it’s unsurprising that a brand as wedded to the waves as Quiksilver would be pushing that movement. Last year, the brand was named Repreve's champion of sustainability, turning an equivalent of 100 million plastic bottles into boardshorts and mountainwear through its recycled polyester program. Moving into its anniversary year, Quiksilver is making a commitment to protect its favorite playgrounds and original inspiration: the mountain and the wave.
This doesn’t only entail the extension of its recycled polyester program to a 100% recycled outerwear and boardshort program in 2020, Quiksilver is also exploring eco-friendly dying and techniques such as WeAreSpindye to add to the equation while putting a lot of effort into optimizing its production and manufacturing process.
“It’s very hard to explain, but boardriding has an energy so powerful it transforms lives,” Wall says. “Mother Nature is mysterious and unpredictable; that’s why it always keeps us restless for adventure. Surfers have always fought to protect their playgrounds, and ocean pollution isn’t quite as mysterious today as it once was. So as part of that community, as well as a brand, it’s a case of progress to perfection, continually improving and positively contributing to that challenge with a united voice.”
For Reyes, it’s unfortunate that the surf industry writ large has been slow to put environmental issues on its priority list, but Quiksilver is now forthright about wanting to change that. “I'm part of a committee here at Quiksilver where we're really trying to pioneer new ways for the brand to operate as an entity; the supply chain; how we operate internally; how we manufacture. When it comes to stuff like this, you can’t approach it in terms of profitability – it's for the sake of doing the right thing.”
“We began a relationship with Repreve, for example, around four years ago,” he continues. “And with that partnership, they've really helped to create a viable option for recycling plastic bottles. Their traceable yarn program, where every bit of fiber can be followed back to its source, is probably the best in the field.”
In an industry so defined by proprietary technology, patented processes, and intellectual property, one thing that the environmental battle is bringing about is a new spirit of collaboration. Faced with a challenge that no one company can solve alone, brands are waking up to the fact that they’re going to have to start sharing ideas and working together.
“The more we see sustainability becoming a mainstream thing, the more potential it has to completely restructure the way an industry operates,” Reyes explains. “In fact, I’m hoping that the natural competitiveness of brands will help facilitate that as well, you know? For example, you’ve got to give credit to Patagonia for openly trying to share new techniques, fibers, and technologies. From a surf perspective, we aspire to create a version of that, to be a leader in the community and teach other brands how to be better.”
But to draw the discussion to a close, it’s best to leave it to co-founder Hakman, an individual whose life is so indebted to the waves that he was once a world surfing champion. “I’m a member of the Reef Guardians in Hawaii. I’ve seen the destruction of the reefs first hand. I know how important they are. Surfers all over the planet are working every day to protect mother nature and the ocean from further pollution. They’re especially aware of these problems because they are confronted with them daily, because the ocean is their playground.”
“Surfing is a beautiful thing, but when we’re talking about the ocean, we’re talking about all of our lives.”