For as long as longhaired Cali dudes have been grinding around empty swimming pools and taking to the swell with D.I.Y surfboards, fashion has longingly looked at underground cultures to try and replicate the authentic fan support pervading them. Whilst high-fashion houses invest millions to carefully curate their ‘carefree’ aesthetic, the homegrown brands of the surf community focus purely on creating quality products that reflect the happy-go-lucky humbleness of their consumer, rather than trying to shape their desires around the ‘next new thing’. This open and often more honest relationship between surfer and surf brand has formed a family of surfwear companies that continue to craft effortlessly styleable pieces that shape fashion trends around the globe.
So why does the fashion industry continue to bang on the beach-hut door of the surfwear aesthetic? Well, much like we concluded in our previous Skate culture and fashion analysis, a large portion of the industry interest can be explained by the simple fact that surfers are cool! Their easy-breezy attitude towards life and lack of interest in ‘looking cool’ embodies the same anti-establishment attitude akin to the underground cultures of Punk-Rock music and Graffiti. Of course, given the hilariously paradoxical and ironic nature of the fashion industry, fashion houses have now long been investing fortunes to cultivate a carefree character with varying degrees of success. Because nothing says carefree like spending millions on a rebrand.
Perhaps the fashion industries most successful push into emulating some of the surf scenes originality was the widespread fervour surrounding Hollister in the late 2000s. The salty hair and sun-bleached denim philosophy of Hollister drove every sixth-form student in the UK to dream of one day being deemed ‘cool’ enough to work there. Hollister was so successful in capitalising on the romanticized notion of surfing that they were are somehow able to force an entire generation of in-land and city-dwelling parents to wait in a Sunday morning queue for two hours just so their daughter could take a picture with some topless dude called Chad just because he looked like he had maybe seen a surfboard before.
However, the global fanaticism surrounding Hollister and the substandard quality and pricing of their products embodied the elitist polo-shirt wearing Etonian ideals that real surf culture detested. This failure to actually represent and recognise the true nature of surf culture and instead focus on the superficial surf symptoms of six-packs and bleach-blond hair is exactly why Hollister has faded out of relevancy. So, to understand what makes a true surf brand, we are looking back on the impact made by some of the longest standing surf brands and the footprints they have left on some of the worlds biggest fashion houses.
Stüssy has travelled the full gauntlet from independent surf shack retailer to a juggernaut in the street culture and Hypebeast world. Founded in the early ‘80s by Shawn Stussy on the banks of Laguna Beach in California, Stüssy started out as a handmade surfboard manufacturer. What began as a signature of his surname drawn on each board with a thick black marker quickly became an internationally recognisable symbol for surf street culture.
No small part of the brand’s global success is due to the locally emerging hip-hop scene that embraced the ‘no f*cks given’ attitude of surfers as a sister ethos to the ‘f*ck you’ attitude of West Coast hip-hop. Whether it be Grandmaster Caz performing at the legendary Stüssy Supreme Team Show or their constant graphic homage to graffiti artists like Son1 & Rem, Stüssy has always been welcomed amongst more sectors of the underground than just surfers. Stüssy’s unparalleled ability to glide across underground cultures and find an equal home amongst the streets as it did in the swell is ultimately why it continues to be one of the most beloved streetwear retailers in the world.
The symbiotic relationship between underground cultures of surfing and hip-hop can largely be summarised by the age-old truism that ‘real recognises real’. It was instantly clear by the demographic wearing it that Stüssy wasn’t some corporate concoction worked up by a boardroom of dusty old white men. Rather that it was born and baptises in the underground and therefore belonged to every person that made up that scene.
Volcom is perhaps the truest surf brand still dominating the realm of surfwear and the boardsport aesthetic. It has been somewhat reluctant to move fully into the hype beast era, releasing more muted collaborations and centring its design philosophy around its history as a true boardsport ambassador rather than a street culture influencer. However, its influence within the surf fashion and larger fashion industry can not be understated.
Volcom’s path to the forefront of surf fashion is a more sport centric approach compared to the culture cultivation exhibited by Stussy. Volcom really evolved on the national scale through its surf, skate and snowboard teams that united the best athletes in the world under one Volcom emblazoned banner. Much like how Nike was built on its association with the NBA, Volcom became known as the supplier to the very best surfers in the world, emphasising its quality and allowing its ambassadors to create the world’s perception of the brand. If you needed Jordans to be a baller then you needed a Volcom wetsuit to be a boarder.
However, Volcom’s real association as the go-to surf clothing company came after their landmark agreement with the World Surfing League to become the title sponsor of the Volcom Pipe Pro Event in 2013. Now any kid around the world who sparked an interest in surfing would come to associate the greatest surf athletes in the world with the Volcom brand, directly blending the worlds of lifestyle clothing and sports competitions. In doing so, Volcom formed the blueprint for brands like Vans, Rip Curl, Billabong to fuse their brand identities with the highest level of sporting competitions.
SURFING IN LUXURY
The multi-decade evolution of surf brands from niche local lifestyle retailers to global ambassadors of surf culture and shapers of international trends had caused a number of luxury brands to dip their toes in the water and ride the wave of surf-inspired apparel.
In 2020 Gucci embarked upon a surprising tangent in their branding strategy with the release of ‘Gucci Surf’ is vintage style arcade game centred around surfing. They partnered with Italian Pro surfer Leonardo Fioravanti to star as the game’s protagonist, as his simulated character cleans up the ocean to unlock exclusive Gucci merchandise. Since, Gucci has added Leonardo to its global ambassador’s list, making him the first pro surfer to hold the position. This unusual project signalled Gucci’s increasing interest to capitalise on global surf trends, even going beyond their duty to not encroach on Leonardo’s preexisting partnership with Quicksilver.
However, Leo’s inclusion in the brand’s ambassador list was not Gucci’s first utilisation of surf culture. Their 2019 pre-fall collection video release entirely centred around wild waves and wetsuit warriors as a Bo-Ho group of punk-rock inspired surfers hedonistically party around beachside ancient ruins. The collection itself revolved around a more antiquated ideal of surf culture, drawing on retro floral patterns and ’60s inspired Woodstock vibes rather than our contemporary understanding of surf culture as a youthful grungy movement. Nonetheless, bold caps, sailor striped T’s, walking boots, baggy cargo shorts and waterproof outdoor wear all feature heavily in the collection.
2019 was a year full of surf-inspired high-fashion collections. Prada joined the long list of designers like Raf Simmons, Calvin Klein and Gucci that all drew on surfing culture for their summer season releases. Neoprene tops cut like rash-guard vests and sneakers made to look like surf socks all bolstered Prada’s newfound interest in surf culture. Bikini inspired deep plunging necklines, bold tie-dye tapestries and oversized headbands created the ‘Prada Surf Girl’ aesthetic that relied on the same Hollister-style infatuation with coastal culture.
As long as the youngest generations continue to learn and love the surfing way of life then larger fashion houses will continue to craft collections that feel like a break from the Haute-Couture identity they represent. When brands need a revival of their appeal to younger generations they will always attempt to appear as one of them or as being cut from the same cloth as the cultures they love.
Whilst this pains me to say as someone who has a natural disdain for any infringement on the originality of underground cultures, at least the continual interest in surf cultures from massive designers has granted brands like Stüssy and Volcom the ability to transcend their beach and brach out cross the globe. The success of these brands has brought millions of people, many of whom may never actually see a wave or have a chance to watch surfing, into the WSL world and with them come many new supporters of the sport. In a year where Surfing made Its Olympic debut, it is interesting to think about the massive role surf lifestyle brands have played in the global recognition of the sport.
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