NEW YORK, United States — ‘Surfwear’ first emerged in the middle of the last century, thrusting Australian surf brands Rip Curl, Quiksilver and Billabong to international prominence. Fast forward to the present, however, and the ‘big three’ face shrinking sales and mounting debts brought on by a combination of poorly timed expansion, lost cultural credibility and the rise of fast fashion competitors. But emerging from the rubble of these behemoths is a new crop of small surf brands building budding businesses.
In 2009, Josh Rosen, Colin Tunstall and Morgan Collett were living the proverbial New York City dream. Rosen and Collett were working in sales at J. Lindeberg and Acne, respectively, while Tunstall was clocking time in the art departments of magazines including Esquire and GQ. They hung out quite a bit, skating, surfing and snowboarding together, and it was from that friendship that urban surfwear shop Saturdays Surf NYC was born. Initially, their space on Crosby Street in Soho — just around the corner from Opening Ceremony — was a multi-brand boutique that also stocked a small namesake t-shirt line and had a low-key coffee shop at the front of the store.
The espresso machine is still there, but the other labels have pretty much disappeared, usurped by Saturdays’ full clothing range, which now includes t-shirts, collared shirts, denim, outerwear and, yes, board shorts. The brand — which nods to 1950s surf culture without taking on a vintage patina — has earned so much fashion cred that its founders were nominated for GQ’s Young Menswear Designer of the Year award in 2012, resulting in a collaboration with Gap. Today, Saturdays is stocked everywhere from Colette to Bloomingdale’s. It operates two standalone stores in New York, along with three in Japan in partnership with the Jun Group, and will open a fourth Japanese location in 2015 — this time in Osaka — with tentative plans for future flagships in Los Angeles, London and Paris. While the privately-owned Saturdays declined to disclose actual sales figures, the company did reveal that revenue has increased by 50 percent per year for the past three years, with direct-to-consumer sales slightly outpacing wholesale. T-shirts and board shorts still make up 35 to 40 percent of the business, although the line’s fashion offerings are gaining significant ground according to Collett. Next on the company’s agenda is a bigger sunglasses collection; a grooming line is currently in development.
Saturdays is riding a wave of resurgent surfing culture that is much bigger than this one brand. Patagonia, which makes the wetsuits sold at Saturdays, said sales in the surfing category, which represent about 10 percent of the company’s overall sales, were about $54 million in 2013, three times what they were in 2009.
Saturdays is certainly one of the best-known new entrants to the space, but by no means the only one. Around 2010, long-time surfer Michael Little noticed more people catching waves out in the Rockaways, New York City’s best surf spot. “Suddenly, there were 30 other people in the water at 6am on a Wednesday,” he says. In 2011, Little, a former middle school teacher, was inspired enough to open Lost Weekend, a coffee and surf shop on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the neighbourhood he’d been living in for nearly a decade. He began selling boards and Blue Bottle coffee (another one of his passions), marketing the store with a logo he designed and screen-printed onto t-shirts.
Within a day of posting a photo of one of these t-shirts on Instagram, two Japanese retailers were interested in carrying the line. He ended up signing a deal with Urban Research, an 82-store chain that stocks the tees at locations in Kyoto, Tokyo, Osaka and beyond. Today, Japanese wholesale makes up 40 percent of Lost Weekend’s business. In the US, however, the brand sells only through its own channels. “I never got into this to build a clothing brand,” says Little. “People can shop via our website, but I really want them to come into the store, for it to be a community hub.”
The wave of new indie surf brands extends well beyond New York. In 2011, brothers Lucas and Séverin Bonnichon opened Cuisse de Grenouille in Paris’ Marais district. Just as Saturdays Surf and Lost Weekend t-shirts were bona fide hits, Cuisse de Grenouille’s “Surf in Paris” logo-ed items began popping up on menswear blogs and in shops across the globe. The collection is now sold everywhere from Friend in New Orleans to Modern Works in Seoul. The company also operates a second store in Paris’ Batignolles neighbourhood.
But while many of these brands make apparel rooted in the surfing lifestyle, others are focusing on developing technical surfing gear itself.
“I wanted to fill the gap of making product for cold-water surfers that were fit for purpose,” says Tom Kay, who, in 2003, founded the Cornwall, England-based label Finisterre, which makes highly technical clothes for cold-water surfers. “Most products that were marketed at me were board shorts and bikinis, yet many of the best waves here in the UK and elsewhere in the world are cold-water waves. There was no product built for them.” The company declined to share actual revenue figures, but expects to see a 40 percent jump in sales in 2014.
Authenticity is key to this new wave of surf brands, yet the surfing community, with its counter-cultural roots and preference for the rugged and the local, can be quick to sniff out when a brand is “selling out.” Whether labels like Saturdays will be able to maintain their credibility as they scale their budding businesses, remains to be seen.
Notably, wetsuits and surfboards are the two items Saturdays doesn’t make itself. “The surf association is something we love; it’s ingrained in our DNA,” says Collett. “But our main focus is the lifestyle aspect. We’re a fashion label.”