Seems like only yesterday that surfers carried plain white foam surfboards and wore tattered t-shirts and boardies that had seen three summers and were more holes than fabric. Our backs were black from the sun and lips forever cracked and burnt (Blissex hadn’t been invented). Girls loved it, the rugby jocks hated it. Sunburnt rebels, free bohemian spirits, who didn’t give a rats arse about fashion, or what brand of beer ya drunk (decisions were made on quantity, not labels) and ya didn’t care what shoes you wore – you were just lucky if ya jandals matched.
We were surfers; our identity was ‘no identify’ apart from a tan, shaggy ‘mostly’ blond hair and an attitude.
Where did those guys go?
At what stage did surfers become – ‘trendy’, when did being trendy, and what ya look like became more important than surfing. It’s a facetious phenomenon but if you know the guys on the tour they are still surfers, they are still in boardies and t-shirts, I guess the surf is more important than the statement.
When did we trade our 3-year-old Billabong t-shirt for a $150 dollar ‘Stolen Girlfriend’s- shirt? When did the line become so blurred between guys that actually surf and guys so busy trying to be cool that being cool became more important than the surf? There’s this murky grey area where being trendy means being casual, yet it’s not casual in the true sense of the word. It’s such a constructed casualness that it may as well be a suit and tie. Casual by definition: “a mode of dress that emphasizes comfort and personal expression over presentation, uniformity and cost.” Yet the ‘uniform’ of the current surfer breed is anything but personal and is all about uniformity and conformity in the costly wrappings of standardised nonconformity.
While photographing surf recently at a West Coast beach, a guy strolled up in tight black skinny jeans, woolly hat, and skimpy beard – you know the guy, and he started to chat. I first wanted to point out it was summer in NZ but maybe he was expecting a cold snap. He was friendly enough, might have been quite smart, till we got onto the topic of surf labels and Billabong. He then regaled me with tales of why would anyone want to wear a brand like that, who wants to be emblazoned with logos, and be a walking billboard, who wants to walk around with Billabong branded across their chest. He kinda lost me after the first five minutes. However, I did tune back in when he talked of the intrinsic value of some labels over others. As he slowed and wiped the spit from his Movember mistake – he ended with a simple and possibly regretful phrase, “don’t ya think?”- to which I paused, smiled and replied, “I don’t’, I don’t think about it at all!” In fact I don’t give a rat’s arse what anyone wears as long as it not a pair of speedos. I don’t get offended by labels – they are labels, just brands, not political statements. There is no spiritual difference between one label and another, there is not some malevolent evil attached to one and a saintly halo attached to another, if you think there is any mystical difference between Billabong or Lower, apart from the economic success you are idiot. He pulled his woolly hat a little lower, I asked him how much his black boots cost – “$400” he replied, with a confused sense of pride and embarrassment as he stood in a small rock pool of water (I’m sure the crabs were impressed) – “See these”, I said, putting forth my bright red jandal – found these. He looked even more confused and ambled off.
As those around us get caught up in the correct ‘casualness’ of fashion and its associated accessories the fact that surfing itself has become part of the accessory to coolness, weighs heavy on my conscience. I really don’t care what you wear, really- you can’t impress me with a $150 t-shirt, it just confirms you’re not that smart. Now that maybe my age, that maybe I have a real lack of fashion’esk’ understanding, or it maybe I really don’t give a shit.
Surfing has always been described as an image and label conscious sport – a few good examples are Ocean Pacific, Lightning Bolt and Hang Ten. Originally these were all iconically ‘cool’ brands. (They were still directly attached to a surf culture, like Billabong and Rip Curl). But during a dip in economic stability 15 years ago they ended up in K-Mart and overnight slipped off the ‘cool’ radar and ended up on the scrap heap of ‘I won’t been seen dead in that!’. Bodyglove in NZ is a Warehouse product and is considered unfashionable poop. Yet in the States and Europe it is far from that, the latest Surfer and Transworld magazines both carry back to back double-page adverts in every issue which is an indication of their success. None of the other surfing ‘label’ superpowers can afford that! Yet here they are not cool. If the perception of coolness is all that keeps a product afloat will Rip Curl, Volcom, Billabong, O’Neill follow suit – they won’t go to the Warehouse but will the major chains like Amazon, Chances and North Beach be perceived as the new K-Marts by those trendy hipsters thus rendering brands associated with those environments ‘not cool’? – then what? Will the small self-named underground sub-brands be backing major surf events, will they be bringing the webcasts, the surf trips, the sponsorships or will it all just fade away.
To be honest, and there is no point not to be, I lied in the beginning of this editorial, I know exactly where those scruffy surfers who don’t give a crap about fashion are, they are where they have already been, in the surf or on their way to it, or bragging about it. Those guys with sunburn necks with non-matching jandals are doing what surfers have always done, surfing and getting their sentiment of self-worth from the waves they ride not the costly labels that they wear.
The Reluctant Adventurer