Defined by a laidback and carefree vibe—and less so by silhouette—surf-inspired footwear is experiencing a wave of popularity spanning seafaring to landlocked consumers.
By Angela Velasquez
In surf documentary The Endless Summer, California surfers Mike Hynson and Robert August traveled around the world to conquer the famed waves of Australia, South Africa, Tahiti and Hawaii. Fifty years after the film’s debut, the passion shown in their search of the perfect wave and living a carefree lifestyle still rolls deep with millions of consumers worldwide.
The International Surfing Association estimates that there are 23 million surfers worldwide, with close to two million participants in the United States. The Surf Manufacturers Association reports the U.S. surf industry topped $6 billion in retail sales of clothes, accessories and equipment in 2012. Nearly $1.5 billion benefited specialty shops. Stores on the West Coast saw more than double the sales per square foot of those on the East Coast, and increasingly popular activities such as stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking and wakeboarding are drawing new consumers into the surf culture and creating demand for fresh products coast to coast.
Then there’s the crush of men and women aspiring for a life of sun, sand, surf and the luxuries that come with it, be it a glowing tan or a chilled daiquiri. “Everyone wants the feel of an exotic escape from everyday life, and that’s what our brand brings to people—instant comfort and laidback design that transports them to a more peaceful place,” says Kelley Bruemmer, director of product management for Reef. “That’s why surf is a look that has stood the test of time.”
Left to right:Sazzi, Ecco and Rockin.
It’s an all-ages group of aspiring beach bums that might never get down on a boogie board, but gladly don board shorts, leather cord jewelry and flip-flops to look like they do, says Brian Curin, co-founder and president of Flip Flop Shops. Curin’s initial plan to offer consumers a single location for casual, dress and beach sport footwear for the entire family, which he likens to the Sunglass Hut, has ballooned to 199 locations since he began to franchise the concept in 2008. Next year will see 35 more doors open and a possible expansion to the Middle East. “Our philosophy is to bring the beach to the masses, no matter where they are,” he says. “Life is busy and people want a break. Putting on a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops might be the closest break they can get.”
That relaxed lifestyle spans generations, adds Martin Dean, creative director of Cushe, a division of Wolverine Worldwide. “Surf culture represents a carefree, aspirational lifestyle that so many wish they could experience,” he says, adding the look is trending particularly strong for Spring ’14. From traditional Hawaiian prints and surfboard motifs to imagery of exotic birds and abstract palm fronds, the threads at the recent Capsule show in New York resembled a raging tiki party, or at least a very well dressed beach soiree. And with more surf brands putting a fashionable spin on wares, surf footwear and apparel are crossing categories. For instance, Reef is capitalizing on its Latin heritage this spring with updated takes of its signature Guatemalan textiles. “It’s nice that our trends are coinciding,” Bruemmer says.
Dean sees this latest run of surfer chic as an extension of the Americana trend sweeping fashion and footwear of late. Millennials, in particular, are helping fuel the macro trend. “What a younger generation wants and respects is more along the lines of what their grandparents accomplished, not so much their own parents,” he notes. “It skips a generation.” Hence, the revival of ’50s and ’60s surf fashion inspired by the pioneers of the sport. Dean adds, “They carved out the sport and the look that goes with it.”
Steven Fisher, senior buyer relations manager for Surf Expo, expects the youth movement to be reflected at this month’s show (Sept. 6-8) in Orlando, FL, where he is predicting a strong return of junior brands. “The past few years have been all about fast fashion from the likes of H&M and Gap. But I think teens are growing tired of disposable clothes and coming back to surf brands,” he explains. That’s the story at Hansen’s Surfboards in San Diego. Co-owner Josh Hansen reports even young kids are embracing the laidback lifestyle, opting for category classics like Roxy, Quiksilver and Vans. “These kids are realizing the authenticity of brands early on,” he quips.
Vans, which debuted a surf-specific line five years ago, is being embraced by today’s youth thanks in part to the style cues of their skater dads. Chris Reed, Vans product line manager for Surf, says, “The guys who skated back then surfed in the mornings.” Now those guys are influencing their kids’ footwear purchases. “You also have high school kids wearing Vans for its heritage patterns and prints,” he reports.
But palm tree prints and bright colors alone won’t necessarily do the trick. “The story is so crucial. The younger consumer wants the real deal and is set on understanding the history of the print or brand,” Dean states. Along those lines, Cushe’s collaboration with Hoffman California Fabrics for its Spring ’14 collection is a story Dean believes is worth telling. The family-run fabric company began with two surf-pioneering brothers in the ’40s and made its mark with original Hawaiian textiles. “They essentially built in their love for surf into fabrics,” Dean says, adding the brand was also responsible for the infamous shirts Tom Selleck’s Magnum, P.I. character wore in the ’80s.
Clockwise from top: Tigerbear Republik, Teva, Groove, Ilse Jacobsen and Ocean Minded.
Cushe selected two designs from the Hoffman archive: a traditional Hawaiian print and a more modern Bali-inspired print with a tinge of tie-dye. Dean notes that colors were tweaked to suit contemporary tastes, but that “The prints aged like wine. The older and dustier, the better.” Silhouettes span lace-up sneakers for men to low profile skimmers with minimal construction for women—perfect for the beach, mall or yoga studio. Dean credits a friend for the tip about Hoffman, which is a story he relishes telling. “If you’re fortunate enough to link with someone with a heritage, then you want to show,” he says, noting an online video has been created about the collaboration.
That crossover between surf and street is captured in today’s diverse—and sometimes eclectic—roster of trade show exhibitors and attendees. Ten years ago, Vanessa Chiu, director of women’s sales and marketing for Agenda, says the current tradeshow landscape was at a standstill, with one-dimensional shows that felt “too core” for the evolving market that drives the youth culture. Action sports, streetwear, lifestyle, surf and footwear were merging, she says, adding, “There was a need to curate a show that reflected the true marketplace, with each sub-genre represented.” Most recently, Agenda added a women’s-dedicated area and Chiu expects to see more new categories in the future as the surf market begins to embrace more outdoor and functional adventure gear.
Once perceived as a show that went “against the grain,” the Long Beach, CA, edition of Agenda is now attended by the likes of Zappos, Foot Locker and Famous Footwear as well as trendy boutique and core surf shops. The New York edition caters to more European brands and retailers. In addition to niche retailers like Flip Flop Shops and domestic resort boutiques, a growing international fleet of buyers from Europe, South America and Asia is expected at the Surf Expo, too. “Surf is truly a global marketplace,” Fisher states. “And the prevalence of surf culture in the media and pop culture is driving more people to take a look at the category,” he adds, noting that Saturdays Surf NYC, the urban meets surf oasis in SoHo (and home of a rare Manhattan backyard that customers can enjoy), is a prime example of surf’s diverse and broad appeal.
When Morgan Collett, co-owner of Saturdays Surf NYC, visited Japan in 2011, he and business partner Colin Tunstall knew immediately that their curated selection of New York-inspired surf fashion would be well received. “The country loves surf and they really love New York City,” he says. Now with two stores in Japan, not to mention recently celebrating the New York store’s four-year anniversary with a fete in Montauk, an East Coast surf mecca at the tip of Long Island, and its own line of apparel and footwear, Collett is bullish about the surf category that spans hip fathers wanting a pair of sleek loafers to wear with a suit (one of his favorite surf-inspired looks) to 18-year-old guys vying for the latest canvas kicks. Hansen concurs on the category’s broad appeal at his San Diego store, and notes that an increasing number of consumers are willing to shell out more for footwear. “People feel less guilty about spending on these shoes because they’ve come to understand that wellness comes from the bottom up and, in California, that means spending most of your day in flip-flops,” he offers.
When OluKai, for example, came onto the scene with a $70 sandal complete with a comfortable footbed and arch support, Hansen expected sticker shock, but now he sells its sandals as high as $175. In fact, he says customers come back six months later for a new pair. “If the product is right, even in this economy, then consumers don’t have a lot resistance opening their wallet for a quality item,” Bruemmer of Reef concurs. In the last two years, backed by marketing and catalogs presenting a more sophisticated beach lifestyle, Bruemmer says Reef has positioned itself as a premium brand. “Consumers trust us and we’re in the perfect position to push the price ceiling because we have luxurious Brazilian leather and handcrafted materials,” she explains.
Fisher believes the huge influx of surf style in U.S. and international fashion magazines is helping open the door for higher price points as well. He also considers this movement an opportune time for small mom-and-pop shops to curate their selection with higher priced fashion items. “If there’s five surf shops in town, they need to look for something different and newer and evolve with the trends,” he advises.
No matter the price tag, be it OluKai sandals, which Curin calls the “Mercedes of flip-flops,” or affordable pink Roxy flip-flops worn around a college dorm, surf footwear enthusiasts agree that retailers need to merchandise the category in a relaxed and easyily shopped space. For Flip Flop Shops, that means island music and the scent of coconut permeating the shop floor, placing cash wrap at the front of the store to ensure that each consumer is greeted and displaying shoes on hanging fixtures. Reef tries to make it as easy and simple for retailers as possible by helping with fixtures for its hanging programs. “You don’t want to leave customers while searching for a style or size. It’s a very visual category and you want to encourage customers to touch material and feel footbeds,” Bruemmer says.
Even in its über-trendy and upscale Soho ’hood, Collett was determined to create an unpretentious retail environment. Customers can grab a coffee at the in-store cafe and catch acoustic sets in the backyard. Those little touches are what Reed thinks help bring the footwear to life. Surf footwear encourages creativity, he says, adding that if you can do it on the shop level, consumers will likely be inspired to live it even if they are landlocked. “You could be living inland in Canada, but still feel good kicking around in your surf shoes,” he says. “They’re a lighthearted take on fashion and as life gets more stressful, these shoes offer an easy escape—even if it’s just a state of mind.”