Are designers just obsessed with the sport's culture, or are they ripping it off?

Two summers ago, I spent three perfect June days at the oceanside headquarters of a Californian clothing retailer. One afternoon, after we'd digested our cafeteria-provided quinoa bowls, it was announced that there was a "swell" nearby and a group of employees would be taking an extended lunch break to take full surfing advantage. Did this happen often, I asked one staffer as we commuted over to the beach via bicycle? The response was something to the effect of: enough to become a part of company culture, but not so much that it detracts from the work to be done.

Some 40-odd hours later, I was back in New York with the closest surfboard in my vicinity propped up against the wall at a men's lifestyle boutique on Crosby Street. An impulsive surf break was, unfortunately, no longer in my cards, but it was a nice memory to hold onto — a dreamscape, if you will.

Just about a year after my trip to Los Angeles, designers began making me especially nostalgic for those mid-afternoon beach outings. The Spring 2018 runways were loaded with traditional surf motifs, imagery and silhouettes across all four major fashion weeks. In New York, big-name brands like Fenty Puma, Baja East, Michael Kors and Coach threw hibiscus flowers and palm leaves atop sporty tees, silk trousers and slick bomber jackets; label-to-watch Vaquera printed a pink-trimmed parody surf shop logo on pieces throughout the collection. Later, in Milan, buckets of tropical prints hit Gucci and No. 21, followed by a surf extravaganza at Louis Vuitton, courtesy of now-departed men's artistic director, Kim Jones. The label's Spring 2018 men's range came complete with a traveling pop-up with surf-friendly stops in Miami and Honolulu, a customized VW Bus and even a special-edition surfboard.

Back in September, we asked if surf culture would soon replace fashion's fascination with skate culture — according to the spring wares, it very well could. If you'll recall, though, skaters weren't too fond of the ways in which certain corners of the industry commandeered their lifestyle. So, do surfers find that fashion is paying its respects to their sport appropriately this time?

The finale of Fenty Puma's Spring 2018 runway show. Photo: @puma/Instagram

The finale of Fenty Puma's Spring 2018 runway show. Photo: @puma/Instagram

Surfing and fashion certainly aren't strangers to one another and have existed hand-in-hand for decades. John Moore, the founder and chief creative officer of Kelly Slater's Kering-backed lifestyle brand Outerknown, says he's watched brands reference surf culture on the runway for as long as he's been paying attention. Surf brands, too, have always taken note of what happens in fashion, though according to Moore, many of them probably wouldn't admit it. The appropriation and love, he notes, goes both ways, and has for years. Remember the Chanel-branded surfboard made famous by Gisele Bündchen in 2014?

Moore also calls out designers like Proenza Schouler and Hedi Slimane who often toy with both surf and skate style. One of Moore's favorite-ever collections is Raf Simons's "Black Palms" range from Spring 1998. Only Simons's second-ever runway show, the presentation took place in a parking garage in Paris's stylish Bastille neighborhood with a soundtrack made up of extra-booming rave jams. Of the clothes, Moore offered: "Those palm graphics are indelibly stamped in my mind."

What's important about so-called "surf style," though, is that it isn't just one thing, despite the tropical, Polynesian imagery that represents the sport's birthplace and remains most associated with it today. It's what Thaddeus O'Neil, a designer of loungey, unisex playwear and of CFDA Fashion Incubator acclaim, instead calls a "sartorial mash-up." He of all people working in capital-F "Fashion" would know, having spent his childhood on Eastern Long Island surfing with his dad. ("These days, I try to not miss a swell," he says. "New York gets good waves, but it's also very fickle — so you take what the sea will give you when she gives it to you.") If he gets to surf three times a week, he says, it's Shangri-La.

"Surfers have adopted different prosaic clothes and integrated them into what has become, over time, a coherent and recognizable style," says O'Neil. "Surfing has simply proven the most powerfully iconic cultural vehicle for those motifs."

Louis Vuitton's Spring 2018 menswear pop-up on Madison Avenue. Photo: Louis Vuitton

Louis Vuitton's Spring 2018 menswear pop-up on Madison Avenue. Photo: Louis Vuitton

Surf garb cycles through trends just as ready-to-wear does. Moore explains that in the 1950s, surfing was a subculture defined by stripes, blue jeans and made-to-order trunks. By the '60s, clean, slim and colorful silhouettes took over, followed by the "soulful, psychedelic" influences of the '70s and fluorescent, big-logoed designs of the '80s. Then, things "went south" in the '90s, when everything got baggy and all production went overseas.

"The common denominator across all eras in the evolution of surf style is that surfing has always been about this intangible cool," says Moore. "And today, all designers and brands search for it. This idea of 'effortless fashion' or an 'I just threw this on' vibe — surfers would laugh at these descriptors because that's just how they are every day."

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Malia Ward, an Opkix-repped professional surfer in her first year at University of Southern California, grew up in one of California's biggest surf hubs, Orange County's San Clemente. She learned from the best — her father, Chris Ward, was a veteran professional surfer, as well — and compares surfing to being like something of a family business. While she describes traditional surf culture to be relaxed and, fantastically, "flowing like the oceans," make no mistake: Her training is hardcore, comprised of kickboxing, jump-rope and SoulCycle in addition to daily surfing. But it's that surface-level, low-key attitude brands are after.

"For people who live inland and in Middle America, the whole surf lifestyle is like a dream to them," says Ward. "They want to be a part of it in some way. Some of them have never seen the ocean before. Being able to wear the clothes — that's another way that they can tie themselves in."

It certainly doesn't hurt that right now, the surf aesthetic du jour aligns quite nicely with the overwhelming sportiness sweeping design and retail. Moore notes that technical surf apparel, like the color-blocked wetsuits Ward can often be seen wearing, is heavily branded and extremely youthful — much like everything Demna Gvasalia has released in the last, say, five years.

Professional surfer Malia Ward surfing at Snapper Rocks, an outcrop on the Gold Coast of Queensland, Australia. Photo: @malia_ward/Instagram

Professional surfer Malia Ward surfing at Snapper Rocks, an outcrop on the Gold Coast of Queensland, Australia. Photo: @malia_ward/Instagram

The sport also embodies a type of mindfulness toward which we've seen fashion gravitate in droves. Wellness, ranging from boutique meditation studios to chic, direct-to-consumer vitamins, is a hot-ticket category, but it's something surfing bears naturally. Professional surfer Malia Manuel, who is based in Kauai and rides as one of Lululemon's Elite Ambassadors, is quick to point out that the sport requires a lot of patience, and in this always-on, always-connected age, a surfer's state of being is incredibly aspirational.

"We become part of nature, flowing and moving with the sea; there's something calming and awakening and therapeutic about being in the ocean," adds Ward. "We surfers surround ourselves with that, with what we dive into, and we rarely get out. We never want to leave."

Still, it's unfair of us to explicitly associate surfing and skateboarding without appreciating, or even acknowledging, the nuances of both. O'Neil explains that skateboarding was born as "sidewalk-surfing," what happened when there were no waves. "I don't associate skateboarding with surfing," he says. "It borrowed from surfing and became its own spectacular thing. Skating is such an incredibly poetic act in its own right and means." In 2016, skaters expressed their unease with models, bloggers and publications (see: Vogue.com's now-infamous "Skate Week") poaching their style. But there was a catch.

"It's no secret that skateboarding is a culture vehemently opposed to posers, but it's also an industry that is currently running on fumes as far as money is concerned," wrote Alexis Castro in a July 2016 Fashionista piece. As the fashion industry highlighted skating, one would also hope that skating would grow as a sport, as well, either financially or in terms of exposure. Surfing could stand to see a similar benefit.

With an annual revenue of roughly $7 billion, the surf industry is small, but mighty. (By comparison, the skate business currently stands at roughly $5 billion.) But the takeaway here is that surfing is growing, with market research projecting for surfing to reach $9.5 billion by 2022. To that end, Ward mentions that surfers are looking for different ways in which the sport can attract a bigger audience. Fashion, a $1.2 trillion global juggernaut, is a great means to do just that.

LuLulemon Elite Ambassador and professional surfer Malia Manuel. Photo: @maliamanual/Instagram

LuLulemon Elite Ambassador and professional surfer Malia Manuel. Photo: @maliamanual/Instagram

"The surf community is small; it's protective and awesome. I hope to see so much more of the two worlds colliding," says Kelia Moniz, a Hawaii-born Roxy surfer now based in New York. "It's actually really encouraging. I can genuinely say I have learned to appreciate what I do so much because of it."

For fashion and surfing together, the future appears promising; if anything, Louis Vuitton's epic surf range certainly bodes well. Though as with anything else, it'll be crucial for our industry to pay homage to the sport properly. What better way is there to do so than to go straight to source? "It's ideal when the fashion industry immerses themselves in the culture and lifestyle of a sport in order to provide a true collaborative experience with the athlete," says Manuel. "The surf community is multidimensional and if tapped into authentically, has the ability to inspire a multitude of other creative fields." O'Neil also recommends for brands that borrow from surf culture to also consider donating to nonprofits that support the wellbeing of oceans, beaches and sea life, like Surfrider and Blue Sphere.

Surfers themselves have a lot to offer fashion, too, particularly when it comes to their gear. Manuel expresses her frustration with the lack of feminine, yet distraction-free and durable wetsuits out there. Meanwhile, Ward says it's been a dream of hers to create a high-fashion performance line, including revamped suits, leashes and stomp pads. Rihanna delivered such a series of flashy, high-octane pieces for Fenty Puma last season, like zipper-adorned, scoopneck one-pieces and sporty bikini tops. How much cooler would those have been, though, if a surfer was able to actually wear them while training? That may not be too far from reality — if that's what surfers actually want.

"What I do care about and believe is that the commercial spectacle of fashion will never eclipse the transcendent spectacle and practice of surfing. It may deform it and metastasize its image in the short-term, and that's not great, but it will never touch what surfing is," says O'Neil. "Fashion will move onto the next cultural meme to exploit, or explore if its heart is in the right place. And surfers will go on being surfers."

Homepage photo: Australian professional surfer Stephanie Gilmore off the coast of Norway's Lofoten Islands. Photo: @roxy/Instagram

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