Surf Fashion For Beginners

chick-corey wilsonYou’re doing it wrong. Photo: Corey Wilson

While fashion has always prided itself in looking “forward,” as the saying goes, it cannot hide the fact that it forever cranes its neck looking back. Undeniably, with every season, fashion peers over its shoulder at the trends and tendencies of yesteryear. With the right amount of time (and memory loss), the past suddenly appears progressive, if not stylish.

Surf fashion is no exception, and as radical as the sport becomes, the fashion and trends within this world feed that bygone obsession. The loud neons of the ‘80s, the psychedelics of the ‘70s, the slick of the ‘60s, the innocence of the ‘50s — every brand tries to bottle a piece of the past and sell it. The ads are grainy, the product in sepia tones, the pictures soft and a little out of focus. Nostalgia is the greatest consumer aphrodisiac.

Whether it was the campaign or the trend that came first — the chicken or the egg — it was this fetish with the past that spawned a time in our sport’s history known as Period Surfing. Indeed, after the motorbike-riding surfer-greasers of Byron Bay, Orange County had its Morning of the Earth second coming with its single-fins and bonzers and tie-dyed tees.

Then, for a few years, the period-based trends strived to outdo each other, harkening back further and further. There were the 1880s Pioneers of Northern California. The 1920s Newsboy surfers of Long Island, NY. The brands caught on and with each seasonal line, they’d drop a promo piece like: an Abe Lincoln-style stovepipe top hat, a 49ers gold mining pan, a 1930s physicist apron. These pieces sold like hot cakes and they had nothing to do with surfing.

But there was no crew of period surfers as pure, as undiluted, as unsullied and as utterly mysterious as the subculture known as The Beginning. The Beginning Era — with its disciples who dubbed themselves Beginners — were a highly elusive, tight-knit crew of wave riders that paid tribute to the original, pre-European-contact form of surfing. With the sole intent of enjoying the sport in its most ancient, unadulterated form, Beginners only frequented outer reefs where no one could see them ride. They shunned exposure, media coverage or filming of any kind and sessioned in secret.

The men wore nothing but traditional malo loinclothes in the water and the few women in the club surfed topless (as recorded in ancient oral tradition as well as early written accounts by Capt. James Cook and Mark Twain). Beginners only rode giant 15-foot alaia boards — with neither wax, nor fins — and they would take great pains in carving these boards from koa trees that they’d chop themselves from deep in the forests of the Big Island and Kauai. They’d only use traditional stone tools and cutting equipment, of course; they were purists of the highest caliber.

All Beginners, no matter their previous ethnic background, took old Hawaiian names and they’d go on surf trips to bizarre locales like Kahoolawe or Niihau (The Forbidden Isle). They’d even paddle the open-ocean channels between the islands to get there. Newcomers to the Beginning Era had to have a basic grasp of the Hawaiian language…or at least have taken a Hawaiian Studies 101 class at the local university. The leader of this era was a steely-eyed man who they called Kane. Kane was their movement’s kahuna.

Of course companies and brands heard of this era and wanted on board in some way. Kahuna Kane, however, declined all advances, whether for sponsor collaborations, for brand ambassador offers, for TED Talk speaking engagements and for the offer to make him co-founder of a Kickstarter line of hemp loincloth surf wear (*It’d be the STANCE of loincloths!” they assured him.) For almost five years, the era thrived in secret, unhindered with minimal growth, the only era that the brands could not crack or tap into.

But in the end, it was flattery that killed them, as it does every great woman and man. An interloper had weaseled his way into the Beginners’ hui, a surf agent in disguise. At first the threat was benign. While the Beginners’ spurned all forms of claiming or complimenting, the interloper began to grin and wag his head at Kahuna Kane’s primitive style. Pretty soon, the interloper had people hooting again and throwing shakas after exceptional rides (previously prohibited).

Ultimately, after a particularly dull summer of surf, and with a huge south swell looming on the forecast, the interloper convinced Kane to hold the first-ever “Beginners’ Koa Wood Classic,” to be held on the island of Moloka’i. And though the interloper promised Kane that any and all sponsors would be culturally respectful, let alone wholly supportive of their cause, on the day of the contest, the Beginners showed up to a long row of pop-up tents lining the beach complete with sunscreen, clothing, and many other brand logos. An organic food truck advertising locally pounded poi on the menu rolled up behind them. At heat check-in, the women had to cover their breasts and the neon comp jerseys that hung high and tight above the men’s loinclothes did not look pono.

You would’ve thought it was a success from the press release the next day, but the attention destroyed the crew and within a week, the Beginners’ hui disbanded.

But. While Period Surfing seemed to have run its course with the end of the Beginning era, perhaps it paved the way to finally look fashion-forward. Perhaps there’s a surf crew in Cocoa Beach that watch the spaceships blast off from Cape Canaveral in wonderment. Perhaps their nostalgia comes not from the past. Perhaps they look up toward space, then down at their boardshorts and wonder something truly futuristic…