I remember when Andy Irons rode Arakawa boards under HIC (I remember when he had an undercut, too, the poor guy). The appearance of his now-familiar, scripted Billabong label circa 2005 was a bit confusing, since Billabong made hats and fleeces and the occasional marketing gaff (coughJORDY) – but not surfboards. And they still don’t make surfboards, per se, but as Stab explains on its website, clothing companies like Billabong have entered the board market by contracting with independent shapers and distributing their wares among surfers both pro and public. The idea is that Mick Fanning, riding for “Rip Curl Surfboards,” can source his quiver from Rip Curl’s team of private foamsmen: Darren Handley and Wade Tokoro, for instance. Rip Curl gets to grab some more of Mick’s deck space for its name or logo, and the shapers get paid handsomely as their RC crafts jet off to a thousand global retailers. It sounds like a nice little equation.
It’s also a reversal of past contagion between the board and clothing businesses. Think of …Lost, which separated its hard- and soft-goods activities to accommodate the growing human capital in Chris Ward (he got a better clothing deal but couldn’t stay off the Mayhems*). Or Rusty, who built an enormous soft-goods company around his San Diego hand-shaping operation. But moving in the opposite direction is an attempt by the big names in t-shirt making to lock down a few magic planers for the benefit of their A-teams.
The big question, as Stab notes, is whether this road leads to exclusivity between contracted board makers and corresponding professionals – like if Andy could only ride from the Billabong stable, and if Tokoro could only shape for the Rip Curl team. From the outset such a program would seem untenable. Would a surfer really junk a magic board just because it came from the “wrong” factory? Recall the Olympic swimmers in Beijing who broke ranks with their sponsors at the last second to don Speedo’s LZR suit simply because, paychecks aside, it was the fastest.
Perhaps tour surfers would get boards from whomever they wished, and then just whiteout the real logos and replace those with an appropriate sticker. This doesn’t seem as prevalent now – although every case and contract is unique – and it’s more common to see a surfer riding non-sponsor equipment outside of contests with the true shaper’s insignia intact (the chili, the tractor, the Mayhem, the Merrick – marks of an individual shaper rather than his company, when there’s a distinction). Observe, for example, the wrath of …Lost when Nick Rosza took some ink to his board for a Transworld cover. Also interesting is …Lost’s disclaimer on the subject tucked into the corners of their web pages:
Special Note: Many of the guys who ride boards shaped by Matt Biolos or made at the Lost Factory – cannot have the Lost logo on their board out of respect to their paying sponsors. We’d like to thank them for all their input in helping Lost become a leading surfboard brand worldwide.
Furthermore, if a Mick Fanning decided he couldn’t live without his disallowed non-Rip Curl boards, modern technology is in the process of offering a solution. Spend five minutes with Surfline’s “How it Works: The Shaping Machine” for an idea of just how advanced the current manufacturing techniques are. A competitor’s shape will soon be 3-D scanned into the computer, neatly mapped and copied, then spat out ripe for new logos and a proprietary name like “The Neutron.” Exclusivity seems a bit outdated these days.
But that doesn’t mean the model won’t work; there’s enough bread on the table for both board builder and cloth mogul to mutually gain from a relationship. I just question the likelihood of securing surfer/shaper loyalty on the back of a contract alone; can the almighty dollar really spin that kind of arranged marriage? And would both parties stay true?
*When I was way younger and not as awesome, like in 2006, I used to fill out imaginary order cards for Lost boards off their website. I’d take a couple of 5’11″ SD2′s for California events and in case Europe was small; a 6’1″ squash and a 6’3″ round-pin, both Whiplashes, for medium beachbreaks and smaller waves at home; a 6’6″ mini-gun because I rush big swells; and, of course, a 5’6″ RNF to get all Lopey on Sunday mornings. My parents never caught me oggling adult film sites, just the Lost surfboard page.