“Who said surfing wasn’t chic?” inquired surfertoday.com in a brief feature about Chanel’s pricy surfboards featured in its 2010 Spring/Summer ad campaign. While Karl Lagerfeld’s take on Chanel’s signature tweed suits imbued the streamlined, monochrome boards with an air of modern elegance, surf culture’s associations with youthful vitality reinvigorated the fashion classic. The campaign illustrated how conceptions of cool have evolved over the course of the twentieth century and how the appropriation of subcultural styles give high fashion designs an edge. Surveying these images with legends of Chanel’s adventurous and determined personality in mind, I imagine that Mademoiselle herself would have been tempted to try the sport had she been presented with the opportunity.
Surfing has become a global phenomenon as a professional competitive sport and as a favoured leisure activity. Its popular mythology, promoted by music and films, is associated with the rejection of mainstream culture and the pursuit of personal freedom through a communion with nature. These romantic preconceptions make it a desirable brand in itself, which both consumers and manufacturers seem keen to buy into. Indeed, its longterm relevance to dress history was underlined when a surprising fragment of interwar surfing history circulated on blogs and websites in the form of a photograph of a woman standing in front of a surfboard on a nondescript beach. Agatha Christie was identified as the unlikely subject of the image. Christie first tried the sport in South Africa, but it wasn’t until a trip to Hawaii in 1922 that she mastered the cumbersome art of surfing standing upright on the board. In her 1972 autobiography, Christie described how she needed to adjust her wardrobe to the demands of the sport, as her “handsome silk bathing-dress” could not withstand the force of the waves. Instead, Christie opted for “a wonderful, skimpy, emerald-green wool bathing-dress,” purchased from the hotel shop and accessorised with laced, soft leather boots to protect her feet from the sharp coral of the Honolulu beach. This suggests that even before surfing became the fashionable sport it is today, its practical demands did not mean the end of individuality in dress. Her words give us a glimpse into attitudes towards surf-related attire before preconceptions were created by vivid marketing campaigns and promoted through music and film, as its popularity has grown since the 1950s.
By 2010 – the year of the Chanel campaign – the surfing industry, which encompasses a range of specialised companies from wetsuit manufacturers to wax and leash makers, generated more than seven billion dollars annually. Established companies, such as Quicksilver, which was founded in 1969, viewed attempts to tap into the developing market by big sportswear brands, such as Nike, with suspicion. Many of surf companies began as small local businesses during a period when the sport lacked mainstream popularity and their history is a key component of their brand identity. The way that labels, such as O’Neill, founded in 1952, and credited with the invention of the wetsuit, evolved over the years is closely linked to how the sport. This kind of authenticity mattered within the industry, and is reinforced by the short lifespan of the Nike 6.0 surf project in contrast to the ongoing popularity of Hurley, an established brand bought by the sportswear giant in 2002.
Both surfing and fashion are pursuits that allow self-expression, suggesting successful future collaborations, if collaborators are carefully chosen. Although the surfing industry has experienced setbacks in the last few years, the announcement that Kelly Slater, one of surf’s superstars, left his sponsor Quicksilver in order to partner with the Kering Group in March of this year suggests that the sport is still considered to have potential from a commercial standpoint. Slater and Kering’s joint venture will take the shape of an eco-friendly clothing company and Slater will serve as the Group’s ambassador for its issue concerning sustainability. It seems that through this collaboration, new standards can be set for both fashion and surfing, that combine authenticity and trend-awareness.
Christie, A. (1977) An Autobiography. Glasgow: Fontana Collins.
Heinemann, J. (2004) Vintage Surfing Graphics. London and New York: Taschen.
Laderman, S. (2011) Empire in Waves: A political history of surfing. Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.
Schmidt, C. (2012) The Swimsuit. London and New York: Berg.
Wade, A. (2012) Amazing Surfing Stories. Chichester: Wiley Nautical.