Browse all

The naive freshness of surfwear brands in the 2000s.

When Italian Millennials dreamed of California

The naive freshness of surfwear brands in the 2000s. When Italian Millennials dreamed of California

There was a time, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the wardrobes of Italian teenagers were filled with T-shirts filled with sharks, surfing, flowers, Mexican skulls, and sunsets over the sea. The success of this wave should be attributed to a strand of ante-litteram streetwear brands that took the imagery of California and Hawaiian surf culture and converted it into pop, energetic, and vaguely aggressive imagery. Maui & Sons, Scorpion Bay, Billabong and Quicksilver are the main ones but we could also mention the more obscure North Shore, Piko, Gotcha and T&C Surf. All of these brands shared not only a surf vocation but also a taste toward vintage or futuristic lettering, suggestions that came from the "tribal" tattoos of Leo Zulueta and Ed Hardy popular in the 1990s, and a call toward summer and exotic worlds that gave a sense of adventure and adrenaline. The iconography typified by these brands harked back to the scenery and cultures of the South Pacific, filtered and reinterpreted through the lens of an American-style commercial fashion whose "tropical" visual theme and edginess (imagine Maui & Sons' robotic sharks that seemed to roar in the prints of the famous T-shirts) became somewhat of a symbol for the teenagers of the Millennial generation, leaving unsuspected traces in their future.

It would be impossible, in the course of this review, not to mention the brand that reinvented surfwear: Stussy, which, however, at the time still did not enjoy, at least in Italy, the cult status it enjoys now. Both Stussy and these surfwear brands share common times and places of origin - often centered around the hubs of international surfing and the 1970s/80s, give or take a year. Quicksilver for example was founded in 1969 in Torquay, Australia, T&C Surf Designs was born in Pearl City, Hawaii, in 1971; in 1978 Michael Tomson and Joel Cooper founded Gotcha in Laguna Beach whose graphic designer was Shawn Stussy himself; Billabong was born two years later in Queensland, also in Australia; while, after leaving Gotcha, Shawn Stussy founded his eponymous brand in Laguna Beach in 1980, the same year Maui & Sons was born in Malibu; Scorpion Bay was founded by two California surfers in 1987; while in 1994, in Honolulu, Kevin Kamakura and Wade Morisato founded Piko. Last in line is Hollister, conceived in vitro by the owners of Abercormbie & Fitch in 2000 , who also invented a fake origin story to make it more "historical" and rooted in the imagery of California beaches. The very case of Hollister demonstrates the strength that the trend had in those years: in order to exploit the appeal of surf culture and the California vibe, a chain of stores was willing to invent a founder out of whole cloth and create store fronts similar to Malibu houses. 

The most historic surfwear brands, however, arrived in Italy on a deferred basis following a series of licensing agreements, the most important of which were the acquisition of Maui & Sons' license for Italy by Maurizio Cocchi in 1986 and that of Scorpion Bay by the Mistri family in 1992, which became a full acquisition in 2007. The business licenses for Italy made these brands "new" to the country when they already had more than a decade behind them. Needless to describe how their arrival helped create the late Italian mall brand culture that saw the rise of a series of brand-meteora that became so connected to the teen/preteen world of those years that they are still trapped in that era, painfully out of date. Yet those fashion brands, whether international or national, established a stylistic koinè in the vast multiverse that was the Italian province-a world that in the early 2000s (and to a lesser extent even today) was utterly alien to the idea of fashion and trends, frozen in a respectable immobility that only the arrival of Zara and H&M's fast fashion with their courtship of fast fashion brands managed to shake up, without breaking it. The teenagers of the time, who had grown up with Transformers, Bionicles, Disney's Gargoyles, anime like GTO and cartoons like Street Shark found in the Hawaiian graphics of Maui & Sons and Scorpion Bay the breath of a world somewhere between the childhood fantasy of toys and cartoons and the more adult excitement of California adventure and surf imagery.

Looked at retrospectively, all these surfwear brands shared something: a same visual language, the same emphasis on graphics that decorated basic garments such as T-shirts, sweatshirts, and swimsuits, and the same obsession with the logo, repeated and varied in ever-changing fonts. These were sporty garments but lacking the athletic ambition and aspirationality of more properly sportswear brands, which had little to do with the technicalities of "real" surf gear but, above all, which were sold to a teenage audience, such as the Italian one, that was relatively unfamiliar with this culture. In other words, these surfwear brands of the 2000s were selling a certain kind of fantasy or, as Hampton Carney of Abercrombie & Fitch put it, a certain idea of surfwear: «It's more about the lifestyle and inspiration, rather than the actual activity». A mechanism, that of lifestyle inspiration, which fashion has possessed for some time but which has been taken to a new level in recent years: from Casablanca and Miu Miu eyeing the world of tennis players to Hedi Slimane's perennial fascination with bikers, their stunts, and their leather jackets; from Gucci reinterpreting the running aesthetic with adidas and rethinking riding accessories to Jacquemus turning scuba gear into an it bag.

Yet, whether fashion or streetwear, it is since those years that we have not seen a unifying trend or lifestyle inspiration shape an entire brand becoming an observable and ongoing "phenomenon" like the rise of surf brands in the early 2000s. In a post-streetwear era, after the drunkenness of graphics and branding that has caused many middle-range brands to lose the aspiration to cultivate a truly unique personality and become increasingly generic with "broad-spectrum" appeal, the case of the surfwear brands of those years is an important lesson in the importance of concept and pop aspirationality that does not have to be synonymous with luxury. After all, for many Millennial kids, California-inspired surfwear brands were the first taste of aspirational pop fashion that, ten or twenty years later and as the case may be, ended up becoming real fashion.