The formative years of surf-lifestyle apparel business were an era of definitive innovation. In 1978, after redefining what regular-footed surfers were capable of at Pipeline in the winters previous, Michael Tomson migrated to Laguna Beach, California and began developing the first design-focused surf wear company—Gotcha. Instantly successful designs coupled with an aggressive marketing campaign fueled the brand's exponential growth though the 80s, and by the end of the decade Gotcha became the first surf-lifestyle brand to reach 100 million dollars in annual sales. In doing so it helped to define surf culture to the world.
To say Tomson's perspective of the action sports industry is unique is a gross understatement. From a top the podium of legendary surf competitions of the late 70s and 80s to sitting in the boardrooms of every major department store in the nation, MT has seen the surf industry evolve like no one else. His understanding of the marketplace is as intimate and insightful today as it was then.
TransWorld Business sat down with Tomson at his office in Laguna Beach to discuss the challenges currently facing the surf market, and his thoughts on how to solve them. Here's what he had to say.
How Have You Seen The Distribution Of Surf Lifestyle Apparel & Products Evolve Since The 80s?
Historically, back in the 80s and the early part of the 90s in what I would call the Pre-PacSun Era, distribution was really confined into two channels—surf shops and department stores. Then the second layer of surf shops developed, which were chain surf shops, for example Becker's. When PacSun arrived it changed everything. It created a distribution base that focused on our categories exclusively, and that gave us the platform.
How Has Distribution Affected The Industry?
As the industry matured, the look became more prevalent across the country and across the world, and the mass distributors started focusing on it. Today you can begin at Wal-Mart and go all the up to Fred Segal and higher and you'll find surf product. That's mirrored the growth of the industry and growth of all the categories within surf product—juniors, accessories, and all that other stuff.
What Challenges Has This Created For The Surf Industry?
What that means is that there's an incredible parity of [surf] product today, and now kids are looking for other things to excite them. I've been saying this for years, but the surf industry needs to continually be re-inventing itself. Someone could say that there have been great technological advancements in boardshorts and things of that nature, but there haven't been any real broad strokes of creativity within our industry that would actually excite the consumer on a different level.
Distribution has materially affected the appeal of surf product to the cutting edge consumer, because it's availability has burnt out the cool that we had, which is why streetwear brands like Obey are really hot right now. Our look is ubiquitous. It's everywhere. Kids are looking for something different. Differentiate or die!
What I'm saying is we need to keep re-inventing … Twenty percent of what any manufacturer makes or any retailer buys need to be progressive. We need to have that component in our assortments in order to drive our industry forward. That increasingly seems to be forgotten.
What Would You Be Doing Differently If You Were An Established Apparel Brand In The Surf Industry Today?
The problem with our industry is that we make one line and sell it to fucking everyone, and then the little guy gets worked … In our industry there's been no segmentation of products in distribution. Look at Nike, it's a fantastic brand but it's available everywhere. It's available to all segments of distribution, however Nike 6.0 isn't. It's only available in specialty stores.
We do it the other way around. We aren't isolating styles for specialty stores. We're isolating styles for department stores, not our core. That's the SMU [special make up] business. We need to focus on creating concepts for specialty stores, not only SMU's for PacSun or Macy's.
In the 80s and 90s the brands marketed groups of products like Echo Beach from Quiksilver, Rhythm Division from Gotcha, and Bad Billy's from Billabong, which were only available in surf shops. That doesn't exist today. Instead what we've done—we being the industry collective—is sell everybody everything at slightly different prices.
That infidelity, if you like, to the specialty stores has bred a cynicism on their behalf, and rightly so. They aren't being serviced in the manner that they need to be … These days the manufacturers think they're doing the specialty stores a favor when they isolate a colorway for them. One colorway! Why don't they give them a whole group of products with a story and call it something, and market it? That gives the guy [specialty retailer] a reason to support them. It nurtures the industry from the roots up, not from the top down. That's what we're missing today.
I don't believe it matters so much who you sell as much as how you sell. For the bigger brands these days, critical mass is a vastly important thing. They need volume. They need traction in their sales line. I don't think there's any question that you're going to see the bigger brands selling more widely from a distribution standpoint. It's a question of how they're selling, and what products they're selling, and what marketing they're doing to support the core level.
Because if a brand goes to a [specialty] store and says 'I'm going to give you this. I'm going to give you that. I'm going to make sure the product is special. I'm going to service the Hell out of you, and I'm going to give you a great IMU.' Then what's to lose? The only way a brand can afford to do that is if it has some distribution that can fund it. That's the bottom line.
Why Don't You Think There's Been More Product Segmentation & What Are Some Specific Opportunities You See In The Market Today?
The people that are really running things right now are numbers, distribution, and results driven. I understand that. But they're in the brand business. They don't want to compete against the Forever 21's out there. The SMU [special make up] deal is such a huge component of sales right now at all the big companies.
I keep thinking to myself: Where's Kelly's [Slater] or Dane's [Reynolds] specialty line? Is that a golden opportunity, or am I dreaming? Ever heard of Air Jordan?