You’d have to live under a rock not to have heard of Kelly Slater, arguably the greatest surfer of all time. The 44-year-old Floridan has been crowned World Surf League Champion 11 times, and is both the youngest and oldest man to be crowned ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals) champ. For 23 years, he was sponsored by surfwear giant Quiksilver, bearing its logo on his chest and boards. Then, in 2014, he announced he was leaving.
‘There’s nothing bad involved with it,’ commented Slater, at the time. ‘I have this one chance in my life to do this thing I’m real passionate about and I’m really honoured that the situation arose to allow me to do it.’
That thing turned out to be his own surfwear label. Outerknown, launched last July, is part financed by luxury fashion powerhouse Kering and co-helmed by renowned surfwear designer John Moore. Anchored in Slater’s fame and steered by his commitment to the dual philosophies of sustainable lifestyle and product people want to buy, it offers a grown-up, sophisticated alternative to the cheap-and-cheerful, Hawaiian florals aesthetic that has dragged other surf brands into the depths.
Now just over a year old, Outerknown is, in many ways, the ultimate sustainable label, in which the creative director’s renown is matched by his passion for planet and people-friendly production values. After all, who better to chart the destruction of the ocean than someone who’s spent most of his adult life negotiating its humours? Outerknown’s intentions are made clear at the head of its website: ‘We’re committed to doing everything we can to minimise our impacts on the environment and improve the conditions and quality of life in the communities where we live and work.’
All this would be pointless without quality product. Outerknown delivers, with t-shirts, woven shirts, knits, jackets and chinos in muted, low-key colours, crafted in organic cotton and hemp, regenerated Italian wool and recycled fishing nets (aka Econyl). The prices, upwards of $128 for a t-shirt, were given the one-finger salute by younger fans, used to the high-volume, low-margin business models of the traditional surfwear providers. Brand supporters believe that, as environmental and ethical awareness grows, fans will come round. As for Slater himself, there’s nothing more the wave rider loves than a challenge. See below.
Last November, Slater spoke at the second of five annual lectures to mark a five-year partnership between Kering and LCF’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion. Sitting on the stage, in front of a packed audience of students and industry professionals, he looked like the whole of the sea pulled into one man. Watch the talk on Kering’s YouTube Channel here or read my interview. Either way, take note.
On the genesis of the brand: ‘I was inspired by Patagonia [to think about] where clothing should come form, how it should be made. I wanted to do my version … and I felt I wanted to have more accountability about where I put my name and how I implement my beliefs. Why wouldn’t someone want to be proud of something they made at every level? When you have a feeling in your gut that it’s the right thing, you get your Jerry McGuire moment, [that realisation that] this is going to change my life. I felt like I was doing the right thing …. it came together a lot easier than i thought.’
On challenge: ‘I love a challenge. I like to be out of my comfort zone. You talk about risk. When I hear those words, my mind goes to the oceans and the inherent dangers we deal with. Everyone should have a challenge in life because it keeps you sharp.’
On sustainability: ‘If you have a certain level of fame, you have an obligation to use that as a platform. Honestly, sometimes, [I have] very little hope for the earth. Everywhere you look, there’s something unsustainable. It can’t last. There are very few things in the world that seem to be getting better. But, as the guy for Patagonia always says, go for a solution.’
On succeeding: ‘Figure out what you’re good at. I love to surf so i just wanted to be the best possible surfer. My advice would be to be patient, know what you’re good at and have good people around you. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. Anyone who’s done anything great has been told they’re crazy and they’ll fail. You have to be your base critic and critique everything you do from an outside perspective.’
On the ethical consumer. ‘Does the consumer care? I think about that every day and I wonder. [There’s this myth that] people who care about sustainability are treehuggers and don’t have money. In general, I think there’s more people getting educated. In the internet age, I’m like “why are we debating this? Look it up.” Climate, pollution: education is a key to changing anything. Not everyone is going to be your customer. Just make sure you do the right thing. If you change some minds in the process, do that.’
On criticism: ‘I’d like to describe the whole project as a social experiment. Our launch was met with a lot of criticism and hate because people expected a high volume product. I ultimately take it as a compliment.’
On surfing: ‘Surfing is growing and it bothers me a little. it’s getting so crowded in the ocean. but as far as business goes, it’s great.
On water: ‘Water was always important to me. In ten or fifteen years, water is going to cost as much as oil.’
On the future: ‘I just want my customers to buy. We have a website where we want to be able to tell stories, feature movies and videos. I’m diving more into on my own social media platforms. I want the design of the brand to talk to people; the sustainability side of it should just be natural, the way it is.’