[This feature originally appeared in our June 2017 Issue, “Influencers,” on newsstands and available for download now.]
Looking back on the early days of surfing's Internet Age, Warren Smith—a brooding surfer, artist, writer, and photographer from the Gulf Coast of Florida—emerged as one of the sport's most polarizing figures. Beginning with his early collaborations with Dion Agius on their blog, Proxy Noise, in 2011, Smith's modern Beat ramblings, abstract black-and-white photography, and outsider ethos sent many an internet troll running to their keyboards. But Smith was never concerned about online backlash. In fact, he and Agius embraced it.
"I've come to the realization that if you do something that the majority of the surf world hates, then you're probably doing something right," Agius says of he and Smith's collaboration. "Surfing has been sheltered for so long, it's often presented as this thing where everything is rosy and perfect. It's good that we're not living in that padded little world anymore."
Haters aside, Proxy Noise resonated with many surfers who were tired of the overly polished, jockish interpretation of surfing being presented by many brands and media outlets at the time. For Smith, the reaction to Proxy Noise was validation for someone who felt like he'd always been an outsider in the surf world.
"Growing up in a shitty town in Florida, you either get stuck there or you get excited about something that can get you the f–k out," says Smith. "I had a really unique upbringing because of that. We didn't have a surf team or high school surf practice; we were skipping school to go surfing or skateboarding. It felt very rebellious because the waves sucked and the culture was smaller, and that sort of laid the foundation for everything for me. My interest in writing and photography came from that."
Over the last decade, Smith's been able to ride his Kerouacian inclinations into myriad creative projects, taking a hands-on approach with campaigns that his sponsors have involved him in while maintaining a prolific output personally, writing music reviews, making artwork, shooting film photographs and developing them himself in makeshift darkrooms. As a longtime friend of freesurfing firebrands Craig Anderson and Dane Reynolds, it came as no surprise when it was announced that Smith would be helping formulate the creative vision for their new clothing company, Former.
"We're all really opinionated," says Anderson. "Warren is probably the most opinionated [laughs], but somehow it works. At the start I thought it might be challenging to blend all of our different visions together, but Warren and Grady [Archbold, Smith's longtime friend and collaborator, as well as a fellow Former brand builder] have really helped bring it all into focus on the creative side. Whether it's the imagery we use or the way we want a video to look and feel, they just help us make sense of it all."
At a time when many surf brands are struggling to distinguish themselves atop a constantly shifting cultural landscape, Former seems cut from the same rebellious cloth as Proxy Noise, favoring a dark, cryptic aesthetic saturated in Smith's post-punk attitude. But this time it isn't an outsider blog Smith's manning; it's a brand backed by some of the most influential surfers in the world, and it's going to reach a much larger audience. If you ask Smith, however, he'll tell you that it's still "just a bunch of dudes starting something out of their garage," which is a place Smith seems more than comfortable.
"We've all talked about starting something forever, and that discussion took different shapes over time. But when we started talking about doing something without investors, or your average bloodsucker types, I got way more excited. We're not playing that same game that's been around for 50 years. Not out of spite—we just don't ever want to end up in some cookie-cutter warehouse in Irvine [California], doing trade shows, not giving a shit. We have no rhyme or reason to what we're doing. We're just doing what we want, when we want to do it, and making shit that we're proud of that feels true and honest. As long as we can feed ourselves and have a good time, I just want to make rad shit, and I hope people like it."
[Featured Image: Warren Smith, Photo by Archbold]
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