This wasn’t on purpose. Standing on the stones of Lower Trestles, I’ve just watched wildcard Tanner Gudauskas beat Kelly Slater in a quirky Round 1 heat. Now I’ve got my phone pointed at Kelly’s face, still wet from loss, as we trudge through an interview for SURFING’s 50th anniversary issue. After five minutes of extracting the king’s wisdom, I earnestly congratulate him on the launch of his new brand, Outerknown. This cascades into a 20-minute conversation about sweatshops, corporate transparency and the struggles of the clothing industry. A pesky interview somehow turned into a hearty discussion with a portly, unkempt Online Editor? Something’s there, with Kelly. Passion. We’ve seen it before — just ask Shane Beschen — and we’ve seen where it can lead. Here are the first thousand words you’ll read on Outerknown. Patagonia better hope they don’t give out world titles for clothing brands. —Brendan Buckley
SURFING: Congratulations on Outerknown. I’m really excited to see where you go with it.
Kelly Slater: We're not going to be a traditional surf brand. It'll be on the higher end with a focus on making good clothing the right way. I've seen a lot of other athletes — skaters especially — start their own brands. They don't just get a sponsor and collect a check. They take a risk. It's more pressure and it's definitely more time, but it's also more fun. And it's something that's been on my mind for years and years — the idea came when I was 21. My friends and I had all these sponsors that were marketing us and making money off of us and I was thinking to myself, "Why don't we take all that for ourselves? We can do whatever we want and have fun with it." But it's not an easy thing to do.
So it took you a while to figure out who you wanted to work with and how to go about doing it?
I knew I wanted to work with John Moore because we worked together before with the VSTR stuff at Quiksilver and he really wanted to make a statement with a brand. It was the perfect timing — John stopped working with Quik at the same time I did and it all fell into place. It's the type of thing where if you really put your energy towards doing something, it'll come together no matter what. And it feels like a natural progression for me. A lot of times you get new clothes and you're like "Oh these are sick," but to actually see them from concept to reality is really interesting. Everything from the design to the materials to how it factors into your whole line and how comprehensive is that line going to be… It's all really exciting.
You talked about global citizenship in your introductory Instagram post. Could you tell me more about that?
At the end of the day, I'll be held responsible for the decisions Outerknown makes as a brand. We have to choose where the materials are sourced from and how the clothing is produced, and I'm putting my neck on the line. The goal is to be transparent. I've heard about companies that have actually produced their own plastic bottles in order to make their plastic bottle boardshorts that are supposed to be all recycled. That's sad. That's a joke. Especially for the people who are endorsing it and the surfers putting their hearts into the idea. With Outerknown, I'm accountable on the highest level and we want to do things the right way.
So you're pursuing sustainable materials and keeping it out of sweat shops?
That's been a big issue that I want to address because you hear the term sweat shop and immediately think of little kids making clothes, which can be the case. But it can also be their wage, the work conditions, the facilities, the hours. Workers aren’t allowed to form unions or protests the conditions. Those are the things that define sweatshops. Clothing is a really icky business, but it's a whole system. You've got retailers bitching about prices but they're also bitching about production and they way things are made. Those two things are completely tied together. If you're going to use good materials and take care of people working in your factories, the clothing will be exponentially more expensive to produce.
I look at a company like Patagonia and they’ve done a great job. People might not realize that a lot of their manufacturing is done in China. But they go to China and their workers are being taken care of the right way. You can do it in those countries in a responsible way. Nike has been put under the gun for sweatshops, but people love the brand more than they care about those issues. Forever 21, in terms of women's clothing, have had a lot of fingers pointed towards them in regards to certain things. They’re selling designs that look like things that are 10 times the price. "Oh this is $20? I can't even get it for a hundred over there!" Girls are going to buy it. They're not worried about who built it or how much they got paid. That can make thing really tricky for a brand. It’s not as easy as saying "Do this, don’t do that."
I have a lot more respect for the Quiksilvers of the world, the Billabongs of the world, all the different brands. I’ve realized what it takes to actually make things happen. There are so many laws and codes that you have to adhere to when it comes to production. It's never-ending. In the states it's really hard to produce anything and get a margin on it — that explains why everyone produces things overseas. Then people get into "You're producing a carbon footprint, you're causing global warming, you're responsible." It's a fucking wasp nest man. There’s no escaping how difficult this business is.
It is easy for a consumer to have absolutely no idea what it is they’re consuming.
We're calling Outerknown a journey to transparency. We want everyone to know everything about our brand and give us criticism so we can address it publicly. We want people to understand what goes into making something and see how good of a job we can do at that. That's the forefront of the idea. It’s definitely not easy and we might completely fail, who knows.
Well I admire you for being so involved in it.
It's a fun, interesting thing but it's not an easy one. I definitely admire the people that go out and make sure things are being done the right way. Everyone has their job. We all have to rely on each other to make the right decisions. And this is a new world to me, but I love it.