Iconoclastic Surf Brand Gotcha! Is Revived By California’s ‘Brain Dead’
Michael Tomson would be proud.
Once upon a time, Gotcha! was the biggest surf brand in the world.
Founded by the late, great Michael Tomson, Gotcha did something nobody has done properly since: They looked at surfing through a cultural lens, and actually made it work. Rather than simply slinging t-shirts or working on the next performance boardshort fabric (which, granted, they did with aplomb) Tomson and his cast of cohorts managed to build something that spoke not only to surfers, but for surfing.
Gotcha influenced future generations of streetwear designers and marketing execs alike. This is evidenced by Shawn Stussy’s stint as their graphic designer before starting his namesake label and can still be seen today, as the creative collective and apparel brand Brain Dead has licensed Gotcha and produced a line of co-branded apparel.
Founded by Kyle Ng and Ed Davis, Brain Dead didn’t find themselves here by accident. Longtime garmento Gavin Dogan caught wind of Brain Dead’s vision a few years ago and jumped on as a partner. So far, it’s been a blissful and ascendant marriage of minds. Like Michael Thomson, Gavin was born and raised in South Africa and eventually found himself in California, where he cemented himself into the notoriously hard-to-crack LA surf scene. After circling each other for a number of years, Gavin and Michael eventually joined forces on a brand called Our-Caste. While this venture was slightly before its time, the experience of getting to know M.T. stuck with Gavin. Now, with Brain Dead, he sees a connection between the minds of M.T. and Kyle Ng as well as the brands themselves.
“When you look at old Gotcha advertisements and even the product itself, there are so many similarities to what Brian Dead is today,” Gavin says. “It’s just fucking left field. There was nothing in those old Gotcha Ads that was similar to anything being done in the surf industry at the time. They were just wild. If you look at Brain Dead there is no traditional approach to anything. Like with Michael, if there are creative juices flowing in Kyle’s brain, he’s just gonna do it.”
Like MT, Kyle has an undying commitment to his brand’s identity. He’s got experience collaborating with juggernauts like North Face, Reebok, Converse, and more—which has led to brands lining up at Brain Dead’s front door hoping to join forces. However, his relationship with Gotcha started long before he was designing clothing.
“Gotcha is incredibly important to me, it’s actually one of my top three favorite brands of all time,” Kyle said. “I read the Gotcha book and learned all about them and that was one of the biggest inspirations for Brain Dead. I bought that book at Thalia Surf six years ago and was like ‘Oh, I remember wearing Gotcha as a kid’. It was this representation of the mock necks, the novelty stripes. I didn’t grow up wearing Stussy, I grew up wearing Gotcha, and Gotcha represented not just surfing, but the ‘90s and California style as a whole.”
While Brain Dead is primarily a clothing company, they invest as much time and energy into cultural programming as they do manufacturing and selling apparel. They founded a charity with climber Ashima Shiraishi called All Rise Outdoors which focuses on expanding access to the outdoors for marginalized communities. They started the Luminous Sound fund which provides access to music education for inner-city youth. And they recently took over the Fairfax Movie Theater and turned it into Brain Dead Studios which, upon COVID’s conclusion, will serve as a permanent space for community events.
For this release, they’ve invited the consumer to do rather than just buy with their creation of a soft top.
“When we go into a subculture like surfing, rock climbing, rollerblading, frisbee golf etc., it’s all about this idea of ‘How do we make something more authentic?’ How do you work with people who know?’” Kyle explained. “We want to get people doing an activity rather than just buying the clothes. Inherently people are consumers, so they’ll buy the clothes, but how do you get them into that activity? To me that’s the most important thing. If we can expose that world and open it up to people that’s what I’m excited about.”
Along with the surfboard, Kyle and Brain Dead’s digital maestro Steve Smith created an 11-minute animated short to accompany the release. The clip follows the story of a shark named Skinny Mike as he embarks on a treacherous, VR-fueled hacking journey for ‘100,000,000 tokens.’ Created via digital renderings and real-life robotic puppets, they pulled no punches in their illustrating of Gotcha as a true ‘90s phenomenon.
“To me the ‘90s were about animation, surfing the web, hackers and ‘cyber surfing’,” Kyle explained. “All of that was so new. Gotcha was a representation of the ‘90s and the nostalgia our team had. I want our marketing dollars put into narratives. I want content for real. A music video is a great example. It’s not a guy just saying ‘hey buy my record buy my record’. It’s a creative expression that sometime can make you remember a music video even better.”
This line features the neon blasts and obscure logo placements seen on the Gotcha apparel of old as well as the beloved shark and hand-print logos that were featured on some of their more iconic pieces. According to Kyle, the sleepers are the flat-brimmed hat as well as the jacket, both of which are perfectly in form with the ’90s aesthetic. The fashion industry may recycle its trends, but based on how much thought went into these products, it’s hard to imagine them going out of style.
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