Race, Representation, And How The Surf Industry Can Save Itself
“One guy walked out and said, ‘I don’t know that the big deal is, we’re all friends with Sal!'” – Bobby Hundreds.
What does a surfer look like?
Conjure an image in your Mind’s Eye, or, hell, Google search “surf team”— what do you see?
Lemme guess: affluent, middle-class, white.
When Bobby Hundreds, owner and founder of the massively successful streetwear brand, The Hundreds, and director of Built To Fail, the “First Ever Streetwear Documentary”—took the stage in Cabo earlier this month at SIMA’s Surf Industry Summit, he didn’t have to use his imagination, he could just look out across the sea of Whiteys staring back.
Asked to come speak at the Summit, Bobby, whose parents emigrated from South Korea in the ’70s, took the opportunity to address a subject that’s close to his heart as an Asian-American surfer and brand-builder: “The Importance Of Diversity and Representation In Brand-Building.”
Sound bland? Hardly.
You should read the whole essay—it’s damned good—but here’s a taste: “…I am the consumer. I am, almost embarrassingly, one of those people whose lives revolve around surf. Who plans his family’s vacations around surfing, much to their dismay. Yet, I’m also the guy who shies away from that ID: “Surfer.” Surf is the axis by which my world revolves, yet I don’t feel a connection with any of the brands or markers that designate surf culture. This makes no sense to me. Especially as someone who designs apparel, whose life’s work is dedicated to tying communities to brands.
“And I’m not alone. Most everyone I surf with wouldn’t dress in a “surf” label outside of what they wear in the water. Surfers have nearly doubled in the last 15 years, yet the marketplace for surf product has dwindled and the industry is under duress. Even many of the sponsored athletes would prefer to wear something trendier than, or less identifiable as, the traditional surf brand that pays their bills.”
For many a brand manager, surely it was a hard pill to swallow. Yet following the event, it was seemingly all anyone was talking about. So we caught Bobby on the phone to hear more.
You’re presentation at SIMA really knocked the wind out of some Industry folks, eh? How’d the whole thing come about?
Well, it was through my friend Mark, who they tapped to curate the guests, because I think they wanted to shake it up a little bit.
Mark curates a lot of the panels for ComplexCon, and owns a company called Group Y. We’ve known each other for a number of years, and a few years ago he asked me to speak at something similar, but for the skate industry. It was very much a similar thing, because at that time skate wasn’t struggling, but they weren’t where they wanted to be, and even though I’m in streetwear, I have an idea of skate but I’m not in the industry. I know people in that industry casually, but I’m not in it…
You see each other at premieres..
And I was more than happy to do it, but I told them, Just know, when I come down to speak, I’m pretty raw.
Something that I’ve prided my own personal brand on, and The Hundreds, is that we don’t have any allegiances, to anybody. We don’t have sponsors. We don’t work with Nike or Adidas.
You’re platform agnostic.
Yes! And I can kind of have a big mouth, and I’ll speak the truth. Because I don’t mind stepping on people’s toes, as long as it’s for the betterment for everyone. Not everyone is down to do that, but I have my own brand, and my own customers, and I don’t care about anything else.
So I told them, Listen, I’ll come, but I’m going to tell them everything they’re doing wrong.
And they said, Oh, by all means…
I stood up there and said, I run a streetwear brand. I am dominating in skate boutiques and your stores. I’m taking all your shelf space. And that’s wrong. It shouldn’t be this way.
You know, as a skateboarder myself, it even bothers me—that I’m dominating in your core boutiques. I’m not a core skate brand! Why did they let streetwear in this far?
Did people write you off or take the criticism?
Half the crowd was livid, and the other half were like, He has a good point.
I told them, Hey, look. Squeeze me out of your stores. Push me and my streetwear friends out. You guys are skateboarding, you are the cool guys.
Skateboarders and skate brands, to me, were always so much cooler to me than surf, growing up. It was always the club surfers weren’t allowed to be a part of.
So half the brands were like, Fuck that guy, and fuck The Hundreds.
But the other half—they realized that I had a point, and a few years later, all those stores dropped me, which was bad for biz, of course, but personally, as a skateboarder, I was really happy. This is great. Finally!
Then all of a sudden you had Fucking Awesome just taking over and Dime, Sausage, and all these cool small brands popping up—and all of a sudden, skateboarding’s cool again.
It was a really great time, just a renewed interest and rebirth and all these really small core skate brands that felt a little streetwear as far as their distribution and design, but was clearly run by core skaters, and reflected that.
And they all just went, Fuck all these streetwear brands in our stores. Which was to me a really, really cool thing—and made skateboarding really cool again.
So Mark thought you might have some similar bombs to drop on the surf industry.
He called me up again. We talk a lot, and I surf, and I’m always telling him, Listen, I love surfing. I love everything about it. But I don’t feel a connection.
And I wanted to know why. Is it a race thing? Is it that the companies are too big? Whatever it was, I wanted to figure it out for myself.
So he said, Why don’t you come down and speak about that?
I was really down to do it, just for me personally—to spend a month researching it and thinking about why there’s such a disconnect: I’m a brand guy. I love surfing. But I don’t like surf brands.
So I spent a month writing and researching it and talking to whoever would talk to me about it, and I learned a lot for my own personal growth, and my own brand and business, but I learned a lot about the surf industry as well that I thought I could contribute.
So I went down there with the same attitude: This isn’t my indsutry. These aren’t my people. I don’t live in Laguna. I don’t see these people, ever.
So I thought, some people will take something positive from it, but if they don’t like what they hear, that’s fine, too, I don’t care. But I think people found it actually a little more constructive and beneficial, but of course I heard there was a little grumbling…
Like, people sort of saying, “Why do you have to make this a race thing?”
Yeah. [Laughs]. Someone said one guy walked out and said, “I don’t know what the big problem is, we’re all friends with Sal.”
Fuck off. As in, surfing can’t be racist because of Sal Masakela?
Exactly. How fucked up is that? Like, No fucking way…
“We have a black guy! His name’s Sal!”
I couldn’t… Well, I could believe it.
But to me, that wasn’t really the problem—the problem was all the guys around him walking out that heard it, who disagreed, but didn’t voice their disagreement. That just kinda went along with it, like, Well, this guy’s kinda fucked up, but didn’t stand and correct him. Or say, you know, That’s the problem, right there…
Do you think it’s just a lack of experience or education, or actual, like, sharp-toothed racism?
It’s a lack of information. It’s ignorance.
But is it all vile and hate-based? I don’t think so.
It’s ignorance. People grow up in Orange County, it’s a bubble—you don’t interact with people of color, you don’t interact with poor people, and so you have people with these world views that are not representative of the way the rest of the world is acting and seeing.
But it’s amazing for you to draw the line between that world view and dollar signs in the industry. Do you think it has something to do with the fact that, generationally, there’s more turnover in streetwear and skateboarding brands. I mean, early on, skate brands were run by guys like George Powell and Steve Rocco—rich white guys in Southern California. With skateboarding and streetwear, young brands come in and old brands die away, and you’re left with a better reflection of skateboarding’s current demographic, with every ethnicity under the sun represented in a brand.
God, that’s a really good point. The turnover as far as designers and brands. I mean, in streetwear, it’s hyper-accelerated. Every six months you get a cool new streetwear brand. Skateboarding, you might have a little more longevity, maybe a five- or ten-year run. But surf…
With surfing, I feel like it’s hard to penetrate the forty year-old market. It’s hard for a young kid to come up and want to start a surf brand.
But that’s what I’d love to see!
So what’s the feedback you’ve gotten since the presentation?
I’ve literally had every single brand reach out. The Billabongs were up here this week. I have a call with Quiksilver later. And this is what I’m telling them all: Why aren’t you just funding smaller brands, with people of color, or for people who are empathetic or interested to the culture of people of color.
I mean, just lay a rap song in a surf video! How crazy is that idea! [Laughs]
Do you think that part of what makes skateboarders interested in a brand, or brand-loyal, is that there’s so many options, and so many that are skater-owned, and reflect their vision. As the brands diversify, it just gets bigger for the entire industry. Is it a similar thing in streetwear, guys splitting off and starting their own labels, and not killing the other brands, but growing together.
We do it all the time!
We kind of have a factory here, at our headquarters, and we co-own a brand called Pleasures, which is an amazing young streetwear brand that started a couple years ago, and it’s the hottest thing right now. So we facilitate their growth, but our name’s not on it—we’re just propping up the next generation. We’re always going to foster and help brands like that grow.
We have sort of a machine here, a print shop, and warehousing, so all these designers and small brands come to us, just going, How do I do this?
And we tell them: We’ll help you. We’ll do it with you, and help you build the brand with you. We’re the old guys in the back helping to run the company, and they get to be the cool young guys running around town going to all the parties.
We’re a 15-year-old brand—which in streetwear years is like three hundred years—and I know our limitations and am very aware of who we are and what our position is in the market. I know what we can and can’t do. The collaborations that I can pull off, and the ones I can’t, that might be perfect for a new young brand.
So we’re all about highlighting the young, the next—whatever that next small movement is. And having diverse brands, as far as representation, and as far as who works there, too.
If you were to start a surf brand right now, what would you want it to look like?
As a joke, we’ve played with a little test around here at The Hundreds, just asking everyone, What would you do?
And to me, the coolest thing about surfing was always the attitude and the lifestyle. That original Counter Culture ethos, of not adhering to a system or a career. Just that worldview in itself says a lot about who you are as a person.
Streetwear has it’s own attitude and worldview, too, which is very entrepreneurial, and very focused on money. Because we’re so closely tied to hip hop culture, it’s a lot about status and wealth and jewelry and cars.
All my peers are obsessed with cars, or whatever, the happiest I am is on a $400 surfboard in the water, and everything else can go to hell. From an ethos standooint, that would be where I’d start, with that Spirit and attitude of just freeing yourself from everything.
Of course there’s levels of privilege in surfing to be acknowledged, but I love the idea of being free. Getting free. And if you start there, then that opens up such a broad landscape of possibilities of what the aesthetic of a brand could be, whether it’s hard travel, or punk rock ethos, or a really nihilistic perspective on things.
Then, as far as how it would look, let’s take an Instagram feed. If I was to curate a page, there would be very little actual surfing. I know where to go for stuff like that if I want to watch it. I want to see attitudes of people. I want to see really interesting personalities.
When Billabong came, they asked me the same thing. And I said, Hey, that girl Josie Prendergast. She’s a Billabong advocate, right? Because I didn’t know that until recently, but I’m a huge fan. Why? Because she’s so wordly, so intersting, she’s fucking hot, and so fun to watch surfing—everyone wants to surf like that. Just everything about her. I honestly kind of felt like she was a fictional character. She cannot be real. That this person exists who always has these international children crawling over her in these movies. Why don’t you tell her story, flesh that out. Who is she? What does she stand for?
Imagine a girl like Josie being handed her own brand.
Oh, exactly. I’m sure 80% of her following are all dudes who want their girlfriends or wives to look like or be that.
I’m sure all the girlfriends and wives do want to look like that, too!
But the ambassadors that I would have for my brand would be along those lines. Then there would be a lot of younger kids. I take a bunch of kids surfing who aren’t necessarily that crazy good, but who are really cool, complicated individuals who are coming of age.
Surfing is so focused on athletes and contests and sportsmanship, but I’m not a jock. I never aspired to be a shreddy surfer. It wouldn’t be about the best surfing.
The brands still market their products to the “core,” which are most often dudes who are cynical and a little older and don’t support the brands anyway, and who don’t care about them or buy their gear.
Exactly. I 100% agree.
This type of brand thinking would disrupt core surf, and some might truly hate it.
But it could open up that conversation to such a broad dialogue, that it could potentially “save” surf. It would start a whole new movement. And I only know that because I saw that with skateboarding.
There’s so many black kids skateboarding today because Pharell introduced them to it. I mean, Tyler the Creator is one of them!
But at the time, I didn’t get it. I just felt, Pharell’s not a real skater, what the hell? I thought they were selling out the culture.
But look now—look how many lives he’s changed for the better.
And I’ve seen the same thing happen for streetwear in the last three or four years. For the longest time, it was the exclusive, underground, locked door Private Club, that once it started going mainstream and high fashion, all these streetwear purists and nerds thought, This is wrong! This isn’t real streetwear. And I’m guilty of it, walking down the street and seeing all these young kids, just thinking, Who are all these kids? They don’t know the history of Supreme!
You’re like, You don’t know who Mark Gonzalez is!
[Laughs] But look at how much money these brands are making, and the kids whose lives they’re changing.
Do you think there’s more good will towards those brands because they’re rider-owned? Because skateboarders know when they buy something from Fucking Awesome, it’s money going into Jason Dill’s pocket…
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. That’s what I would love to see happen in surf.
The core’s going to be bummed—it’ll open up to the mainstream, and you’ll have all these kooks in the water, and they’ll all go, Oh, look at all these kooks, Bobby Hundreds ruined it [laughs]. But in a few years, all those guys will be making money, and no one will give a fuck.
But if you want to hold onto this idea about surfing and the surf brands, which is a totally fictional thing, then…
Maybe there’ll be a bunch of little black kids ripping from Rockaway New York or…
Or from all those fucking wave pools they seem to be building. [Laughs]
But I think the future of surfing is restoring it to this place where it isn’t about the sport. It’s about the lifestyle and the attitude.
And being proud of that. In the ’80s, all the brands were huge in, like Ohio, where no one had access to surf. But they were watching North Shore, and they loved the lifestyle, and they wanted a Gotcha shirt. They thought it was so cool. But they didn’t know the tricks, they were looking at those guys thinking, Those guys are fucking cool. Not, How many championships did that athlete win?
I feel like the surf industry owes you a debt of gratitude.
I hope it just plants a seed to get some sort of conversation going. For myself, I have two young boys, and they’re Asian, obviously, and I want them to grow up to surf, and when they surf, I want them to be really about it.
But for me, I love to surf, and I don’t identify with the industry and brand’s culture. I feel weird. I feel weird telling people I’m a surfer. And I don’t want my kids to feel that way. I want them to be proud. I want them to wear surf brands, and live that lifestyle, I want the whole thing for them.
If I’ve made the possibility of that happening for them in the future, then I’m happy.
Bobby with his parents as a grom, a few years after their move to California from South Korea.
Don’t you just love Bobby’s Real Talk? From the brand heads we know have been tapping him for one-on-ones the past two weeks, we know there’s industry players who love it, too.
This week, while I’ve been away in Mexico with Dane Reynolds for a full-length film project we’ll be premiering later this summer, I’ve enjoyed seeing the wheel taken by none other than Taj Burrow, Stab‘s first coverboy and perennial favorite, whose Guest Editor reign will run through next week, and which will wrap with an Ask Me Anything you won’t want to miss (details coming soon!).
We hope you’ve enjoyed it so far, but there’s much more to come. Moving forward, we’ll be bringing in your favorite figures regularly to put their stamp on the site, and the Guest Ed. lineup for the rest of the year is absolutely stacked.
Hope you’ve been getting yours, wherever you are, Stab.
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