Warren punting in Bali (note the lack of grip).
Warren Smith’s Welcome Rivers is What a Contemporary Surf Brand Could Look Like
The life and work of a low key cultural icon.
I generally take it for granted, but in moments of reflection it still baffles me that I've spent time with people I idolised as a teen through the guise of work.
Sydney, 2009. I was 19, playing pool in some daggy bar and attempting (not for the first time) to re-invent myself. Some boozed lass had coins on the table and was mocking my deliberately chipped nail polish and cardigan, telling me there was no way in hell I "wasn’t gay". My attire was the closest to Warren Smith Cotton On could manage, and I’ve since come to realise that the significance of cult figures is what they mean to you at the time. Warren Smith’s undeniably a cult figure in the surf world. A cult figure whose influence is far greater than he’s credited, and a decade on he’s still inspiring those who set foot to fibreglass, although now behind the scenes of Welcome Rivers a surf brand for a new dawn.
Warren’s had a fascinating ride within the broader surfing world, first as a “professional”, where Insight 51 (the awesome, original manifestation) paid him to be himself—surfing, arting, travelling, taking photos, designing capsules—for 12 years. Then as a photographer—shooting off-kilter editorial for brands like Quik and Globe—before putting the skills he’d amassed sponging behind the scenes into use (along with his inseparable best mate Grady Archbold, who we’ll get to later) to help all the names you're familiar with launch Former. Warren’s latest venture is giving his and Grady’s long-standing creative outlet Welcome Rivers a full swing (complete range, footwear, wetsuits, prints, meditation vids etc.) and in doing so, re-defining what it means to be a surf brand. No matter how strong the concept, final products can only tell a fraction of the story, so the most logical place to start is the beginning. Which for Warren was Panama City, Florida.
Warren wrapping in Bali whilst checking on WR's production.
“It’s just a horrendous place to be a surfer,” Warren tells me on FaceTime from Welcome Rivers HQ in Costa Mesa, with a tequila and soda in hand. “There wasn’t surf very often, so it made me really resourceful for entertainment. I skated, played laser tag, played drums in a punk band, got really into yo-yos, then photography and clothes was just another means to keep myself interested.”
Florida’s a constant source of fascination for those of us who’ve never been there, and Warren’s stories of fishermen surfing (non-ironically) in cut-off jeans and southern hospitality (“if only you could just remove the narrow-mindedness and quasi racism”) form logical puzzle pieces for what I know of Warren. It also explains why he gets on so well with Australians, which has led to lengthy friendships and numerous career opportunities. “It’s so similar to the small towns in Australia,” he says in his languid Floridian drone. “If I took you home everyone you met would be trying to make you sweet tea and cook you dinner, y’know.”
Post Florida Warren enjoyed a left-field trajectory. His professional surfing career began with sleeping in his car in the Lowers car park, delivering pizzas and sending sponsor me tapes to companies. Which was way before his time surf wise, but came about because he “knew that was what the skaters did, and didn’t know what else to do.” It eventually led to him being picked up by a fringe (and since deceased) brand called Amerikan, which, significantly, is where Warren met Grady, who was the Art Director.
The next chapter was Insight. Very much the glory days of Warren’s surfing career, but also the surfing industry as a whole. Which considering that he’s now looking to bring some of the raw, unpasteurised creativity that his former sponsor advocated back to surfing, is significant.
We have a good laugh about Warren being a paid Insight team rider for 12 years. Not because he was in any way undeserving, but because in 2020 it’s hard to imagine anything lasting for 12 years.
“They were this left of centre company trying to break the States and it just all lined up,” he says. “I was so lucky with the timing. It was just a very creative company and I was interested in so much stuff beyond surfing in terms of how the brand worked. I was lucky to get to work with designers on ranges and tried to pay attention to everything.”
How influential a period Warren’s Insight stint was is immeasurable, but it only adds to the romance of an alreay romantic character. Warren's long-time friend and collaborator Dion Agius (Proxy Noise truly was a golden time in the fledgling digi surf days), says that meeting Warren was a pivotal moment for his innovative route into the surf canon.
"He kind of took me under his wing when I was younger and met him and Grady in California." Dion says. "Getting to work on projects with them has been some of the most rewarding things I've done. The two of them have had a huge influence on me."
When the Former mob headed south of Sydney a few years back (in town to launch the brand in Oz), despite the presence of more conventional heroes like Dane Reynolds and Austin Gillette, friends of mine were “tripping” when they showed up for beers at a mates' place and found Warren nestled in the corner. And it’s not a part of the world starved for surf idols.
“Warren back in the Insight days was an idol of mine for sure,” local surfer/creative/plumber Jai Walsh tells me when I hit him a text. “He had creative stuff going on land. He could skate, had style and seemed to have good DIY direction. He definitely played a part in making me find inspiration outside of surfing.” (“Ah man, that’s just the coolest, most flattering thing ever,” Warren says when I recount the story.)
After decades circling the surfing fringe, it seems ironic that Warren and Grady have set up shop across the road from Hurley HQ (“I can literally see the mothership out of the window right now” Warren says), precisely in surf's backyard. But Warren sees it differently. He’s the farthest thing from jaded you could imagine, feels like he owes a huge debt of gratitude to surfing in general, and sympathises with (rather than hangs shit on) the bigger surf co’s.
“When you’ve got hundreds of employees and mouths to feed and interests to serve, it’s hard to obsess about whether the graphics on the t-shirts are cool, you know?” he says. “Whereas that’s all we care about.” He laughs. “Me and Grady scrutinise everything.”
Warren Smith, 2020 - fresh out of the drink after chasing a hurricane home to Florida.
Grady famously shuns any sort of limelight, but where Welcome Rivers is concerned, it’s impossible not to let Warren make him blush. Visually representing an ethos behind a brand is no easy task, and Grady’s a master at translating sentiment to graphics.
“He’s the most amazing dude,” Warren says. “He’s extremely talented and an amazing point of reference. You know what’s good just by looking at his face when you show him. He’s my absolute best friend, and to get to do cool shit and be creative together is amazing.”
Talking of “cool shit,” Welcome Rivers is a totally fresh take on the surf aesthetic, but perhaps more importantly, the function of an apparel company within the surfing frame. Whether it’s pink loafers, tracksuits, Japanese neoprene or boxes of postcards, WR wares are concept heavy. Which is refreshing. If you’re going to throw your hard-earned at clothing, then you’d expect those making it to have produced it for a reason. The difference with WR is that Waz and Grady are deep as the ocean, but with a subtle knack of not taking themselves too seriously.
"Their heart and soul goes into everything that they do and it really shows," says Dion Agius, a man who knows a thing or two about apparel having been the driving force behind numerous signature Globe bestsellers, and a key member of remarkably successful Epokhe ownership team. "I think it's such an amazing time for them to be launching Welcome Rivers with everything that's going on in the industry."
“Welcome Rivers was always just a place to house stuff, whether it was music, zines, screen prints or general musings,” Warren tells me of his baby's loose outline. “It's broad and vague and we’ve always just let it flow. It might be meditation vids now, next it could be black metal, I don’t know.”
There’s plenty of tired clichés about turning your passion into a job, but the one certain is that it’s going to be a mountain of work. Welcome Rivers is entirely funded by Warren and Grady, so any earnings go straight back into the business. They haven't the budget to pay staff/models/team riders etc, so everything you see from the brand is covered in Warren and Grady’s paw prints. And the output since they launched proper in December last year has been significant.
“We’ve got about 1/10th of a business brain between us, and it’s really hard to constantly switch between analytics and emails and then trying to come up with ideas and design stuff, then back to bullshit numbers,” Warren says, “But it’s so fun. We’re the only people here, just putting along and paying the bills, so I already feel like we won in a way.”
Despite the obvious global tragedies, you’ve got to feel for people (like Warren and Grady) who’ve launched what they’ve always wanted to do straight into COVID-19. But thankfully, due their straight to consumer model and low overheads (rent, clothing produced in Bali, Taco Bell for the homies), it’s actually not been devastating on the business front.
“It was pretty scary for a while, but sales have been back up recently,” business Warren says. “It’s a blessing in disguise that we’re still so small. We have no employees, me and Grady literally do everything, so I’m hoping we’ll be able to weather the storm fairly well.”
After partying with Warren in LA years back, the one thing that surprised me was his surf stamina. Whilst my mornings were spent heavy breathing, he was surfing. And his love hasn’t dimmed a bit. When I ask whether Welcome Rivers is intended to be a “surf” brand, Warren’s almost offended. But I was coming from an Australian lens, where, truth be told, the cool kids think surfing’s a bit lame, even if they surf. Warren, one of modern surfing's original cool kids, sees it differently.
“We’re a surf brand, 100%,” he says. “It never crossed my mind for it to be anything else. I surf every day, so I can’t imagine how it could reflect me and not be a surf brand. I like to think of it as what a contemporary surf brand could look like. Surfing in its essence is creative. One scratch below the surface and it reflects all these aspects: music and art, photography, all that stuff. Welcome Rivers is a big hug of all of it.”