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Cooler than Thou
Karl Taro Greenfeld
February 18, 2005
Quiksilver, which began with one pair of shorts, is now a billion-dollar company that sells the look and attitude of hard-core surfers. Staying on that cutting edge requires constant vigilance ... and the wisdom of Mr. Sunset
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February 18, 2005

Cooler Than Thou

Quiksilver, which began with one pair of shorts, is now a billion-dollar company that sells the look and attitude of hard-core surfers. Staying on that cutting edge requires constant vigilance ... and the wisdom of Mr. Sunset

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For Quiksilver, it will be all about staying core, as in hard-core. That's the word thrown around like a mantra in Velcro Valley, the Orange County industrial zone that is home to approximately 100 companies that make up virtually all of the fast-growing $20 billion surf- and skate-wear industry. The best way to understand the meaning of core is to be a 15-year-old surfer or skater and to just know--the way a sparrow knows how to get back to San Juan Capistrano--what's bitchin' and what's not.

While Quiksilver is still a few years away from sponsoring athletes on the level of LeBron James or Michael Jordan, in certain very lucrative demographics having Kelly Slater or Tony Hawk means more and costs far less. In a decade or so, by which time McKnight predicts the company will be selling $5 billion worth of clothes and gear, Quik may sponsor a few of the best stick-and-ball athletes. But then, why should Quik shell out the big endorsement cheddar? Tiger Woods, Michelle Wie, Karl Malone, Mike Piazza, Luke Walton, Shawn Green, George Brett, Steve Nash and a gang of other big-timers are already rocking the mountain-in-wave logo. For free. Because they think it's cool.

Mr. Sunset was always the coolest guy in surfing. However, after returning from Bali to Hawaii in the winter of 1975, even he had to concede that he was nearing the end of his pro career. That December, Hakman invited McKnight out to his house on the North Shore of Oahu. For McKnight, this was a continuation of the fantasy that had begun in Bali.

When McKnight walked into that A-frame just steps from the beach in Pupukea, Hakman held up a grimy pair of cream-yellow shorts with a champagne waistband, two snaps and a Velcro fly.

"Dude," Hakman said, nodding sagely, "this is our future." "Great," McKnight said, squinting at them. "What is it?"

Every surfer in the world wants these trunks, Hakman explained. He had watched fellow surfer Gerry Lopez get rich from the surfboard company Lighting Bolt and Duke Boyd sell Hang Ten's two-feet logo for $3.5 million. "These," he shook the shorts, "are the s---. They're going to change everything."

Until the early '70s surf trunks were made of either heavy cotton that tended to become waterlogged or synthetic fabric that chafed. In 1973 Australian designer-surfer Alan Green, cofounder of the wet-suit company Rip Curl, started experimenting with a short made from a quick-drying, double-twisted and combed poplin. (The fabric had been overproduced in East Germany as part of a Five-Year Plan to increase trench coat output and was then flooding world markets.) "We wanted a wide waistband," says Green, "and we designed the yoke so that it came down at the side. It was wider at the hips than at the small of the back, and we shaped the waistband to fit it. We had to make the waistband wider at the front because the snaps had to be sufficiently separated so that [the waist] could bend."

Those two snaps and that wide waistband would give Quiksilver shorts their distinctive look. The shorts were lighter and less abrasive than anything in the stores, the cut was comfortable, and the more you surfed in them, the more broken-in and form-fitting they became. "They were like a great pair of jeans," Hakman says. Green later added a Velcro fly--one of the first times Velcro was used in a nontechnical application--and started up the company that would, in turn, spawn Velcro Valley.

Hakman told McKnight he was going down to Australia to surf in a tournament. "Let me see if I can get the license for these things," he said. "We can sell them in local shops, keep surfing, keep chasing girls. We'll be partners."

Alan Green didn't have the means to launch an apparel company in America. Nor, he was quite sure, did this 25-year-old sitting across from him in a restaurant in Torquay. Hakman had just won the Bell's tournament, the last major contest he would win, and he was already notorious in the surfing community for his narcotics exploits. He had been on drug-smuggling runs to Mexico and Lebanon, and for this trip to Australia, he had stuffed five ounces of cocaine in his surfboard to trade for heroin. "Hakman's negatives were pretty well known at the time," says Green.

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