For the non-surfers of the world, Brooklyn may be the last city you’d expect to encounter surfers and a stream of surfboard shops. But seven years ago a unique and unlikely brand sprouted from the streets of Kings County. With the borough as its foundation, San Clemente, California as its figurative water and the love of surfing as its sun, Brooklyn Surfer, a street meets surfer lifestyle brand, grew despite of skeptics and stereotypes. Michael Green, a Brooklyn native and founder of Brooklyn Surfer, explains how his concept evolved into a brand that is now carried in a variety of stores including J. Crew and debunks the notion that Black people don’t surf.
Life + Times: I know you just completed your spring and summer 2013 sportswear collection. How did you come up with the overall theme of your collection?
Michael Green: A lot of it is what I think would be cool at the moment to wear. Everything I create is really a look back at classic surf silhouettes which are tank tops with things like hang ten, old school shorts and so forth. I try to put a contemporary spin on it. It’s really the colors and fabrics of today mixed with classic silhouettes.
L+T: Going along with that, Robert Longo actually created a capsule of tees in 2010, right?
MG: He did a logo for the brand which is called The Three Boroughs. He has three sons and all three of them surfed at one point in their life. I think part of that and the experience from surfing is behind the design. When he was at Rockaway, he saw these surfers riding waves and they made this little silhouette. He translated that into the graphic.
L+T: That’s really thought out.
MG: Yeah, his art is very at-the-moment. It just resonates what’s going on here, what’s going on in the culture, what’s going on with the art world, the fashion world. It’s still resonating and it’s great.
L+T: It’s been seven years since you had your first collection. Was it your initial direction to venture into clothing or were you going to simply stick to skateboards and surfboards?
MG: Well, my background is branding and graphic design. I was down in San Clemente helping my buddy start this company called Swell. Those dudes surfed in the morning, surfed at lunch and I’m from Brooklyn, I never surfed. Out in San Clemente, everybody surfs! Everybody in Brooklyn plays basketball and listens to hip-hop, everyone in San Clemente surfed. I lived in this surf condo with Kelly Slater, Tony Hawk and all these dudes. It was nuts! I literally was uprooted from Brooklyn and transplanted into this surf culture. I was the total oddball because I liked basketball, hip hop and these guys surfed, loved avocados. It sucked, but I winded up surfing with these guys in the morning and at lunch and dinner. When I got back to New York, I was like, ‘What am I going to do with this surfboard I bought?” The fashion just started to happen because I’ve also worked for a bunch of different fashion companies, like Tommy Hilfiger. I did some work with Rocawear back in the day. So, I just started creating things and it started to stick. Then, I started creating more things. It was always more like branding with the surfboards and it’s just an extension of something that really changed my life. So, it initially started out as an idea, a concept and a branding thing. The fashion is just now becoming a big part of what Brooklyn Surfer is, but I never thought I was trying to create this Tommy Hilfiger company.
L+T: That was actually my next question in regards to what actually got you started in a surf lifestyle brand considering you’re from Brooklyn.
MG: I think everybody in their life gets a fresh start to figure out who they are in different ways. This was one of them. I just wanted to create something that was beyond generic.
L+T: I also want to congratulate you. I saw on your listing of retailers that you are now carried at a specialty store in Switzerland and in two J. Crew stores in addition to other shops around New York. How did that come about?
MG: Switzerland came about through a pal. Dude was like, “I’m doing this surf thing. I’ve always loved your brand, how can I get it?’” I told him that I wholesale and he had no idea that I wholesaled. Then, we just started talking and he had surfboards and he’s also a big fan of Longo, so he had some Longo tees. That sort of happened. The J. Crew thing was a friend-of-a-friend thing. I was like, “I’m doing this think with Longo. You guys should get into it.” Next thing I know, I’m getting an email from Mickey Drexler (CEO of J. Crew) like “I want it.” Then, I’m asked how much I have in stock and my whole stock is cleared out. Then, next thing I know, it’s in all the major stores and they wanted a surfboard.
L+T: The Freedom Ride board depicts slaves on a packed ship. What gave you the desire to put that graphic on a board?
MG: Surfing has really changed my life. I went from being a corporate creative director at a company to starting my own brand. Through that whole process of changing my life, a lot of things changed. Before, I was a slave to the corporate world. Now with my brand, I’m a slave to my brand because I have to create collections. It’s not that I have to, but it would be awesome to have market work around my schedule, then I would be totally free to create whatever I wanted to and things would happen naturally. Every season I have to create something, so I’m like a slave to my own creation. I feel like we all are in some way, no matter what we do. Even if you’re saving the planet, you’re a slave to your passion for saving the planet. The thing about surfing and being in the ocean, being at the beach and being in the water, you feel free. That’s really the idea behind Freedom Ride. We are slaves to our passions, but once we ride on the waves of the ocean, we’re free.
L+T: Do you actually carve the boards yourself or do you have a team that does that?
MG: I have a team. I work with this guy named Tommy and he owns a store called Bunger in Long Island. He’s really the only guy that makes the boards. I create the art and he carves it.
L+T: What are some projects you have for the balance of the year?
MG: I just finished the spring and summer 2013 collection which features some cut-offs, terry shorts and looks you can rock in SoHo or in the Hamptons at the beach. I used orange dye to create tees that are color blocked. I also have polka dot tank tops. I’m also doing this collaboration with this artist, Shantell Martin, who was just featured in The New York Times a few weeks ago. Her whole apartment was shown. Her art is called streams-of-consciousness. What she does is she uses a pen and it never leaves the paper and they’re these illustrations of experiences. So, what she did is a custom one for Brooklyn Surfer. I worked with her and gave her some ideas of what the brand is about and what Brooklyn Surfer is. She created this streams-of-consciousness to this really cool illustration that I’m putting on a t-shirt.
L+T: You’ve been around for seven years and you’re a surf company based out of Brooklyn. What would say has been the largest challenge in starting the brand and basically maintaining stability? How have you been able to face those hurdles?
MG: The biggest challenge is convincing people that there are surfers in Brooklyn. Then, part of that challenge is convincing them that black people surf. Those are definitely the two biggest challenges. People ask, “Do you surf? Do you swim?” I was just like, “Come on, man! What do you think of the design?” They just couldn’t get past that. Even buyers, like Bloomingdale’s, were saying nobody surfs in Brooklyn. They would say there were a lot of good designs, but then say, ‘I don’t know. I have to pass.’ Are you kidding me? Now, there’s this store called Saturdays that is open and a few other stores and now people are saying, “Oh ok, people surf in New York, in Brooklyn. It’s not that great, but it’s a really cool spot.” This is something I’ve been saying since 2003. I guess I wasn’t blonde enough to really drive that point home. It’s all good because now things are starting to connect.