The Dazzling Blue #36: Buy Less By Buying Better

            In my wetsuit-rashed and sea-ulcered early teens, an older friend said something that I found hard to believe. We were riding in the back of my mom’s station wagon after a long day of surfing, feet sandy, faces sunburnt, boards poking over seats.

            “They do that on purpose,” he said, pointing to my boardshorts, made by a prominent surfwear manufacturer. The left leg was torn open. My white thigh poked out. There was no shark attack, no fin slash—just a poorly sewn seam that had come undone. “They make ‘em cheap so they fall apart and you have to buy new ones, usually within the first twelve to eighteen months,” he added, swigging from his Mountain Dew. “It’s called capitalism.”

            He chuckled. I didn’t. I hated the idea that the world could work like this. It went against everything my parents and teachers and mentors told me: Do your best. Try hard. Take pride in everything you do.

            How could you make something designed to fall apart and still look yourself in the mirror? I wondered.

            This was pre-global financial crisis, pre-Bernie Madoff, pre-Volkswagen emissions scandal. I had no idea how savage and corrupt the world could be. And though I lacked the words to express it, I felt deeply disappointed that the surf world—a world I believed in wholeheartedly—could take part in this cruel brand of capitalism. Didn’t the eternal ocean teach us anything? Didn’t the riding of waves imbue us with, shall we say, higher truths, loftier ideals, a distaste for bullshit?

            Fast forward to the present day. There’s climate change; there are those plastic rings that kill fish, birds, and sea mammals; there’s “fast fashion”—the notion that clothing is disposable. There’s a lot of throwaway stuff.

            But there’s also hope. The countertrend to the flimsy, disposable, and outsourced are ethically-minded, durability-focused, American-made companies. Case in point: Birdwell Beach Britches.

            This year Birdwell celebrates 55 years of building surf apparel and accessories in the same Santa Ana, California factory. The manufacturing legacy ranges from the iconic 301 boardshort and competition jackets made since the ‘60s to newer product offerings like the Tactical Walkshort and CPO Shirts. The thread that ties all of these products is an unwavering commitment to quality.

            For Birdwell, the commitment to quality is more than just a tagline. It literally starts with the thread and other materials Birdwell sources to build their products. “Before a single piece of fabric is cut or a seam stitched, we spend a great deal of time finding American manufacturers who approach their craft like we do” says Birdwell’s president, Geoff Clawson. “An example is the wool we use in our Wool CPO Shirt. We proudly source the wool from Black and Sons. They’ve been in the same building in the garment district of downtown LA since 1922. Four generations of this family have dedicated themselves to manufacturing exceptional wool. Every product that bears the Birdwell name and the customers who invest in our products deserve that kind of legacy.” 

            Geoff also talked about integrity, pride of craftsmanship. “The heart of the Birdwell brand is a team of craftsmen dedicated to hand cutting and sewing only the highest quality gear. For our team, success is measured not in sales or sponsorship deals, but in years of a product’s life and the memories made by customers.” Lilia Saavedra, a Birdwell employee who started back in 1977 and still clocks in every morning with a smile, said it this way: “I feel very proud to work here. I feel like part of me is traveling as my work goes all around the world. And after many, many years the customers keep coming back.”

       So yes indeed, there is hope, there is integrity, there is good stuff in the world.

- Jamie Brisick
The Dazzling Blue is a series of short pieces about things we do in boardshorts. It is written by Jamie Brisick. A Fulbright scholar and a lifelong surfer, Brisick has written several books about surf culture, including Have Board Will Travel: The Definitive History of Surf, Skate, and SnowandBecoming Westerly. He lives in NYC and rides a 5'10" Channel Islands Pod.