As fashion dips its toes into the surf trend, a renegade Australian cohort of emerging labels taps our distinct beach culture, with ripple effects felt the world over.
Australian women born of a certain time will recall, with goosebumps crimping their skin, encountering some of their first death-or-glory female role models on screen. Striding down the beach carrying a surfboard in the 1981 film adaptation of Puberty Blues, a courageous Sue Knight and Debbie Vickers are met with scornful shouts of “Girls can’t surf!” – actually yelled at the actresses by future world champion surfer Mark Occhilupo before director Bruce Beresford asked him to say it on camera – until the girls show us they “bloody well can”.
So ensconced are the waves in our collective consciousness, whether or not we’re board riders ourselves, Australians have the power to read a surf reference instantly. When the spring/summer ’19 runways abounded with tie-dye shirts (Chloé, Proenza Schouler), elastane long-sleeved tops (Marine Serre), boxy shorts (Louis Vuitton) and peeled-off neoprene (Calvin Klein and Etro), we might instantly read in them the surf-logo T-shirts of our childhoods, salt-licked ‘rashies’ and our brothers’ boardies while we can practically smell the rubbery wetsuits melting in the sun.
And with surfing washing up as the latest inspirational hotbed in fashion, we’re poised to lead the wave. “I remember a TV skit where a guy got on the bus in Speedos to see how far he could take it before it seemed inappropriate. He got quite far,” says Mikey Nolan, co-founder of Double Rainbouu, one of a slew of emerging labels forging ahead with new-look Australian summer clothing. “I think that sums up Australians’ take on beachwear: if you live by the coast, the beach is just so much a part of everyday life that beachwear is pretty much your all-day wear.”
Although we know the home-grown labels that went on to become international titans – Quicksilver, Billabong and Rip Curl – their cultural cachet in the world of fashion has been on the decline, something critics attribute to over-commercialisation and a disconnect from the very culture they sprung from. What younger brands are connecting with, though, are the larrikin roots and DIY attitude that saw the early creators of these brands handcrafting surfboards and wetsuits from sweaty garages and old bakeries in places like the sleepy surfing mecca of Torquay near Bells Beach in Victoria.
Or the art hub that was the printing sheds and warehouses of Mambo in Sydney. “Mambo was the first original art slash surf brand. It brought two cultures together – the art scene and the lowbrow subculture of surf along with everything in-between,” says current Mambo creative director Adrian Repeti. Self-described as the ‘bastard children of surf culture’, the label, which would collaborate with artists like Paul McNeil (who went on to design art for Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys), Gerry Wedd, Reg Mombassa and Bruce Goold, would take cultural mythology and lampoon it, provoking with the profane. Ironically, they cemented themselves in the Australian identity as sly provocateurs with a potent mix combining youth, art and music to challenge social mores.
A designer who has picked up on this is Emma Mulholland, through her label Holiday. She uses ice-block brights and tropes like slogans that could have been swiped from a postcard, souvenir-like prints and graphic shapes that echo her forbearers: she name-checks Mombassa and Goold without being prompted. “They captured Australian culture and the beach and rural landscapes so perfectly,” she explains. “I’m a big fan of screen-printing and tie-dye over digital, just because it wears so much better and can be done on natural fabrics. I would like to see more of the older techniques coming back in.”
Another new label, Performance, lays claim to a grassroots approach to fashion design. Co-founded by Australian Caitlin Talijancich, the former art director of cashmere label The Elder Statesman, and her husband, artist Benjamin Barretto, the label started small. “The first pieces were all hand-dyed and embellished at our Echo Park studio; we shoot everything ourselves,” she says of their former Los Angeles home. Both Perth natives, they’ve returned to tap into the Australian coastal life and continue working on the brand. In sun-sapped multi-coloured hues like dusky purples and speckled orange, the pieces look lived in; some adorned with rhinestones, others embroidered and printed with their logo. Like a surf van or board plastered in stickers, the T-shirts and accessories all have personal character.
Using elements of low culture is not new to fashion, but here in Australia self-deprecation is a national sport. While cultural cringe seemed to have stood in our way in the past, some are now embracing it with the same tongue-in-cheek irreverence that has seen skate brands and labels reference skate culture. Our version of Demna Gvasalia’s gopnik, a pejorative term for Russian youths, or Burberry’s ‘chav’, is the much derided, and admittedly classist, ‘bogan’.
“I began to see my unique upbringing, in coastal rural Victoria, as a valuable commodity,” says London-based, Australian-born Lukas Vincent of new label Ex Infinitas, which is stocked at Browns. He says he wanted to tell the narrative of the rough-around-the-edges Australian. “The men in my family are all surfers, so I combine the spirit of my early home life with knowledge and relationships cultivated over the years.” The result is a men’s label with a fresh take on luxury streetwear pieces that reference surf indirectly and foregrounds quality. Pieces range from precisely tailored blazers in versatile neutrals to fluorescent yellow leather boots and luxurious knitwear. “The philosophy – surfing, art and tailoring – is a DNA that allowed me to translate the very important Australian cultural asset of surfing and elevate its spirit into a luxury space,” he explains.
And the potential for labels like this to make even bigger waves internationally is enormous. “Australia has become a key player on the global fashion scene due to this casual approach which has come from the contrast of city and beach living,” says director and buyer at Parlour X, Eva Galambos. “With the growing pressures of fast-paced city living and social media, surf is a major juxtaposition that people are craving to balance out their stressors, and pressure to live ‘successfully’.” She reasons that people can buy into this, regardless of whether or not their clothes will have real-life applications on the beach.
“It’s likely the average person will never travel to Australia, thanks to its remote geographical location,” agrees Vincent. “When we consider fashion culture, there is a constant unspoken need to perfect, improve or beautify something. Yet if we consider the true Australian identity, it’s quite the opposite – it’s unvarnished and it’s gritty … This unlikely tension is what drives my creative process.”
“It’s such an interesting time,” says Galambos. “People of all ages are questioning their purpose in life and their future, so consumers are looking to strengthen and establish connections to networks, groups and causes.” While the macrame and wetsuits continue their marches on the runways, surfing continues its push into fashion – in 2017 US Vogue visited Bells Beach to photograph the local surf crowd, while surfers and female surfboard makers are making appearances in fashion pages world over. A new wave undeniably is surging. Better paddle for it.
This article originally appeared in Vogue Australia’s January 2019 issue.