What It’s Really Like Inside the North Shore’s Exclusive Volcom Surf House
Longhaired young surfers? Striking, sun-bronzed girls? Maybe a yard littered with red Solo cups? Think again. As surfing evolves into a multibillion-dollar industry, the legendary North Shore surf houses are changing to fit the times.
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Dave Wassel and Alex Gray prep boards.
Another talented young surfer at Volcom is 10-year-old Keanu Taylor, who visits the Volcom canopy at the surf contest the next day. He takes a seat on a folding chair in the shade, beside Riddle and Shibata. His dad sits on the sand a few feet away. Volcom typically doesn’t sponsor groms younger than 12, because of the potential for them to burn out. It can be unclear who is more committed to surfing, a kid or his parents.
But Taylor doesn’t possess any of the warning signs that usually discourage sponsors. He still attends regular school, at a time when more and more helicopter moms are homeschooling their kids around their surf sessions. The Taylors are laid back, and Keanu surfs because he loves it. He spent the morning surfing Velzyland on his longest board, he tells everyone.
“How long is it?”
“Four feet, 8 inches,” he says, and everyone laughs.
Mitch Coleborn and Jason Shibata review their plans.
It’s Shibata’s job to coach the amateur riders in Hawai‘i. It’s also his job to make sure the team riders show up at the right surf breaks in this season’s board shorts when the photographers are out. I ask him what he makes of surfing’s evolution.
“When I was growing up, there wasn’t much direction, as far as surfing being a sport or even a lifestyle. It was more like a hobby. The industry has changed, and things that help sales go beyond [brand] image and logo and quality product. It’s having the best riders.
“It used to be the brands were trying to find the next Kelly [Slater], and that turned out to be John John [Florence]. Now everyone is looking for the next John John. The next guy that can transcend with his personality.”
But Taylor’s not a guy; he’s just a kid.
“For someone his age, it’s teaching him what sponsorship’s about. That’s the real wealth in Volcom. It’s like a family. Being part of this program is worth more than money.”
But that’s only one side of the story.
Surf companies today derive brand legitimacy from their associations with the right surfers. That’s how a multimillion-dollar action sports company like Volcom can hang onto a slogan like “Youth Against Establishment” despite being owned by the same multinational that owns Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent. The Volcom house, which is described in the company’s SEC filings as a “research and development center for product design and testing,” derives its North Shore cred from guys like Kaiborg hanging around. In turn, guys like Kaiborg, Shibata and Riddle need Volcom because, until recently, there wasn’t any money in knowing a lot about surfing.
And, yes, surfers do need the brands, because world wave-chasing is expensive and the purses for winning still don’t compare with other professional sports. And they need the brands because Shibata is right: Being part of a program that organizes your travel and coaching and equipment is worth more than money. Or, at least, it’s worth a lot of money.