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Surfing style icons: the men who ruled the waves

Surfing Style Icons

When the first Europeans arrived in Tahiti in the 1760s, they found themselves mesmerised by the Tahitians’ ability to ride the waves using carved boards of wood. These were the first surfing style icons. Later, Hawaiians were known to use repurposed wooden doors to surf the waves, their doorhandles acting like fins as they rode the waves. Right from its earliest days, surfing style has been about making-do and fabricating a look out of what you have around you, leading to fashion that is practical, individual and authentic. Study the waves of this special fashion genre and you’ll be set for what to wear when surfing.


Phil Edwards 


In 1950s and 60s California there was one name that epitomised surfing: Phil Edwards. With his impeccable posture and poise, variously likened to a matador and a ballet dancer, Edwards became the poster boy not just for being one of the stylish surfing legends, but for 60s California style.

Out of the water, Edwards was frequently pictured in a colourful variety of Hawaiian shirts. Long since given the kibosh by the fashion industry and banished to the murky backrooms of Las Vegas casinos, the “aloha” shirt has made something of a comeback in recent years thanks to the concerted efforts of labels like Comme des Garçons and Valentino. A Saint Laurent shirt, with long sleeves and a muted Hawaiian print, is subtle and dressy enough to wear under a suit jacket. 


Nat Young


One of the first Australian surfers to really make it big internationally, Nat Young revolutionised surfing thanks to his use of the shortboard. He won the 1966 World Surfing Championships riding “Magic Sam”, a board Young crafted himself. Sam was roughly a foot shorter than was popular at the time, forcing Young to forgo the slow, balletic style of surfing in favour of a wave-shredding style more akin to skateboarding.

 Although he is perhaps as well known for not wearing clothes (he famously sculpted his boards naked) as for wearing them, Young was no stranger to the fashion scene, modelling in the 80s and 90s. Young’s preference for sharply tailored swimwear was popular in the 60s, but fell out of favour when the Bermuda short became popular in the 80s and 90s. Labels such as Britain’s Orlebar Brown have signalled the return of the tailored style with an entire collection of short swim shorts in classic block colours or geometric and photographic prints for stylish male surfers.


Taj Burrow


In 1998, stylish surfing legend Taj Burrow became the youngest surfer to qualify for the Association of Surfing Professionals (now the World Surf League) World Tour. Ever the rebel, Burrow declined his place, stating that he wanted to mature as a surfer before touring full time. One year later, he returned to the tour and stunned the surfing world by finishing second place. Never known for his humility, Burrow used his trophy as a fruit bowl, saying that second best simply wouldn’t do. Starring in the iconic surf films SabotajMontaj and Fair Bits, Burrow's brand of hip-hop style surfing has become internationally famous and emulated. 

Burrow is also famous for his collaborations with surf and skate labels. Although the trend for surfing style icons to collaborate with a clothing label goes back to the 50s, as surf style has become more popular, many high-fashion designers have collaborated with traditional surf brands to produce designer surf wear. French designer Julien David recently partnered with Quiksilver to produce contemporary updates on some of the label’s iconic collections. David’s edit for Quiksilver includes a refracted medley of original patterns, as though they were recomposed out of Tetris pieces. La Perla swim shorts cover similar graphic terrain. 


Julian Wilson


Julian Wilson is a surfing style icon famous for his extreme air moves. His signature manoeuvre, the sushi roll, sees Wilson launch his board into the air, grab it with both hands and rotate it 90 degrees before landing on the break. Wilson is also famous for his heroic rescue of fellow surfer Mick Fanning when he was attacked by a great white shark during the Jeffreys Bay Open in 2015.

On dry land, Wilson, one of the most stylish male surfers, is often seen under a baseball cap or knitted beanie. Baseball caps from Dsquared2 capture the rebelliousness of Australian surfing culture, while Cityshop ribbed beanies are ideal for keeping your head warm after an early morning session on the waves. With no ostentatious ornamentation, they evoke the simplicity of surfing culture through muted, organic tones.


Time and tide


The marker of a stylish male surfer is not just their choice of attire, from beanies to board shorts, but their approach to professional surfing life. From Phil Edwards’ innovations in the 60s to Taj Burrow’s eccentricities in the late 90s, surfing and fashion will always be linked by the authenticity and spirit of the surfer.

Surfing Style Icons