Christmas is upon us. Surf shops in UK cities are heaving. Here's Alf Alderson on the conundrum this poses for contemporary surfing.
Could someone enlighten me as to why London, Leeds or Leicester need surf shops? Because you can’t tell me that they were opened with the needs of "real" surfers in mind. Boards and wetsuits are relegated to a small corner of the store if they’re sold at all (and can you even buy wax?), and I dread to think what kind of advice the almost compulsory Aussie and South African staff can offer about the gear you need for surfing British waves. Instead of genuine surf kit, what confronts you as you walk in is lots of sexy surf fashion garments selling for outrageous prices and walls full of happy, shiny pro surfers in happy, shiny locations which are definitely not Sennen, Croyde or Pease Bay.
But of course, the people running these enterprises, such as Quiksilver, O’Neill and Mambo, are selling an image as opposed to a product. In fact if as a surfer you go in there and buy one of their overpriced products, said companies have succeeded in selling the surfer image back to the people who created it for them in the first place – and they’re making a tidy profit in doing so.
Fair enough, that’s what any company is out to do, and all of the above named give something back to the sport in terms of contest sponsorship, environmental funding and the rest of it, for which I’m sure we’re all truly grateful, but it’s hard sometimes not to feel like surfing is shamelessly being used to boost a faceless multinational corporation’s bank account.
Why, for instance, are we being charged £47 for a pair of Quiksilver boardies made in a Third World country where it’s hard to imagine a concept of minimum wages having taken hold? I believe a costing of said product might go something like fabric, construction and shipping: £2; company logo stitched on side: £45.
To give the above named companies their due, they have been there in surfing from the very beginning – as have Rip Curl, Gul and many others – and maybe I doth protest too much, since they did start out by providing surfers with the gear they needed and simply went on to make a huge success of it. But there are others who have no surf heritage at all – Salomon for instance – that are jumping on to the bandwagon. The suspicion, unavoidably, is that they're doing so to milk surfing for all it’s worth.
The irony of all this is that in order for us, the surfers, to provide them, the surf companies with the images they sell to the wannabes in London, Leicester and Leningrad as well as back to ourselves, all we really need is a board (and a wetsuit in the cold, grey UK) - the very thing you can’t actually buy in so many inland surf boutiques even though they’re trading on the board riding image.
Yet the one thing that gets virtually NO exposure in the wannabe surf world is surfboards. And the one group of people who are absolutely essential to surfing – board makers – are, with a few exceptions, a group who make relatively little profit from the sport. But take them out of the equation and the surf boutiques would all close, the mags would shut down, sweat shops all over the Third World would be out of business and we’d all have to take up knitting or something. No board, no surfing, no groovy image.
So while we might think that as humble Joe Surfers we’re suffering from having our sport hijacked, how would you feel if you were a shaper as well as a surfer when the sport – nay lifestyle – has become so far removed from its roots that the very tool that allows you to do it is regarded as an irrelevance by many of the people making the biggest bucks from it.
The shape(r) of things to come? Who knows?