Gotcha Rides Third Wave in Surf Styles

Times Staff Writer

Surfers' neon-bright board shorts are now covered with rubber wet suits as the "Endless Summer" waves fade into cooler autumn swells.

But in case you haven't noticed, most surf fashions have begun to enjoy year-round popularity, catering both to trend-setting "shredders" (surfers) and 60-year-old grandfathers who can be spotted wearing flower-printed jams in the shopping malls.

But don't look for jams, clam diggers or even classic Hawaiian shirts coming from a world leader in surf-wear design, Gotcha Sportswear, based in Costa Mesa.

"You wouldn't catch a hip kid dead in those things. It is so uncool to wear that stuff. You have no idea," explains Michael Tomson, a former world-class surfer (No. 5 in 1978) who is the co-owner and chief designer for Gotcha.

"They (style-setting surfers) now wear things that I call the post-nuclear-torn-and-destroyed look. They want clothes that are beaten up, distressed, on the one hand.

"On the other, they like ultra-bright nylons. The new wave is synthetics. Tie-dyed and bleached looks are also huge because none of these kids were around for the '60s."

At 33, Thomson appears to have found a good measure of both artistic and commercial success. He is half-owner of the firm, which he says grosses $70 million annually. And retailers claim his advanced sense of style is a major reason for the current surf-crazed style boom around the world.

"For the last three years, Gotcha has been the trend-setter in surf fashion," says Paul Heussenstamm owner of Newport Surf & Sport. "You even see a lot of Michael Tomson's designs copied by some of the big (high-fashion) menswear firms. . . . Tomson is perhaps the first surf-related designer to be distinguished as one of the country's leading designers." (He received Marty awards--West Coast Menswear Retailer Awards--in 1985 and 1987.)

Adds Heussenstamm: "Michael Tomson really opened the door for the next wave. The first wave was Hang-Ten. That faded out. The second wave was OP. And the third wave is Gotcha."

Tomson, who was born in South Africa, left home at 18 to travel to surfing competitions throughout the world. He supported himself on income from manufacturers' endorsements and from free-lance writing (in publications as diverse as Surfing magazine and the New York Times).

How did he make the transition to the equally competitive fashion seas? And wind up with a firm that now employs 200 people, virtually all of whom show up for work in shorts?

In 1979, as his professional surfing career was wiping out, Tomson designed a few pairs of surfing trunks "basically because my instincts told me there was an opening in the marketplace for something that was different. And I was also looking for some sort of bridge career associated with what I love to do."

He then contacted the only person he knew connected with the garment industry, fellow South African Joel Cooper, whom he had met when the two dated a set of sisters. Tomson and Cooper offered the surfing trunks at an industry trade show in Los Angeles. And they wrote "between $200,000 and $300,000 of orders at a time when we didn't even have an office or a phone number," recalls Tomson.

As to why the surf look is suddenly hot far beyond the beach, Tomson feels the answer lies in the attitude of the clothing.

"It represents freedom, fantasy. It represents something that kids feel fairly confident won't be worn by their elders," he says.

Surfing magazine editor David Gilovich, who gave Tomson his first writing assignment, credits Tomson with being the first person to truly merge fashion with surfing clothes.

"For many years there was a surf look, but it was consistent--the same type of thing year after year," Gilovich notes. "They (Tomson and Cooper) were the first to keep their eyes open to what was happening in the rest of the fashion world . . . and to mold that into a contemporary surf fashion statement."

The firm, which was named for the "Gotcha" punch line in Gillette commercials of the late '70s, is not the largest company selling surf-oriented sportswear. But Tomson maintains "it's the hippest."

Observers suspect four major factors have contributed to the commanding position Gotcha has in the surf fashion marketplace:

--Tomson's intense immersion in the surfing world. (He still surfs daily from 5 to 8 p.m.)

--His international background; Heussenstamm says Tomson combined surf styles with design influences from Italy and from South Africa, "where the male is much more in touch with fashion than the young man in the United States."

--The firm's New Wave-style advertising not only in surfing magazines but also in hip, trend-setting publications, such as Interview and Details.

--The daring to make surf-style sportswear a year-round operation and to offer many non-standard garments, such as lightweight jackets.

Despite the firm's impressive volume, Gotcha has avoided mass-merchandising its wares, limiting clients to the finer surf shops and just a few department stores.

"There's so much more growth available to us," insists 33-year-old Cooper, Gotcha's chief executive.

"The way we want to grow is to maintain the image. If there are five surf shops in a city, we'll pick the best two.

Even so, as Gotcha has grown, it has included in its wares some designs that image-conscious surfers might not consider totally "rad" (radical). But Tomson contends that he and his design team still do not offer anything that is "a dork design, something a Barney would wear." (In surfing lingo, a Barney is a "wanna be" surfer, typically in his late 30s.)

In Tomson's view, a Barney might wear a Spuds MacKenzie T-shirt (shirts featuring the Bud Light "party animal," which have been one of the best-selling T-shirts of the year).

Regarding bold prints: "Everyone makes bold prints. That's burnt out. So we've begun using photo-image prints with writing on them. That's an edge item."

But the company also has to be careful not to offer wares too fashion-conscious for its youthful market, which is chiefly to males 14 to 24 at prices from about $10 to $50 retail.

So, as Gotcha continues shipping more and more goods to department stores (and, ironically, to more Barneys), it has also introduced an "underground" label called Bash, to be sold with exclusive availability to a smaller group of retailers. The line features "basically powerful colorations" and designs "with an element of aggression and reckless abandon," says Tomson. "We won't make those things available to everybody. Obviously as you increase your availability, you decrease your individuality. Size is the enemy of cool."

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