By Design : To Surf, With Love
Hoffman doesn’t have the kind of name recognition of, say, Stussy, Quiksilver, Jantzen or Ocean Pacific.
But people in the beachwear industry know the name and the man behind it: Walter Hoffman of Hoffman California Fabrics, whose tropical and aloha patterns have ensured big sales for clients.
Being one of the major textile suppliers to the industry is not solely why Hoffman is called the “sultan of surfwear"--a moniker that makes him chuckle. The pioneering entrepreneur is also a waterman: surfer, diver and all-around fish.
Surf historian Allan Seymour calls Hoffman, 64, “one of the true founders of the surf industry. Bruce Brown did ‘The Endless Summer’ movie, Hobie Alter brought boards to the masses, John Severson founded Surfer magazine, and Walter Hoffman supplied the fabric.”
What’s more, Seymour adds, they all hail from Capo Beach, where Hoffman still lives with his wife, Patricia.
On Saturday, Hoffman will receive the Waterman Achievement Award at the sixth annual Waterman’s Ball, hosted by the Surf Industry Manufacturers Assn. Brown and Alter were the two previous honorees.
“Walter has always stuck with the premise of work hard and go surfing,” Seymour says. “In the spirit of aloha, he’s helped many people get established in the industry, whether it was his guidance or extending them credit.”
The company was founded by Walter’s father, Rube, 76 years ago. Walter runs it with his brother Phillip (Flippy) Hoffman, 66.
Industry entrepreneurs have long considered Hoffman a godfather figure, someone they could turn to for advice when they launched their companies.
“Walter has been my biggest mentor in the apparel industry,” said Bob McKnight, corporate executive officer of Quiksilver in Costa Mesa. “He was very instrumental when we started Quiksilver. He taught us everything we needed to know, from textiles to credit ratings. He’s the perfect balance of business, family and sports--an honorable man.”
It was on his family’s weekend and summer jaunts to Laguna Beach from Hollywood that he and his brother became forever enamored of the ocean. But while their mother impressed on them an appreciation for swimming, it was a colorful spread in National Geographic that inspired a 15-year-old Walter to take up surfing.
During the Korean War, he rode for the Navy surf team while on duty in Hawaii. An enlarged copy of his 1952 Waikiki surf club membership card hangs on the wall in his office.
“I loved Hawaii and wanted to live there,” said Hoffman, who returned home from a five-year stint on the islands in 1954. His experience soon influenced his father’s business.
“I wanted to keep living there, so the only thing Dad could think of me doing was selling fabrics to Hawaii,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman California Fabrics, known originally for its wools until the ‘50s, when tropical print fabrics were introduced, moved its operation from Los Angeles to Santa Ana, then to Costa Mesa, until finally settling 16 years ago into the 40,000-square-foot facility the family owns in Mission Viejo.
Flippy Hoffman runs the home sewing and crafts division. His extensive surfboard collection covers the warehouse walls.
While 15 staff artists create a range of plaids, golf and Western prints, the company is best known for its tropical, aloha and fish prints--"the real McCoy,” says Walter Hoffman--produced in Japan, Indonesia, Brazil and the United States.
Print stylist Deborah Call, who started with the company 14 years ago as an intern, says Hoffman insists on quality.
“Not the quick, cheap way,” Call said. “Though the company has the latest technology, the computers sit covered most of the time. Color [is applied by hand] for a crisper effect.”
A wall in Hoffman’s office is plastered with prints ads, swatches and photos of the famous people in Hoffman prints, from bikini babes to Mick Jagger. There is a Jimmy Buffett logo shirt and a duplicate of the red parrot shirt Tom Selleck wore in “Magnum, P.I."--the original hangs in the Smithsonian in Washington.
Other examples of cotton, rayon and silk aloha shirts Hoffman either printed or collected over the years are packed in two double-decker closets. These treasures represent the history of Hawaiian shirts and are an invaluable resource to designers throughout the industry.
Pulling out an antique silk shirt, picturing an island woman, that he acquired on his travels, Hoffman says longingly, “God, I wish it fit. I would wear it. Aloha shirts are the first things surfers ever wore. They’re all I ever wear.”
A Hawaiian shirt, baggy pants, flip-flops and an in-hand diet drink are Hoffman’s trademarks. Friends expect him to show up in his best khakis and aloha shirt for Saturday’s event.
It’s his overall constitution of cool that has earned Hoffman so much reverence among the shapers of beach culture.
He’s the quintessential California Golden Boy, Seymour says.
“It’s a prerequisite, to be in this family,” jokes Tony Hoffman, Walter and Patricia Hoffman’s son and the company’s vice president.
The Hoffmans’ daughters are Joyce, who was recognized last year on the Surfing Walk of Fame in downtown Huntington Beach; Robin Chisholm, who runs an equestrian business in Texas, and Dibbie Hoffman-Fletcher, who owns several surf-related businesses with husband Herbie, an innovator of modern performance long boarding. The Fletchers’ industry involvement also includes their professional surfing sons, Christian and Nathan.
Hoffman’s success has grown with the surfwear industry. He won’t reveal the company’s revenue, but he does say he finds it unbelievable.
“I never planned on it getting so large, but it’s great for me,” Hoffman said. “There’s so many fresh people, fresh ideas. I give them all credit for trying.”
So what about fashion’s return to everything aloha?
“Every company today is doing its own thing,” he said. “They’re taking old patterns and using new fashion colors. A hundred new variations will show up--which I love.
“Of course, the market is so fast that in less than a year those New Yorker cheap guys who don’t have a clue about Hawaiian prints will move in and end up destroying the trend. They’ll show the guy with the surfboard backward.”
But Hoffman isn’t worried. Prints come and go.
“It’s the guys who’ve always done it the best who will outlast the fads,” he said.
Said print stylist Call: “Walter’s favorite fish is the alwa , ‘the bull of the sea.’ That’s Walter, a bull--but with a heart of gold.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Waterman’s Ball on Saturday
The sixth annual Waterman’s Ball will be held Saturday at Pelican Hill Golf Course in Newport Beach. Sponsored by the Surf Industry Manufacturer Assn., proceeds from the $100-a-ticket event benefit the American Oceans Campaign, the Orange County Marine Institute and the Surfrider Foundation. Attire is surfer formal: tuxes worn with sarongs and thongs. Tickets are available at the door, or phone (714) 760-0784 for more information.