Keeping It Creative: Captain Fin, Captain’s Helm Founder Mitch Abshere

Mitch Abshere, Captain Fin

Mitch Abshere is a busy guy. Between spending time with family, running a company, and managing a retail location, time seems like it could be hard to come by. But Abshere, who recently carved out an hour or two to talk with TransWorld about his latest projects, says he still makes time to surf and have fun, and doesn’t get too roped into having to do things a certain way—all of which are key to maintaining his creativity. And that alone, many could argue, is one of the underlying reasons his businesses have done so well.

Captain Fin got its start in 2007 and is picking up speed after some key collaborations with heavy hitters like Hurley and Vans. Steadily gaining street cred within the surf industry, Captain Fin has rapidly become more than a blip on most people’s radar, yet Abshere still talks of his company with a passionate and humble air, an admirable quality and one that surely hasn’t gone unnoticed by his peers.

In 2009, Abshere, a pro surfer, launched his own vintage resale, surf-inspired retail location, Captain’s Helm. The shop also carries a hand-picked selection of new surfboards and apparel by fellow local brands like Brixton and shaper Chris Christensen. The shop was an idea he’d been mulling over for years and one that he’s been passionate about since day one. The journey has definitely been a labor of love, says Abshere, acknowledging that both Captain Fin and Captain’s Helm got their start during a turbulent economic landscape.

At the current Oceanside offices—a small building that houses a close-knit team of  designer and artists, and a warehouse from which Captain Fin ships all its product—Abshere invites us into his office: a bright space, with an old van seat as a couch, magazine cut outs and art inspiration tacked to almost every inch of the walls, and a range of different fins with endless combinations of graphics strewn across the desk and floor. We instantly felt at home in Abshere’s inspired environment , and as he began walking us through the story behind Captain and how everything came together, we were left curious to know even more about what makes this creative brand tick. Here’s part of the interview:

What’s behind the names of your brand and shop?

I don’t know why I named them Captain Fin and Captain’s Helm.  I had this idea for an anchor forever and always wanted to use it as something. So it was funny because when I did it, someone was like “Oh, so you are the captain of fins?” and I was like “Oh crap. No, not at all. I don’t think that at all.” I just kind of liked the name. Basically we just made fins and T-shits, hats, sweatshirts – the basics, its not a full clothing company or anything like that.

 What about the retail location – how did that come about?

Forever, I wanted to open up a store. When we lived up in LA we lived not too far from Fred Segal. I would go in there and we were poor, but I  just thought it was so cool. I was so intrigued by how you could go to a store and shop like all day basically in there if you have money. You could buy anything and get it wrapped, you can eat there. I just thought it would be so cool to open up the poor man’s Fred Segal. So that was my concept with Captain’s Helm, I just brought in the stuff that I really liked. It’s still not nearly close to what I want it to be. We sell used clothes, we have new clothes, records, wetsuits—it’s full eclectic kind of stuff in there.

I always loved retail and that side of it. It’s a lot harder when you do it than you think. You start doing it and you’re like “Oh so you don’t get to pay yourself?”

We carry Brixton, obviously Captain Fin, Loser Machine, Insight, and then we carry a few smaller local brands, like the Brothers Marshall. Pretty much most everything else is used. Surfboards are new: Chris Christensen and Jeff McCowan.

Take a tour of Captain’s Helm, right here:

Photos: Chris Kimball

 So what inspired you to create Captain Fin?

Captain Fin started on a full whim. When I was a kid like 12 years old, I started riding for Donald Takayama. I moved to Carlsbad when I was 13, he sponsored me and then gave me a job at his shop as a shop rat. I’d be done working and I’d just hang out at the shaping bay and he’d just be shaping and he’d talk to me while he was shaping. One of the things he would talk to me about was fins. Placement of fins, how they work on a board.  I think just over the years, sitting there listening to him and getting boards from him, whenever I got a board he’d be like “okay, for this board you want this fin, you place it here.’

Fast forward years later, maybe 2003 or 2004, I had boards that just didn’t work that good, I started messing around with putting different fins in the board. He knows what he’s talking about —which I knew he did, but it just kind of registered at one point. One day I was in my garage and I had these fins that didn’t work, so I just started reshaping the fins cutting them down and filing them differently. So I started sticking them on boards, and like “oh gosh, this board works now—it works so good.”

A friend of mine was like “oh, we should make fins for you.” I was like “that would be cool, do you think we could put any graphics on them?” I was and still am a huge skateboard fan—love graphics on skateboards. It was always fun to see as a kid your favorite skaters coming out with new graphics on their boards. I thought it would be rad if you could get surfers to get their graphics on the fins like a skateboard. I thought nothing of it, if it was a place in the market that needed it or a big sale. I just liked it.

I started figuring out how to get the graphics on the fins, which was a huge process and cost a lot of money to do, but we tried here and it just cost so much money and took it over seas and it was tough. We didn’t know how to do it all. Finally a couple years ago we started talking with Futures and they now manufacture our fins for us. Now they are getting done legitimately and properly, which is awesome. They licensed just the fin, about two years ago. 2010.

What’s it like working with Futures?

It’s rad— they make great fins, the quality is amazing. We had some short boarders too that wanted to do stuff, but  we just couldn’t get the fins right. So once we did that it gave us a place with some of the short boarders, where they knew we could make what they wanted.  I think the first one we did was with Dane Reynolds’ Summer Teeth, so it was cool that we could actually make him what he wanted. He’s super smart and knows what he likes to ride and what works for him, and so it’s been fun to be able to pick his brain.

So how does the design process work?

There are a couple of artists who we have worked with who help out on the design side, but most every single person has what they want, and they just hand us the template. And the same with the art. That’s the whole thing—giving them what they want. They’ll send the art in and we’ll lay out variations for them, cad it up, send it to them, and make sure its okay. Once we get everything together we send it to Futures and they’ll send us a sample we can give to the rider and make sure they are happy with what it looks like and how it rides. It’s very much rider design driven and I think there is something cool about that, rather than one person coming up with all the stuff.

How did you decide who to put on the team?

The team roster is pretty much still to this day all friends. It’s grown and there are some guys now that I didn’t know but it still came off a friendship. It’s at a place where anyone involved, they still match the feel of the company. Like Chippa Wilson is someone who just came aboard and I didn’t know Chippa—I knew who he was of course. He knew about the brand and I had a friend who knew him. I started hanging out with Chippa and was like “this guy is killer, super rad.” It’s a good fit.

Follow the jump for more on the Captains’ futures…