Who says you can’t go home again?
When the Op bus pulled away from surf shops back in the early 90s and headed for the dollar-green pastures of wide distribution, the retailers who saw themselves as being left in a cloud of black smoke could only shake their fists and swear “never again.”
But many of those oaths were rhetorical. After all, once a brand went mainstream it never would — or could — return to specialty retail, right? And so many threw Op in the heap with the rest of the once-important early-80s brands like Lightning Bolt, Stubbies, Catchit, and Offshore. And there the brand sat for years.
But four years ago, with a new driver at the wheel, the bus began a slow journey back to its specialty roots. The going was slow at first. In the last year, however, as the brand picked up familiar faces and fresh ideas, it seemed to be gaining momentum. Now more than a few quality surf shops are admitting — with some degree of wonder — that they’re actually excited to be carrying Op again.
The secret of this Lazurus-like move is a 40-piece line of vintage Op Classics apparel that’s been reintroduced to retailers from the trunk of Op Classics Sales Manager Tommy Gudauskas’ car. It’s an interesting way to see a 200-million-dollar brand operate, but it appears to be working.
“We have reinvented and resuscitated the Op brand in the last three years to get it to a sizable level that I am sure is respected by the rest of the surf industry,” says Op President Dick Baker. “But the base of that business is in distribution other than ‘core shops. For me, success in not only to see our apparel sell, but to be successful in that ‘core distribution again. That will be our ultimate report card.”
Michael Marckx, Op’s new director of marketing, calls it reverse engineering. “Over the last five or ten years, the common question in the action-sports world has been, ‘How do we grow this cottage brand to the next level without ruining its essence?’ We’re doing the reverse,” he says. “We’re asking, ‘How do we make Op relevant again to the influential consumer so that the mainstream business can expand significantly?'”
The idea is to get surf-shops and their influential consumers excited about the Op brand, which in turn will drive its big-box sales volume. Because the fact is, a 40-SKU line selling in 40 surf shops (even high-volume, influential surf shops) will make a nearly infinitesimal sales blip on Op’s radar screen.
Baker says Op has grown 150 percent in sales in the last three years and could potentially exceed Op’s historic peak volume within a year or two. “Op Classics will be a minuscule piece of that business,” he says. “All it is is something that’s exclusively for the surf-specialty retailers. Our hope is that it will evolve and be relevant to their consumer over time.”
The Op Classics line is comprised of exact duplicates of best-selling pieces from the brand’s heyday that will be offered only to specialty retailers. It’s like finding a pristine stash of your old clothes up in the attic. The line features all the old prints and is faithful to the line’s history — all the way down to shirts with a tight 70s fit and short shorts prone to testicle-flashing (a longer-inseam version has also been offered in the name of modesty).
But it won’t be déjà vu all over again for the consumers Op hopes to entice with the line. “A year ago I was in Japan and saw young kids buying vintage product,” recalls Baker. “When the Op Classics line was still in its rough stages here, the same fifteen-year-old kids who once wouldn’t even take free Op clothing were literally screaming and yelling about the Op Classics stuff. The kids are responding to it. This is not some 40-year-old guy who grew up with Op walking in and buying a shirt.”
In fact, Gudauskas’ strategy when rolling out the line was to first talk to shop employees — and not the managers and owners. “He wanted to get the kid’s reaction first,” says Baker. “He did it in a very calculated and low-key way and that immediately gave the line some underground credibility, just by how he presented it.”
According to Marckx, “There’s a whole new consumer base that’s not been jaded by any of the past indiscretions of Op. It’s new and fresh to them and is backed by a fresh and new marketing face to the company.”
So do Baker and Marckx think the whole retro craze will last long enough to make Op a familiar brand in surf shops once again? “If you talk to the Urban Outfitters and the PacSuns of the world, the retro look is strong and continues to be strong,” says Baker.
However, the plan will be to slowly roll out new prints and fabrications into the Op Classics line in the next few years — not only authentic pieces from old lines, but new interpretations of the retro look. “There is always going to be a reverence for the past in the line,” says Marckx, “but it’s not necessarily going to be regurgitation of the stuff from the 70s.”
So ultimately, is the Op Classics line only a marketing exercise meant to build the sales of the mass-distribution Op line? Certainly that’s a goal, but Baker also sees this as the right thing to do given Op’s heritage. “We don’t need Op Classics to survive or grow,” he says. “We just want to make it a credible part of our business. We’re giving back to the ‘core market that made the brand happen. We’re returning the brand to its rightful place, and we’re planning to be here for the long term.”