Surfing Goes to College For Design Needs

As the surfwear industry continues to set trends in the world of fashion, it’s no surprise that industry leaders are now tapping into the source of some of the world’s most accomplished designers: The School of Fashion Design at Otis College of Art and Design.

[IMAGE 1]Originally founded in Los Angeles in 1918 (its School of Fashion Design was established in 1980), Otis has been the springboard for graduates who have helped shape the look of contemporary fashion. Many of Otis’ alumni have gone on to successful careers across the fashion spectrum, from Nike to Ann Klein. That list is now expanding into the surf world, as Quiksilver, Ocean Pacific, Billabong, Rusty, Volcom, and a host of others, begin looking to Otis to strengthen their stables of surfwear designers.

Otis President Samuel C. Hoi says the college’s philosophy is a perfect fit with the surfwear industry. “Surfwear design requires keen lifestyle awareness and a very practical market perspective. It also depends on fun and original ideas that test the boundaries. At Otis, students are taught to negotiate personal expression and creation for the market place. They understand market research and yet are able to design with a distinctive voice. They are also trained to balance function and style, two very important values to surfwear.

A mixer hosted by Bob McKnight at the Quiksilver office in May crystallized the Otis/surf connection, as approximately 70 VIPs from the surfwear industry mingled with the college’s leaders, faculty and students.

“I didn’t know what I was walking into, recalls Rosemary Brantley, founding chair of Otis’ School of Fashion Design of the mixer. “There were the presidents of Stüssy, Hurley, Volcom — the very top people in the industry, which showed me the incredible influence Bob McKnight has. It was a working dinner, and the discussion centered on the importance of the surfwear industry and Otis’ place within it.

Brantley says the support from the surfwear industry provides Otis with quality employment opportunities for its graduates. She describes surfing’s impact on world fashion as beyond belief: “When you see people at Chanel walking down the runway with surfboards — I’ve been in this business 30 years and never have I seen such an emphasis on creativity, and the surf scene is right on top of it.

The top surf companies also provide Otis with scholarship opportunities for its students, many of whom come from families with modest incomes. “The average student family income is 40,000-dollars a year, explains Brantley, “and within five years, our graduates can be making 90,000 dollars. I think the surf-industry executives can see that.

In exchange, Otis offers the surfwear industry an inside track to budding designers with a four-year degree in fashion design and a stringent work ethic. “Students from Otis are well trained on all levels, says Cathy Paik, Billabong Juniors Design Director and one of several surfwear mentors to Otis students. “They are versed on all aspects of design and understand how to execute a style from flat-line sketch to actual garment form and all the components that bring a style to life, like patterns, textiles, and construction. They work with all types of designers from all parts of the fashion industry and are allowed to take the best from the best.

“For a company like ours — along with Billabong, O’Neill, and others of a certain size — there comes a time when you have to go beyond just bringing in friends and buddies who are creative, to bringing in people who are highly trained and technically skilled at making clothes, says McKnight. “Otis gives creative people the training to become skilled technicians who can hit the ground running at a company like ours. They’re able to translate ideas into working garments that can function throughout the fitting and patterning process to the finished product.

“Otis is not a spoiled little kid’s school, he continues. “Students there have beeen identified in high school as special and talented and, with scholarship opportunities, it becomes a hatchery for a good career. I know this for a fact because my daughter goes there, and she says the words every parent loves to hear: ‘Dad, I’m working the hardest I ever have in my life.’