Not Your Typical Surf Brand: How Ezekiel Is Making A Charge At The Big-Five

In the crowded surf shop, brands are fighting to become major suppliers. Started in 1992, Ezekiel is finally edging into the big leagues. How has the brand gotten to where it is today, and where is it going tomorrow?

TransWorld SURF Business spoke with Ezekiel President Vince De La Peña and Sales Director Royce Cansler to get the answers:

TransWorld SURF Business: How did you get started?

Vince De La Peña : My partner Shane La Voie and I started in the summer of 1992, but I always tell people we didn’t have a clue. We never produced a stitch in our life. We just made T-shirts, so for the first three years we just kind of existed and tried to learn as much as we could. It Ezekiel’s real start wasn’t until about three years ago when Royce came in and showed us some of the fundamentals of producing product.

TransWorld SURF Business: You started close to the same time as Volcom, SMP, Counter Culture, and some others. How do you feel about the growth of your company and the willingness of surf shops to open their doors to you?

Vince De La Peña : It’s obvious to me why Hurley was able to do what it’s done. You can look at Bob Hurley and see the experience and reputation that he has in this industry. Plus, his staff basically stayed the same, and he has money. I think money has been the biggest issue for us.

In the last year and a half, we’ve been able to execute better than we ever have — especially from a marketing perspective. From a financial perspective, we’re more consistent than ever. That’s probably the key.

I don’t know Richard Woolcott Volcom cofounder very well, but those guys obviously had a lot of money.

We stole from Peter to pay Paul to get the entire business to the level where we’re taken seriously now. We never had the proper backing to do a lot of the things we’ve wanted to do.

If you compared our budget and the budgets of some of the other brands, you’d see a big difference. I’m not saying those guys had it easy by any means. But it does help when you have a little bit of financial stability to really focus and deliver what you need to do to create that demand.

TransWorld SURF Business: What sets Ezekiel apart from those other brands that came out at the same time?

Vince De La Peña : Our styling, product, image, and athletes are completely different. We’re a lot different from you’re typical surf brand. That’s been our edge. Our stuff’s not trendy — it’s more timeless.

TransWorld SURF Business: You did the deal with Azita Manufacturing about a year and a half ago. What has it enabled you to do?

Vince De La Peña : The good thing about Azita is it has the resources to produce whatever we need. We’re now able to open up LCs letters of credit in a more timely manner, which gets the product to the shops on time, which gives us a better chance to sell at retail.

Bruce Freedman, CEO of Azita has the experience in the garment industry. In the last year and a half my partners and I have learned a lot by watching how those guys run a business. That’s a big asset.

Royce Cansler: The advantage of having Azita is it’s an operations company. They’re not merchandisers and designers, and they’re not label driven. They’ve also allowed Vinnie, Shane La Voie, and me to excel in the areas that we do best.

We’ve now gained the confidence of retailers because we’ve been able to churn out better product, better marketing, and supply better support through in-store displays, fixturings, local events, and more importantly, we’ve been able to deliver on-time and at a higher percentage rate. We’ve averaged 85- to 90-percent completion of orders, which is pretty unheard of.

TransWorld SURF Business: Where do you see the brand going in the next three years?

Vince De La Peña : Our growth percentage from last spring was pretty big — like 40 percent. We’ve pulled away from a lot of the brands that you’ve mentioned. In the next year we’ll see another significant jump.

Royce Cansler: There’re very few retailers shops we’ve targeted that we aren’t in. Our distribution, which is from a Pacific Sunwear on down, is in the desired areas. Now the challenge for us is to increase the real estate within those stores.

This is the first year we’ve really been considered a serious contender. Some of the bigger brands opened up opportunities that Ezekiel is now filling. And the retailers seem to perceive that we have a character that merchandises well with the other labels, but is distinctive — we’ve got our own flavor.

TransWorld SURF Business: Where do you think the brand will grow?

Vince De La Peña : We’d like to have the exposure and the depth in other parts of the country that we have in Southern California. We’re also strong on the Jersey Shore, in Virginia Beach, the Outer Banks of North Carolina, places in Pennsylvania, and some places in New York.

But the exposure we have in Florida is minimal. Our product is not really Hawai’ian-style driven either. But the Local Motion shops back us big time in Hawai’i and we have a couple of other guys.

Northern California could be big for us. The whole Pacific Northwest will be a bigger player. Colorado, Arizona, and Utah are all coming along nicely.

TransWorld SURF Business: You’re marketing your line as being technical with the whole Adaptex campaign. I don’t see anyone else doing anything like that.

Vince De La Peña : ome people love the ads, and some people don’t like them. We don’t look for inspirations from our competitors. We look for different things. Every year I want to change the ad campaign to the point where I feel like I’m always ahead of the current campaign.

Royce Cansler: The ads are a result of the fact that we’re involved in — much like the youth of today — the surf, skate, and snow markets. A lot of the technical aspects in our clothing come from Blond, which is a highly technical snow line. There are a lot of different pocket configurations and zipper technology that cross over in the garments.

It’s amazing to me, being the old guy, how skaters are into technical and functional things. For snow the reasons are obvious. The skaters really utilize those things as well. For the surfers, it’s like a bonus.

Vince De La Peña : Surf style doesn’t change a lot. I think having the different influences in skate and snow keeps you on your toes because they’re really innovative.

I want to be super forward, super on the edge. Alex De La Peña , my brother, is the designer. We’re on the same wavelength a lot of the time.

That’s really the difference between Ezekiel and a surf label. We understand that a skateboarder in Philly can be just as cool and know just as much about what’s going on, if not more, than a surfer. When I was growing up, you either surfed or you were an idiot who didn’t know what was going on. For my fourteen-year-old brother, being the best DJ possible makes him the coolest.

It’s so easy for the old surf guys to shun those experiences, but those experiences weigh just as much as surfing.

TransWorld SURF Business: How does it feel when you come out with these technical, innovative clothes, and a month later you see Abercrombie knocking off the designs?

Vince De La Peña : It can be flattering. It sends a message that it’s going to the masses. Sometimes it’s good, but it’s a warning sign to make sure you’re on your toes for the future.

Royce Cansler: That’s why Alex does a fair amount of traveling. He has open eyes and is receptive. His interests are so varied.

In all the companies I’ve been with in the past, the merchandisers and designers all took biweekly trips up and down the coast to visit surf shops. But it’s hard to get Alex to do that because it’s not inspiring to him.

Vince De La Peña : And a lot of the larger surf companies, if they have a huge market, need to deliver the products that are happening right at that moment. They can’t move as quickly because it
would be detrimental to their business.

Royce Cansler: One of the things that I’m proud of is that Ezekiel product has an identity. When you’re within a store, you can pick out the Ezekiel section.

TransWorld SURF Business: What are the biggest issues with the surf industry right now?

Vince De La Peña : It’s a small industry.

Royce Cansler: I don’t see too many problems in this industry. Paul Naude Billabong president always smacks me with reality when he points out Levi’s is bigger than this entire industry.

It seems like there’s a certain maximum volume, and as one company grows, another fades away. There’s always that trade-off.

I have the utmost admiration for Quiksilver because it seems like they’ve tried to step out of the bubble and make inroads into other areas. I think having been around in this industry since the 70s, they’ve done the best job of anybody.

TransWorld SURF Business: How did the launch of Ezekiel Girl go?

Vince De La Peña : It was the biggest response we’ve had to anything.

Royce Cansler: There was a great quick acceptance of Ezekiel Girl when we launched at the February ASR show.

There were no press releases about it. We only had an Ezekiel Girl label on the outside of the booth and a photo of some girls in the clothes. We also handed out about 300 Ezekiel Girl T-shirts.

By the second day, we had most of the major juniors’ accounts from across the country stopping by to see this line that they’d heard about. Ezekiel Girl has rode right in on the heels of Ezekiel men’s. I’m kind of blown away by the acceptance in such a competitive market. I can’t think of one store that we want to be in on the West Coast that didn’t buy the line.

The line will cater to the existing account base that we have. Plus, for the most part, girls consume clothes at a lot higher rate than men.

But you can get hurt in juniors’ a lot faster than in men’s, too, so you have to be very careful. We spent a lot of time on research and focus groups before we stuck our toe in the water.

TransWorld SURF Business: You seem to have consolidated the overall business as well. Has this helped?

Royce Cansler: When I first got involved in the company in 1997, we had Blond, Spare, Kastel, and Ezekiel. We had our fingers in a lot of different pies. Now we have Ezekiel, and Blond is really the outerwear division of Ezekiel. The Blond outerwear has “Blond designed by Ezekiel” in its labels, and the word Blond is the same font as Ezekiel.

Vince De La Peña : We’ve laid a great foundation, and we’ve done nothing with our product and marketing to take away from the integrity of the label. It’s still earning a lot of respect in the apparel business. There’s opportunity there, and we’re driving a lot of it. It seems like every season we go along, we’re picking up better and better percentages, so we feel pretty good about that.