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A Story of the surf industry’s infancy and its lasting worldwide appeal

Jim Kempton. File photo
Jim Kempton. File photo

By Jim Kempton

“I’ll give you 50 pounds for that shirt.”

I was hurrying toward the Sloane Square subway entrance on Kings Road in London, rushing to catch the last train back to my university dorm in Sussex. It was summer, warm by English standards, and I was wearing a vintage silk Hawaiian shirt that I’d bought at a thrift store in San Diego for 50 cents. It was a beautiful print, one of the old Japanese iridescent dyes, with hula girls, ukuleles and a sketch of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in colors they don’t even make anymore.

But 50 British Pounds? That was $125 American.

“You must be kidding,” I responded.

To understand how much money that was in 1974: Arthur Frommer’s Europe on $5 Dollars a Day was the most popular travel book on the bestseller list. But as students we scoffed at it. If you spent $5 dollars a day living here we’d say, you must be a tourist. A cozy room in the coastal town of Newquay where I surfed every weekend cost $1.25 a night—that included a big English breakfast.

“I’m not kidding mate,” he said emphatically. “Give it to me right now and the 50 quid is yours.”

There were plenty of notions running through my head. His offer was nearly a month’s worth of spending money. My MBA thesis was due soon at university and I had a test in the morning on how to open new markets. My train was leaving in less than 10 minutes and I was late already. I’d have to ride home on the train with no shirt on. And this funny long-haired Brit wanted to buy something that made no sense to me.

“Why?” I had to ask.

“You’re a surfer,” he asked. “From California, right? Surfing, California—it’s what happening, mate. Nothing is cooler than surfing and California.”

That summer I’d surfed the coast of France, where corduroy lines pumped out of the Atlantic with power and consistency. Beautiful young French girls would cluster at the water’s edge just to check out these American lunatics with their strange looking space sticks. Rental on a beach house for a month was less than the price he was offering for my shirt.

“Well I don’t have another shirt,” I pointed out. “What am I going to wear on the train ride home?”

The Cockney dandy took the 50-pound note out of his wallet and held it out. My plight was of absolutely no concern to him. He wanted the shirt. Later, I would learn that he was the manager for a number of the top bands in Britain and that in years to come I would sell Hawaiian shirts to dozens of rock stars in the British pantheon of pop music. But at the moment I was just a 19-year-old surfer trying to figure out how the world worked and how to work the world.

It was a seminal moment. Several truths became simultaneously apparent. Number one: Surfing and the California beach culture was something way bigger than I realized. It wasn’t just a bunch of us West Coast kids who were onto the secret thrill of this wave riding thing—it was the whole world. Number two: This was my MBA thesis, and this was the new market that needed to be opened. Number three: There was a business to be made selling surf stuff—and I was going to do it. Lastly and most immediately satisfying—I was going to surf waves in Biarritz again—for a month—free.

I caught the two-hour train ride all the way back to my dorm room. Without a shirt.

Jim Kempton spent his next five years traveling to Europe, Australia and Hawaii selling Aloha shirts and other surfing related products to the fledgling surf shops springing up around the globe. In those same years, Quiksilver, Billabong, and Ocean Pacific became brands that would lead to a global surf industry.

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