Michael Tomson on Peak Surf Industry, Wipeouts, and More

“Parties? Yeah, we had parties. Lots of ’em. And yes they were out of control on occasion.”

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By the autumn of 1979, the fledgling surf apparel industry was in retreat in the face of an abrupt change in public taste. When a well-organized band of hip-hop and rave aficionados arrived in Orange County to crush the hostile surfers once and for all, they had numbers and the swell of history on their side. What they didn’t know was that their surfing adversaries were led by Michael Tomson, a Jewish South African, a reckonable force, and one of surfing’s true characters.

Shaun Tomson’s older cousin was a professional on the brand new circuit, part of the “Bustin’ Down the Door” crew and a Pipeline standout. That wasn’t enough, so he became a journalist, writing for the surf magazines alongside The New York Times and Rolling Stone. But that wasn’t enough either so he started a clothing brand, Gotcha. It was aggressive. It was loud. It was radical. It snarled, “If you don’t surf, don’t start.” It perpetuated an ethos that can still be felt when the ultra-conservative din of today’s surf industry quiets, usually between 3 and 4 in the morning.

Gotcha was eventually purchased by mega menswear brand, Perry Ellis, leading Michael Tomson to tell journalist Phil Jarratt that, “My baby turned into a whore.” Michael went on to be the president of the Surf Industry Manufacturer’s Association, helping to steer the surf industry through the best of times. Now he is ready for an as yet-to-be-revealed fourth act. We talked over a bottle of chilled Sancerre in his San Clemente home.

Chas Smith: Why did Gotcha start in Laguna?

Michael Tomson: I was living in San Clemente at the time. Quiksilver owned Newport so we didn’t want to go there and San Clemente was too far south. So I said to my friend and partner, Joel Cooper, “Let’s just drive up and see what there is.” Driving through Laguna we thought it looked cool but it could have been Louisville for all we knew. We didn’t know anything about it. That afternoon we were in a house and that’s where we formed the company. Through the course of time Laguna became the surf town.

CS: Where did [surf] go wrong?

MT: You mean why is the surf industry on its ass right now? That’s a big question for which there’s no short answer. But I think you have to start with why the industry was booming before it tripped and fell. From 1998 to 2008 the industry went through a period of unprecedented growth. There were more people surfing than ever, longboards were happening, women were in the water along with old people, kids, and anyone game enough to paddle out.

“And there it was, life on the table. I got pounded, held down, thought I was dying. Next thing, I’m being pulled up on a board. I couldn’t focus on anything, had to go to the hospital. Once you start to question yourself it’s over.”

Along with that surge in participants came an influx of new brands. It wasn’t surfing anymore, it was “boardsports.” The tribe even had Hollywood signed up for the program. Blue Crush came out, there was Fuel TV, and a lot of scripts “in development.” Retailers were supporting this new surf handle and allocating large amounts of floor space to the new movement. Quiksilver and Billabong were hitting sales levels in the billions and both were on an acquisition spree buying brands and buying the retailers who could showcase those brands. It was reckless investing, corporate swagger at its finest, and to the uninformed it looked like the surf industry was heading towards an impossibly bright future. Which of course it wasn’t. What nobody was considering was the consumer and the speed with which tastes change. Kids left the party, particularly mall kids, to whom surf product became a turn off—it just wasn’t as sexy as technology, which is where most kids were (and still are) spending their money. Then on top of that, by the time 2008 rolled around, the real estate market had capsized and the global financial crisis was in full swing leaving the surf industry, as we once knew it, in a desperate fight for survival. What used to be the ultimate career lifestyle became a shit show of broken dreams. The surf industry managed to survive the great clean out, the epic reality check, but not without a host of bankruptcies and reorganizations and today it faces a different set of problems, that being the internet and the changing nature of the way consumers buy products—meaning on their phones and not in stores.

CS: Gotcha told people not to surf. That was the greatest ad campaign ever. Kicking your potential consumer in the gut.

MT: That really was at the heart of the matter because surf was so crowded. Longboards had happened, which made surfing accessible to everyone: boys, girls, kids, old people. And suddenly the nucleus of core surf was being overrun. That’s where if you don’t surf don’t start came from.

CS: You blew the lid off. People still whisper in hushed tones about those Gotcha parties.

MT: Parties? Yeah, we had parties…lots of ’em! And yes they were out of control on occasion. I assume that’s why you’re asking. But then again maybe they weren’t out of control. I guess it depends on your point of view. If fashion shows with naked women and midgets is out of control then yes, I’d say they were off the charts. I’ll tell you one thing though, there was never a problem with attendance. And no one arrived late.

“Everything was new. Everything was big. Everything was fresh. It felt like surfing for the first time.”

Today that kind of stuff would never happen. Sometimes I think surf culture has lost a lot of its punk—brands don’t push the envelope as much. Even in the context of advertising, a campaign like Gotcha’s “If you don’t surf don’t start,” was pretty bold—telling people not to start surfing, that there’s enough of us already, which is exactly what every core surfer at the time was feeling.

CS: What was your design ethos?

MT: At that point in time there wasn’t any history to follow, we were out there, just doing it. And I was obsessed with being new every season. I challenged the designers to bring new things to the table. It was a very inspiring environment. And the parties followed the same format. Everything was new. Everything was big. Everything was fresh. It felt like surfing for the first time.

CS: Were you competitive when you were surfing professionally?

MT: I could never only focus on surf. I was too eclectic. Which is where a lot of the fruits of my life came from anyway. But there is a certain monotony to winning in a sport. You have to be dedicated and alone in that. You can’t let anything else distract you. It’s kind of a weird space. I always had [other] interests. At Pipe I was competitive. No question. I was there.

CS: Do you still surf Pipe?

MT: Never! Wouldn’t even consider it. It is terrifying, man! There comes a point in time when it doesn’t matter how hard you’ve trained, how fit you are, how many hours you’ve put in, how good your equipment is. You’re still not going to make that drop and it’s because your reflexes age and you slow down. I don’t even want to ride Sunset anymore. It’s just too heavy. The older you get you realize…I’ve nearly died at Sunset twice. At 50 and 52. This one time I was out there and this set popped up and I said, “Fuck it. I’m going. And there it was, life on the table. I got pounded, held down, thought I was dying. Next thing, I’m being pulled up on a board. I couldn’t focus on anything, had to go to the hospital. Once you start to question yourself it’s over. Once you start thinking too much, that’s when you get caught from behind.

CS: Could you start another brand?

MT: I doubt it—probably for the same reason you wouldn’t start a new print magazine today. The industry is in a state of flux as it figures out how to manage the transition from selling products to stores to selling [directly] online. This is a huge shift. So no, I wouldn’t be interested in starting something new. At least until such time as things stabilize.

“We had parties. Lots of ’em. And yes they were out of control on occasion. But I guess that also depends on your point of view. I’ll tell you one thing though, there was never a problem with attendance. And no one arrived late.”

CS: Did it always feel like the whole thing was going to explode in a fiery ball at Gotcha? That everyone was just barely holding on?

MT: At times it was surreal. There was this one time…and I wasn’t there for this, but it was told to me in detail. I had some guys working for me that pushed the envelope. They decided they were going to have a party in this giant hotel suite. Before people even got there I realized this was going sideways and I bailed. Every surf industry executive was there. And some guys had these hookers come out and one is [pleasuring] a guy in the middle of everyone, in the middle of 50 industry people, and he is going nuts and then her hair comes off in his hand. And it’s a wig and she is completely bald. The whole place went nuts. That kind of stuff doesn’t happen anymore. Everything is so punitive, so confined, so restrictive.

CS: Is cocaine an inspirational drug?

MT: You know something—I don’t remember it that way. It might be to some people but for me I don’t say I’m going to drink to do this or do drugs to do that. To me it’s about…turning on all inputs, all references. I look at different stuff and I start musing and wondering about things. Points of reference, whether they be magazines, or online or books, or ways of saying things or images I see. I am a huge collector of stuff. An importer, that’s what I am. The edge that Gotcha had over everyone was my nationality. I came from a European background and I was all over the world all the time importing stuff. Not products. Ideas. You know. Whereas everyone here was designing in this little enclave of Orange County, the design team at Gotcha was all over the world.

CS: The whole [surf] thing is circling the drain. Companies going bankrupt, mass layoffs, sales numbers through the floor. You’d think everyone would just give up, would do what they feel instead of doing what they think they should, or at least externally. Why not unhinge? It’s the fucking apocalypse!

MT: Exactly. But the thing is, you know, the internet is so cruel. I was beaten to a pulp for charges that were dismissed but I don’t want to get into that. Everywhere I go in Laguna I’m so known in that town, I’m under a microscope there. It’s a joke. In San Clemente nobody knows me from Adam.

CS: Do you care what people say anymore?

MT: Sometimes. But in the big picture, no, not really.