Iconic surf apparel company Birdwell was founded in 1961 in California by a hardworking woman who turned her own home into a store. Carrie Birdwell Mann introduced the world to one of the first surf-specialized businesses, turning it into a family affair with her son and husband as her starting employees. Birdwell’s first product, two-ply nylon beach britches, were her own invention and the sturdy surf shorts became a hit amongst lifeguards in Newport Beach. Over 50 years later, Birdwell still carries the family spirit within their brand, creating products that are meant to last more than a couple of summers. Birdwell shorts come with a lifetime guarantee and the brand famously swears that “quality is their gimmick,” a refreshing motto in a time where most companies seem to focus on trends rather than staying power.
We discussed Birdwell’s ethos with the current CEO, Geoff Clawson. After working at Facebook and Instagram, Clawson took the plunge 20 years into his professional life and decided to merge his career with his other passions, surfing and fashion. He shared how a brand that has made durability its mission has still managed to evolve over its long history. In inspiring people to buy less but better, Birdwell is very much a 21st-century company.
Before joining Birdwell, you worked at Facebook and Instagram—what prompted the shift?
Accepting the role as CEO of Birdwell was the culmination of a 20+ year career, with every previous role preparing me to take the helm of a brand I’ve admired for so long. Leaving a dream company and job at Facebook/Instagram is something you only do once, if ever, so it was not without considerable reflection. I initially invested in Birdwell in 2014 when we acquired the company from the family. Fast forward to 2016, the intersection of personal passion (surfing and fashion) and professional experience as well as the opportunity to build a team based on the leadership principles I most value compelled me to make the jump. I couldn’t be happier with the decision.
I love the tagline, ‘quality is our gimmick’. Can you expand on this a little bit and tell me the meaning behind it?
Quality is at the heart of everything we do. There’s no one better to answer your question than Steve Pezman, Publisher of Surfer and Founder of Surfer's Journal, who coined Birdwell’s famous tagline. Here’s Steve in a conversation with us last year, which became voiceover for a brand video we produced.
“Back in the day, marketing was about gimmicks to get someone's attention in very simple, basic terms. Birdwell was one of those that didn't have an in-house ad department. They were all about making trunks, you know, not about schlepping them. So anyway, I'm at Surfer in the ’60s and Birdwell wanted us to produce their ads. And so I walked into my office and I thought, "What makes Birdwell, Birdwell?" I came back and said, "Quality is our gimmick." That's it. They were authentic, and because Birdwell never did anything else but make surf trunks and only sold them to hardcore surfers, you couldn't get any more authentic than that.
To me, authenticity is what has kept the brand alive since its inception in 1961. Since the brand launched, how has it evolved?
The evolution has been guided by thoughtfully developing products rooted in our company’s vision—to inspire people to buy less, by buying better. We seriously consider whether we have a unique point of view and can improve upon a product design before offering it. We hold ourselves to an heirloom quality standard, meaning what we make should last generations. More recently, the evolution is about bringing our version of Southern California lifestyle with a true appreciation for purpose-built design and quality craftsmanship to more products and people.
In a crowded space, what do you feel has made Birdwell stand out after all these years?
Authenticity. Birdwell Beach Britches was a pioneer in the development of surf trunks and the establishment of the surf apparel industry, serving as an unbroken connection to the origins of Southern California beach culture. For 58 years and counting, we’ve offered product that is handmade in California and lifetime guaranteed. Additionally, customization (products designed by the customer, built by Birdwell) and personalization (unique patches and buttons that can be applied to a range of products) have always been part of our offering.
To me, your board shorts are the bread and butter of the brand. In fact, you offer a lifetime guarantee. To me, that’s a huge selling point. How do you ensure you deliver on this?
It all starts with an iconic design and construction that’s been field tested for over 58 years. As we say, “Quality is our gimmick.” We make things that wear in, not out, which makes it easier to guarantee when the product seldom breaks in the first place.
What exactly is SurfNyl?
SurfNyl™ is a two-ply nylon fabric developed by and woven exclusively for Birdwell Beach Britches. SurfNyl™ is extremely durable and naturally DWR (durable water repellant), which results in fast-drying board shorts that last for decades. And like raw selvedge denim, they improve with wear.