Shop Class – Birdwell Beach Britches
It may not be as familiar as big surf labels such as Quiksilver, Billabong or PacSun but boarders in the know have long admired SoCal-based Birdwell Beach Britches. Founded in Santa Ana in 1961 (the same year The Beach Boys were born), this iconic heritage beach brand has produced top-quality Made in the USA boardshorts and related clothing for more than five decades and recently opened its first standalone store (outside the extant onsite one at its factory) in the surf mecca of Manhattan Beach, California. It also has a thriving online business.
Birdwell’s newly minted creative director, Natas Kaupus, a veteran skater and surfer, recently gave me the lowdown on the new shop and what to expect from the brand in the days ahead.
What is the history of Birdwell Beach Britches?
The Birdwell family started sewing it out of their house. It became popular enough where they had to conscript all the family members into helping. It became a family built business and they branched out into a factory in Santa Ana and they moved pretty early on in the ’60s. They used two-ply nylon because they didn’t want to make anyone look indecent outside of nature. Having two-ply was actually great for surfing and canoe paddling because as you move up and down or in the boat it gives and creates a friction between the two sides so it doesn’t rub on your leg. It still works today so it is a neat low-tech solution to that. It kept selling and because of the durability it became very popular with lifeguards nationwide. There always was and still is a lifeguard discount and we can make a whole big batch for the crew of whatever city they are in and customize them with patches and whatnot—from Virginia to Hawaii to Texas. There’s a whole archive and you can see the old order forms. Back then you had to mail in what you wanted and people would draw what they wanted. Some things haven’t really changed a whole lot. There are some sewers there that have been with us for over 30 years who were taught by the original family. Nylon is a tough material to work with so they take pride in that.
You just opened the store in August. How is it going and why did you decide to open it?
It’s going really well. We weren’t sure how it would do and it’s about two times as much as we planned so we are really happy. It’s just a small space that kind of came up by luck and chance. It’s about 300 square feet or maybe a little less.
And it’s your first store other than the one at the headquarters, right?
Yeah. It’s funny because the headquarters one had been kind of languishing for a while and since Day One people have been coming to the factory to get stuff. It was kind of fun to tidy it up and make it a little more presentable because people come from pretty far away to go to that one.
Are you attracting mostly local surfers to the store?
For the most part it is locals. There is a farmers’ market right up the street on Wednesdays and there is Bill’s, the pancake house, right across the street so it is a local corner. We made a special T-shirt with our Birdie mascot holding a stack of pancakes.
What are some of your key items at the moment?
We made a run of wool shirts in a kind of Beach Boys style–that Pendleton style of wool shirt and we used our own patches with a yoke on the inside so we gave it more of a surf feel than a mountain feeling with the leather patches. That sold out pretty quick. It was sort of a test. We do a lot of tests at the store because we make everything by hand in Santa Ana still so we can get a batch of things up there and get direct response from people.
Who is your typical customer?
It’s all over the map. It’s anyone who is comfortable with the beach or water. We get younger kids who are new to surfing who want to connect with the origins and how modern long boarding started. They want to get a feel for that and be a part of it so they buy the boardshorts and then there are the older guys who bought them when they were newish and before surfing was what it is now.
How has the line evolved over the years?
The line is going to be 55 years old this year and we are pretty proud of that. It has been continuous as well. Some people think that the brand went away but it never did. They just kept sewing it in Santa Ana though it was just kind of hard to find for a while. The distribution was limited and the website was bad. It was hard to communicate so people weren’t aware that it was still around. I’ve been with them for just over a year and going through all the archives and you can see the things they had done and branched out with in the past. We picked up some of the good ideas and some of the other ones we are going to leave alone.
What is an example of a style you’ve reissued?
The jackets are really fun. There is a real history to the Competition Jacket when teen competition surfing was big in the ’60s and early ’70s. The logo is actually on the back on the beltline on the side of the jacket. So you can put your team name on the front chest pocket. And there were custom colors. We revamped that program so we are filling in some of the obvious stuff that was missing.
Are the archival reissues updated or are they actual re-creations?
We do both but we do update some of the cuts just to make it a little more modern and tidy up some of the things that are overly boxy or don’t look right. But you wouldn’t be able to tell. It’s tough to pull it out, put it in a frame and say, “Here’s the original from 30 years ago” because it looks the same. But there’s something to it if it stays relevant to people that long.
How did you come up with the look of the store?
The thing I like about Birdwell is that it is not a preconceived brand so much as it is a manufacturing company. It is based in sewing and this straightforward business. There’s a kind of industrial feeling to the shorts as well with sturdy stitching across the top with the bands. And it has also got a little bit of that ’60s modness to it so I thought that playing with that idea I wanted to make something modular and sturdy looking. We feel like the shorts are sort of a tool for surfing like a hammer or a dive watch like a Submariner–something that is classic that you don’t think twice about grabbing. You know it’s going to work so you just go.
What is next for the brand?
We really feel like caretakers of the brand. We’re still trying to fill out some of the original stuff. They did a walk short for a while but they are really short–even the men’s ones. It was kind of a ’70s thing I guess. There are a bunch of different versions and we are playing around with what would make sense. So we are still going through the archive and dusting it off and filling in the blanks that we feel should be Birdwell. But we’re not pushing the limits and making junk.
Why should a guy buy Birdwell instead of another surf label?
It’s funny. We were shooting some photos of classic guys in Malibu and people who we didn’t even plan to shoot were wearing them. We were laughing because we had brought all these shorts. One of the guys said offhandedly that they are part of everyone’s quiver of boardshorts. You have a couple and one of them should always be Birdwell. It should be a stock standard. If you appreciate something classic like a nice pair of denim, that’s kind of how we see ourselves. The boardshorts especially are kind of like wearing a collared shirt as opposed to a T-shirt to the beach. They’re just a little nicer. They’re a little more tailored and they just fit nice. They are just a little more special, you know? They’ve been around 55 years so there is obviously something there and something to try if you haven’t.