Rusty Preisendorfer in Australia, 1984. By 1984, 10 of the top 16 surfers in the world were riding his surfboards.
Five-thirty on a workday evening, the traffic is backed up stoplight to stoplight on Miramar Road, and 805 is choked from Chula Vista to Del Mar. At a shaded business park on Commerce Avenue, the parking lots are nearly empty now, and for the next several hours these acres will be quieter than anywhere in the suburbs. The only people left here are the workaholics, the heavily indebted, or the fortunate few who can come and go anytime they please. One of the office buildings is marked with a logo — a large R followed by a dot — which is probably recognizable to every surfer in the world. On the sidewalk outside the office building is a pair of size 13 sandals. A rap on the glass door, and a few moments later a large man, 6'3" in his bare feet, dark-haired and with a bushy mustache, steps out and says in a surprisingly gentle voice, “Hi, I’m Rusty. Come on in."
Sean Tomson and Rusty, 1983. By 1981 Tomson, from South Africa, had been the top surfer in the world for about four years.
Rusty Preisendorfer has been well-known in the surf industry for 20 years, and for the last 10 years he has been one of its dominant figures. Not because he’s such a great surfer (although if there were a handicap for surfers over 40 and weighing more than 200 pounds, he might place in the top ranks), but because he designs and builds the wave tools that have allowed the best surfers in the world to push the sport to today’s almost absurd levels of performance.
Rusty with two surf contest winners, 1994. "What ruined the surf industry? It was neon."
He has the precise and patient mind of a technician, the self-discipline of a martial arts master, and the eye of an artist. His appetite for work seems masochistic. Though he admits to never having been much of a businessman, always tending to think more like a surfer than a corporate president, in an industry that will gross more than $1 billion this year. Rusty has made about as much money as anybody. He has personally shaped more than 25,000 surfboards in his life, and last year his company sold more than 6000 boards. With the average price of a surfboard around $400 these days...well, anybody can do the math.
“I agonized over buying a David Nuuhiwa featherlight (a longboard], or getting a shorter, very innovative design from Surfboards La Jolla."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Rusty doesn’t usually arrive at his office until noon, and his favorite time at work is after all his employees have gone home. On this day one of the last to leave is a surfboard shaper covered head to toe in white dust, and Rusty takes a moment to introduce him. “This is David Barr. He’s a washed-up professional surfer trying to figure out how to make an honest living.” Barr, one of the best surfers ever to come out of North County, laughs, enjoying the joke on himself as much as his boss.
Rusty has the precise and patient mind of a technician, the self-discipline of a martial arts master, and the eye of an artist.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
As much as any sport, surfing has its heroes, people who know how to make heroes, and people who know how to make money on heroes. At one time or another. Rusty has been all of them. He came fairly late to surfing. He was 13 before his family moved to La Jolla in 1966, where his father worked as a mathematician at Scripps. “I always loved being in the ocean,” he says, “but at first I just bodysurfed. Then one day a copy of Surfer magazine happened to catch my eye at La Jolla Shores Market. On the cover was a beautiful picture of Dickie Moon surfing at Blacks Beach. I bought the magazine and studied that picture over and over, saying to myself, ‘I know that place! It’s just up the beach!’ I figured if I lived in a place famous enough to be on the cover of a surf magazine. I’d better learn how to surf.”
His family lived on Prestwick in La Jolla, and most of the surrounding area was wide-open fields. “I would run out of the house in the morning with my surfboard under one arm and a handful of frozen Oreos in the other. I would just bail off the hillside and come out at La Jolla Shores.”
The beach at La Jolla Shores was dominated by older surfers on longboards who would run over little grommets like Rusty trying to learn. One day, after getting yelled at by the older guys and getting his feelings badly hurt, he slinked off up the beach a mile or so to Blacks, where there was no one out. “I had to surf Blacks a few times before it finally dawned on me that this was a world-class wave. Then I started surfing there every day. A crowded day was six friends. This was before it was a nude beach, before hang gliders. There were a lot of teenage girls who kept horses up at La Jolla Farm stables. I’d be out surfing by myself on perfect waves, and cute girls on horses would come riding by. Blacks was so cool in those days.”
The summer of 1966 there was a world surfing contest in San Diego, held at Ocean Beach, and it became a rehearsal for the radical changes in surfing style that were soon to arrive. Representing the old school was David Nuuhiwa, from Hawaii, nose-riding a longboard, performing what had long since become standard poses for surfers around the world. Representing the new school was Nat Young, from Australia, who rode a shorter board and performed a series of turns and cutbacks, generating speed and power with each turn. The world of surfing had never seen anything quite like Nat Young’s style, and they weren’t exactly sure what to make of it.
Rusty bought his first new surfboard not long after that world contest. “I agonized over buying a David Nuuhiwa featherlight (a longboard], or getting a shorter, very innovative design from Surfboards La Jolla — a double pintail with two fins. That pintail was pretty radical, but I was always a bit contrary. If somebody said I had to turn left, I would turn right. I guess I was always suspect of the status quo. At any rate, I chose the pintail, and it set the tempo for the rest of my career."
By the spring of 1968, the revolution from longboard to short was in full swing. In fact, the transition came so quickly, there were surf shops — George’s in Mission Beach — that went out of business because they were stocked full of longboards they couldn’t give away. (Now they would all be collector’s items worth many times their original value, but that’s a different story.)
Surfboard design was in such a rapid state of change, nobody knew what the new generation of surfboards was going to look like. The next phase of design was wide open, fair game for anybody, and there was an explosion of garage surfboard shapers. It was a fertile time for young, inexperienced surfers like Rusty, who were itching to get their hands on foam and fiberglass.
“A fellow named Mitch Hagio opened a surf supply store in La Jolla. Anybody could go in there and buy blanks, fiberglass, and resin. For about $30 you could make yourself a surfboard.” With a natural artistic bent and a craving to draw and make things with his hands, Rusty began building himself a new surfboard every few months.
Besides his creative urges, Rusty had another reason for wanting to build his own surfboards. “I was kind of at a disadvantage as a surfer because I was so big. My senior year in high school I was 6'3", 190 pounds. It was always a problem for me getting boards that were scaled up for a bigger person.”
Rusty graduated from high school in 1971 and enrolled at UCSD, but he found it hard to settle into university life. Part of the problem was that he hadn’t gotten surfing out of his system yet. “When I was a kid I always had to work around the house on Saturday mornings. I’d watch the surf go from glassy, to broken up, to completely blown out by the time I got in the water. I still tell my parents that if they had let me surf all I’d wanted to on those Saturday mornings, and I’d gotten my fill, maybe I would be interested in something else by now.”
Actually, his parents were quite supportive of Rusty’s interests. When he told them, “If you buy me this thing called a Skil power planer, I’ll pay my way through college,” they bought him the power planer, even though they suspected it would mean the end of his formal education. “I was raised in a fairly academic environment, but I never felt pressured to take an academic career,” Rusty says. “I quit UCSD after that first year, and for three years I just surfed and shaped, surfed and shaped. My parents moved to Hawaii, so I'd go visit them. I lived the life of a surf bum, and even though I was having a lot of fun, I was also learning a lot about the surf trade.”
Rusty’s first attempt at a real surfboard business was called Starlight Surfboards. “There were eight of us who lived in a huge house on Starlight Drive in Encinitas. Most of us were avid surfers, and almost every weekend we’d take surf trips down to Mexico. And most of us were involved in some way or another with surfboard building. We made a professional shaping room, with dark walls and horizontal, overhead, fluorescent lighting, and welded shaping racks. We made a couple hundred surfboards there.”
Although he was never a great surfer — with the evolution to shorter boards, the surfing style now favored athletes much smaller than Rusty — he was good enough to be noticed. “One day a guy named Gary Keating, who was a local surf god and rode for G&S Surfboards, saw me surfing at Blacks. I was always kind of in awe of Keating because he was very charismatic, with a Charles Atlas body and a perfect tan. He came up to me and said, ‘If you ever want to get a board from us, come down to G&S.’ ” At that time, G&S (Gordon and Smith) Surfboards, on Gaines Street by the Humane Society, was one of the most successful surfboard companies in the industry. “I went down there, Gary sold me a board real cheap, and I was on the G&S team, so to speak.”
In those days, just as today, a surfboard company built its reputation by having the best surfers seen riding its boards. It’s a subtle but very effective form of advertising. Surfing is a mystical art, a bonding of human creative energy with the forces of nature. Of all the surfers striving for that bond, only a blessed few — freaks of nature, really — have the physical and creative talents to push the art to new limits. They’re like high priests: idolized, feared, worshipped, and eventually imitated by the masses. Surf merchants have seen surf heroes come and go; they know they have only a few months of glory at the pinnacle of their art. The merchant’s goal is to have the surf heroes seen using and wearing his goods during those few months when the masses are wallowing at the feet of their idol. If his timing is right, the merchant can turn a huge profit.
World-class surfers won’t ride just any board. There has to be something in it for them. Either the surfboard has to be clearly superior, or the manufacturer of the surfboard has to be providing some financial incentive for them to ride that board. Twenty-five years ago, when even the best surfers didn’t expect to make much money from the sport, it was quite enough to get new surfboards, traveling expenses to major contests, and free T-shirts.
As Rusty’s shaping skills developed, he abandoned his own Starlight Surfboards and went to work for Larry Gordon at G&S. Because Rusty was both a skilled surfer and a rapidly improving shaper, he was able to understand what the best surfers wanted in a surfboard. “When I began shaping boards for Gary Keating and some of the other team riders at G&S, that was the first time I shaped boards for someone who surfed better than me. That was my introduction to the feedback process that goes on between a competitive surfer and a shaper, and at first it was pretty damaging to the ego. Most of the feedback I got from them was negative.”
Actually, Rusty’s greatest talent, then as now, is the ability to communicate. He has the intelligence and patience to put his own ego aside long enough to listen to what another person is saying. As it turned out, that talent was rarer and more valuable than any talent the greatest surf heroes had.
During the summer of 1971, another world surfing contest was held in San Diego, and there, through a mutual friend. Rusty happened to meet a short, blond, curly-haired kid from Australia, 18-year-old Peter Townend. Townend was largely unknown on the world surfing circuit at the time, yet he managed to place in the finals of that world contest. Because of his friendship with Townend (PT, as he is known), and because of surf movies he had seen showing the perfect point breaks in Australia, Rusty developed an interest in Australia. He started saving the money he made from shaping surfboards and in 1974 was able to go there.
While in Australia, Rusty met Rabbit Bartholomew, who was 18 at that time and had just won the Queensland junior title (he would soon become the world champion). “Rabbit fell in love with an eight-foot swallowtail I’d taken down there,” Rusty recalls. “I asked him if he’d like to have it, and he immediately said, I'll buy it from ya.’ He was the first big-name surfer to get a board from me, and I had the pleasure of watching him demolish some ten-foot waves with it.”
For three months Rusty lived across the street from Kirra Point, surfed some nearly perfect waves, and got a taste of a different lifestyle. Pete Townend lived just up the hill from Kirra Point in Coolangatta, so he and Rusty spent a lot of time talking about surfboard design, surfing style, and the direction they would likely take in the years to come.
In the late ’60s, early ’70s, surfing was going through a rebellious period, a counterculture phase, which later came to be labeled “soul surfing.” A lot of the best surfers in the world refused to participate in competitive surfing. The hero of the surfing world was Gerry Lopez, who never won a major surf contest. His entire reputation was built on his ability to pose casually in the tube of the North Shore’s treacherous Pipeline. His refusal to participate in contests set him apart from all the other surfers who did, and it made him a superhero.
But the Australian surfers, who looked upon surf contests in the same way we look upon football games in this country, always had a very competitive nature in the water. Perhaps because of their competitiveness, the Australians had taken a leap forward in surfboard design. Rather than riding the Gerry Lopez-type boards, which were impractical on most waves, the Australians were riding shorter, wider, egg-shaped boards that were highly functional in a variety of waves. For a surfboard shaper, going to Australia during the early 70s was an education in state-of-the-art surfboard design. Though he might not have been able to explain it to his parents, or to his employer, Larry Gordon, Rusty had spent three months in graduate school.
“I came back from Australia with lots of great ideas, but in the meantime, Larry Gordon needed me to shape surfboards. Ideas were fine, but he had orders he needed to fill.”
Still, Rusty wanted to express his own ideas, so he started shaping his own boards on the side, which he called Music Surfboards.
At first Larry Gordon was tolerant, but eventually that wore thin, and Gordon told him, “Rusty, you can either make G&S surfboards, or you can make Music surfboards, but we can’t have you doing both.” So Rusty went into business for himself, and he even managed to make a living at it for a while.
Maybe it was the hard-core realities of business, maybe it was the obligation he felt to his parents after abandoning his formal education, or maybe getting older was causing him anxiety
about his future, but in time Rusty began thinking that making surfboards wasn’t everything. He decided he wanted to go back to college, and with the help of a family friend he managed to get reinstated at UCSD. There, he says, “I learned how to do the calculus thing, do philosophy, do statistics, do all sorts of things that were alien to me. That was invaluable experience for me because I set a goal for myself, focused on the goal, and achieved it. I think it was very important to my development to learn that self-discipline.” He still shaped a few surfboards but mostly supported himself by working as a valet and bellman at the La Paloma Hotel, an old coral-pink hotel in downtown La Jolla.
Rusty’s first major at UCSD was physical psychology, but after two years of torturing rats, he decided that wasn’t the direction he wanted to go. Following his instincts more than his logic, he gravitated toward the art department. “The art department at UCSD was pretty avant-garde at the time, more theory and history than applied art. I was always more interested in graphic art, and I suppose I should have been at San Diego State.”
Also during those years, he started training in martial arts as a way to stay in shape and keep his stress level down. The martial arts also taught him self-discipline and how to focus his energy on a goal, and Rusty continues to train in martial arts today.
By 1978, as he got closer to graduating, Rusty was able to spend more time surfing again. But he was a different person now. He had a higher level of intensity, and he went after surfing and shaping with a vengeance.
About the same time, a new world circuit for competitive surfing was formed, the IPS (International Professional Surfers), and the first new world champion was Rusty’s old friend from Australia, Peter Townend. (Some might recognize Townend as the Australian commentator on Prime Ticket’s television coverage of surfing events.) As the momentum for professional surfing began to grow, money from surfboard manufacturers, and other corporate sponsors looking to capitalize on the surfing image, started flowing into pro surfing again.
Because of his growing reputation as a shaper, Rusty was asked to he a judge at a professional contest, the Stubbies trials, at Blacks Beach. “That contest drew some pretty high-caliber surfers from different areas, riding a lot of different kinds of surfboards. After that I was asked to judge more contests, and before long I was a full-blown professional judge. I judged contests here in California, Hawaii, and Australia. I got to watch the world’s best surfers, and during a break between heats I’d mill around, introduce myself to the surfers, ask if I could look at their boards, and ask them if they were happy with their boards. And I said to myself, 'You know, I can make surfboards that good, if not better.’ So after I’d gotten to know them a bit. I’d offer to make them a board.”
According to Pete Townend, “One reason Rusty’s been so successful building surfboards is that he’s been able to establish relationships with some of the best surfers in the world. He’s not just talented, he’s communicative. He doesn’t ram his ideas down your throat; he's willing to listen. In a sport like surfing there’s always a lot of innovation in what the surfers want to do on waves, and Rusty’s willing to listen to them and help them accomplish what they want to do.”
Like most shapers, Rusty sent his shaped boards to a fiberglass shop that specialized in that work. In those days he sent them to Canyon Glass, in Rose Canyon, owned by John Durward. Durward recognized Rusty’s talent as a shaper and one day said to him, “I’ll give you all my shaping jobs if you give me all your glassing jobs. Lose the Music label, and we’ll call them all Canyon Surfboards.” Rusty thought that sounded okay.
Although he didn’t share in the ownership at Canyon, Rusty worked hard to build the business there, figuring the bigger Canyon was, the more job security he had. He worked closely with the professional surfers riding Canyon surfboards, including Randy Laine, from Carlsbad, his little brother, Wes Laine, and David Barr, who was the hot rat on the West Coast at that time. Even top Australian surfers like Peter Townend and Ian Cairns started ordering boards from him.
Then came a major break. “In January 1981 I got a call from John Durward, who was at a trade show in Orlando, Florida. He asked me, ‘How would you feel about working with Shaun Tomson?’” Shaun Tomson, from South Africa, had been the top surfer in the world for about four years. He had approached Durward and asked if Canyon Surfboards would be interested in making a Shaun Tomson model. Rusty’s response was, “Are you kidding? I’d pay to work with Shaun Tomson!"
Canyon Surfboards signed a license agreement with Tomson, who began riding Rusty’s boards and talking them up with other world-class surfers. Rusty’s reputation grew.
In 1983 there was a professional contest at Ocean Beach. Everyone at the contest had their eye on a 15-year-old Australian kid who had actually beat Shaun Tomson earlier that year at a contest in South Africa, which was unheard of — nobody had beat Shaun Tomson in years, and certainly not in South Africa, his home. The kid was short, and awkward on land, like a penguin, but in the water he was quick, powerful, and very innovative. “He had a difficult name, and I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce it. When I saw him surf, I thought, ‘He looks pretty good, but his board’s hanging him up.’ ” Rusty asked somebody how to pronounce the kid’s name: “Mark Occhilupo,” or “Occy” for short. Rusty went up to the kid and offered to make him a board, but Occy put him off in that offhanded way Australians have by smiling and saying, “Yeah, right.”
The pro tour went off to Europe, but Rusty went ahead and shaped a board for Occy anyway. Then when the tour came back to California for the OP pro contest in Huntington Beach, Rusty gave Occy the board before the contest. Occy still wouldn’t ride the board, but he took it back to Australia with him, tried it at home, and won the Pepsi pro junior on it. Then he went to Japan and got second in the Marui. Before long Occy had turned into a monster riding that board, which he continued to ride even after he’d broken the nose and patched it with duct tape.
“Occy and I had some kind of weird magic bond,” Rusty recalls. “There was a particular type of surfing that I liked, and that was his kind of surfing. I knew what kind of board he needed, and that was the kind of board I liked to build. He made such an impression on the surfing world, top guys like Tom Carroll were coming to me and saying, ‘Jeez, I gotta get a board from ya! Not only because it might work for me, but I gotta do something to derail Occy, at least mentally. He’s unstoppable!' ”
Now Occy didn’t just like Rusty’s boards, he needed them. Bob Hurley, the president of Billabong USA, one of the largest beachwear manufacturers in the world and Mark Occhilupo’s major sponsor, called Rusty and asked, “Can you make a few more boards for Occy? I’ll send you a check.”
“I consider that a pivotal point in my career,” Rusty says. “Occy went on to have an incredible run with (three-time world champion] Tom Curren throughout the '80s. It was like the Christ and the anti-Christ. They never surfed better than when they surfed together. When they were in the water together, everybody stopped to watch. And during that whole time, Occy was riding my boards.”
By 1984, 10 of the top 16 surfers in the world were riding Rusty’s surfboards. He was so busy shaping boards for top pro surfers — mostly free boards — that he couldn’t fill his stock orders at Canyon anymore, and the word in the industry was that it took ten weeks to get a board from Rusty. His reputation in the industry was phenomenal, yet he hadn’t been able to benefit financially from it. In fact, he didn’t even have his own logo — the label that shapers attach to their boards to identity their work. The logos attached to a professional surfer’s board are the same as advertisements; they’re considered so valuable within the industry that sponsors sometimes pay their surfers a set fee for each time their logo appears in a magazine photo. “Sometimes people would ask me, ‘Why don’t you have your own shaping logo?’ And I would say, ‘Oh, that’s too egotistical.’ ” He laughs. “ ‘That’s just a bighead thing. My Libel’s Canyon.’ ” One of those who needled Rusty about getting a label was Pete Townend, who by now was the advertising director at Surfing magazine. He had seen lots of companies in the surf industry come and go and had developed some pretty sound business sense. Townend recalls, “I sat Rusty down and told him, ‘Look, this is ludicrous. Every other shaper on the planet has his own logo. Make yourself a logo and put it on your boards!’ ”
Rusty asked, “Well, what should I call it?” “Call it Rusty,” Townend told him.
“I can’t do that. Rusty’s my name.” “Exactly. That’s who you are and that’s what people will call your boards anyway."
So in 1985 Rusty drew up a small, nondescript logo and started putting it on the Canyon boards. At the same time, he started negotiating with John Durward for part ownership of Canyon Surfboards. They weren’t able to come to terms, and in July of’85 Rusty gave notice that he was going into business for himself. “Maybe it was presumptuous of me, but I was concerned about the impact of my leaving Canyon. John had a wife and kids, and I really didn’t want to hurt him. We’d had our disagreements, but for years I had been loyal to John. But I had a girl I’d been seeing for a long time, and we were talking about getting married and starting a family. I needed to start thinking about myself.”
By now Rusty had come to realize the true value of a logo and, dissatisfied with his earlier attempt, he went to work on a second one. “The most important criterion I had for a logo was that it be simple enough that a kid could scrawl it on his notebook at school, like I used to; it had to be easily recognizable and easily reproducible. The standard I set for myself was Gerry Lopez’s lightning-bolt logo, which I thought was very powerful and yet very simple. I agonized for months before I came up with the R-dot logo. I registered the trademark that summer and placed my first little black-and-white ad in Surfing magazine announcing that I was now making surfboards under my own label.”
Rusty leased part of a building on Santa Fe Street, just off I-5 near Balboa. “Also leasing in that same building were a couple of guys from Argentina, Fernando and Santiago Aguerre. They had showed up from Argentina with a modular car rack system, a surfboard grip product, and sandals, all manufactured in Brazil.
The racks never caught on, the grip product did okay and they sold it, but they hung on to their sandals company, which they called Reef Sandals. It exploded into one of the biggest companies in the industry, so we joke with each other now about what a lucky building that was.”
At first Rusty had no business or management skills, no savvy at all. He was just a shaper, and probably too nice a guy — he-was used to giving away more boards than he got paid for. But after watching the growth at Canyon, he had a few ideas on how he wanted to do things. At first, he and his wife Angie — a tall, gracious woman Rusty met when she was still in high school — ran the entire business themselves.
In the beginning, they were afraid there wouldn’t be enough work, but it was only a matter of days before the phone was ringing and people were ordering boards. He told his customers, “Look, I don’t have a penny in the bank. You’re going to have to give me a deposit before I can even start on your order." His first year in business, 1986, Rusty shaped about 1500 boards; in 1987 he shaped about 2500; by 1988 it was 3500; and in 1989 he shaped 5000 surfboards. Along the way he made a lot of business mistakes, but “the business had so much momentum, the mistakes I made weren’t fatal.”
Although Rusty is known primarily as a surfboard shaper, in recent years his surfboard business has been dwarfed by his now-huge clothing business. “I was always into design and graphics — I used to airbrush some of my boards — so I guess it was inevitable that I would start designing T-shirts. The first few I designed, in 1986, sold really well.” Some people say the brilliance of Rusty’s T-shirt designs was they were more than just wearable advertisements; he was able to work his R-dot logo into a variety of highly creative graphics, which were pleasing in themselves. They became wearable art.
By the time he’d designed three or four T-shirts, bigger stores, not just surf shops, were calling and asking how they could order some. He got a call from the woman who did the buying for Pacific Sunwear. She said, “We were wondering if you could handle an order for a hundred dozen T-shirts?”
“Part of me was ecstatic, and part of me was scared to death. How would I afford to make that many T-shirts? That’s the dilemma of any young company, how to finance growth.” What began as a small but logical extension of his surfboard business — every surfboard maker sells T-shirts with his logo on them — was seen as a serious threat by much bigger, well-established beachwear companies.
“At the Action Sports trade show in Orlando, in January of 1988, the surf industry was at a fevered pitch, and any company who said they had anything to do with surfing was enjoying a brisk business,” Rusty recalls. “We had just released a 12-piece line: a couple of trunks, shorts, a couple of button-down shirts, caps — all men’s stuff. I was walking down the aisles with my wife, when I saw Shaun Tomson coming towards me. He’d been my friend for three years now; he’d stay at my house when he was in town, and I’d take him surfing at Blacks. He came up to me, put his face right in my face, and said, ’What are you doing, Rusty?’ "
Rusty took a step back. “What do you mean?”
Shaun Tomson was by then a part-owner of Instinct, a large and successful Virginia-based beachwear company at the time. Several surfers on the Instinct team were riding Rusty’s boards, including Barton Lynch, who was world champion at the time. Surfers at Billabong, another rival company, were also riding Rusty’s boards. Same thing at Quiksilver. “Surfers for all these big companies had my logo on their boards. By going into the clothing industry, I was now a competitor. In their minds, they were paying these surfers’ salaries, and I was getting a free ride. The funny thing is, now that my company is at their level, I totally understand their rationale.”
Pete Townend, who is now the director of marketing for Rusty, says, “When he started making clothing, the industry perceived Rusty as a threat. People who knew the surfing industry could see the potential for that R-dot logo — it already had such credibility with surfers. After all, what’s surfing, or the surfing image, without surfboards?"
There were some grumblings in the industry that things would never be the same again after Rusty. Instead of unwritten agreements between surfboard shapers and big corporate sponsors — agreements that helped to earn millions for the corporations but did little for the shapers — it would now be necessary for the shapers to sign contracts restricting their marketing rights.
The heads of the big clothing companies — who had cultivated Rusty as a friend just a few months earlier because they needed him to shape boards for the surfers they sponsored — now treated him coolly. “I think what really drives the other clothing manufacturers crazy is that I came from the surfboard industry, and that’s still what I do best. I can sponsor an athlete and he can put one logo on his board, the R-dot, and it represents both the surfboard he’s riding and the clothing he wears. It drives them nuts."
In the late ’80s, the surfing image was so popular nationwide, the public bought anything that looked like surf gear. Stores were buying to accommodate the public. Clothing companies outside the surf industry were trying hard to elbow their way in. It seemed like every garage in North County operated a start-up beachwear company. Banks were throwing money around for expanding businesses, and everybody was borrowing and buying. It was too good to last.
What ruined it for the surf industry was neon. The fluorescent neon look in caps, shorts, T-shirts became so popular so fast that fashion-conscious buyers wouldn’t touch the stuff. All of a sudden, neon might as well have been radioactive. Shop owners were overstocked with it, and they owed money to the manufacturers, whom they couldn’t pay. The manufacturers were in a cash-flow crunch, and a lot of them weren’t well-managed companies. They were fine as long as there was reckless growth, but when it came time to catch their breath and get reorganized, a lot of them got in trouble. And a lot of them failed.
Buyers for the big stores blamed the problem on the surf industry and suddenly refused to buy anything with the surf image. Now that the stores were glutted with beachwear, the cool little streetwear companies, which had gone against the grain of the surf look, seemed fresh. Companies like Stussy and Mossimo thrived, not only because they were new but because they didn’t have $60 million of worthless inventory sitting in their warehouses. They adapted much more quickly.
At the same time, there was a downturn in the whole country’s economy. People were losing their jobs; they didn’t have the cash to indulge their fashion tastes. The grunge look thrived because it fit the mood of the times — anybody could go to a Goodwill store and buy flannel shirts, old jeans, and work boots.
Rusty’s company was still small and therefore able to adjust, but times were still tough. “From 1989 to early ’92 our growth was stagnant. We had a hard time shaking our image as part of the old guard of the surf industry. There were a lot of exciting, new companies coming up, and a lot of the retailers tended to clump us together with the older surf companies. They were reluctant to give us any more rack space than we had. We had a real hard time getting money from banks. So we sold some stock to friends, and that got us through a season or two but really didn’t fix things. We were struggling to find ways to stay in business.”
Rusty spent far more than he should have promoting the clothing line. “Typically a company will spend 2 or 3 percent promoting their product, but we were spending 7 to 10 percent on promotion, which is absurd. We had a lot of exposure already because there were so many top surfers riding our boards, but that all began to dry up when the other clothing companies wouldn’t allow their pros to ride our boards any longer. So we had to start sponsoring more and more guys and pay for more and more advertising, trying to maintain a high profile.”
Just one of several surfers Rusty now sponsors is 21-year-old Taylor Knox, currently one of the top surfers in the world. Knox, who was originally from Oxnard but now lives in Carlsbad, is a self-disciplined athlete who is expected to turn in top performances in major surf contests. But his primary duty in terms of promotion is simply to display Rusty’s logo on his surfboard — hopefully Rusty’s and no other. “Kids are always in awe of the photos that come through the magazines, they memorize the logos they see, and that has an impact on sales,” Rusty says. “We’ve done market surveys that show people get confused if there are too many logos on a board. So we try to eliminate that confiision in the public’s mind.”
For that loyalty, Rusty pays Taylor Knox close to six figures.
But the more money Rusty spent trying to promote the R-dot logo, the more bootleggers there were trying to profit on the popularity of that logo. Cheap imitations of Rusty shirts were showing up at swap meets, at the border crossings, in stores in Tijuana. Some of the imitations were coming from overseas, some from little sweatshops in south San Diego. Rusty’s lawyers were always able to catch up with them, shut them down, and confiscate their goods, but it cost money.
And the stress was starting to show on Rusty. “Even when I worked at Canyon, I had been a workaholic,” he says. “But now I was putting in 70 or 80 hours a week. My old space on Santa Fe Street was right off the freeway, so when my friends drove by they could see my truck there, seven days a week, 12 hours a day. They were always telling me, 'Rusty, take some time off.’ I had gained a lot of weight, I wasn’t surfing as much. My health was suffering.”
Rusty had a wife and young kids at home, and he wanted to spend more time with them, too. But he knew that if he did, his business would fail. “At one point Angie told me, ‘You have to stop working on Sundays. You have to spend Sundays with the family.’ But when she saw what I was up against, she bit her lip and put up with it.”
Eventually, it had to stop. “I went to my doctor and said, ‘Doc, I’m having chest pains, headaches, I’m short of breath.’ ” His doctor put him through a whole series of tests, but the bottom line was that Rusty would have to change his lifestyle.
The answer. Rusty decided, was to license out the clothing company, which he did, to Sunset Traders, in Irvine. “That was a good deal for us because Sunset Traders had the resources to fund the growth and to bring in more designers. Now they warehouse and ship the product and take care of design and merchandise. I market the brand and control the sales force. But my fundamental duty now is to maintain my position as a prominent surfboard shaper. Which is what I want to do anyway.”
The change was good for Rusty the man, and good for Rusty the company. In the last 18 months, during a period when the entire surf industry has made a rebound, Rusty’s clothing company has grown to the level of Quiksilver and Billabong, the two largest companies in the surf apparel industry. His clothing business now grosses 30 times what his surfboard business does.
“A lot of people think what an overnight success story this company is, but jeez, I’ve been slogging away since 1970, trying to succeed in this business. I failed twice before, and there were a couple of times in the last few years when I had everything on the line. There were times when my secretaries were making more than I was. It’s only been recently that there’s been some blue sky.”
Part of that blue sky is that Rusty now has his mornings free and his evenings home with his family.
Right after Rusty and Angie got married, they lived in Clairemont. The couple next door had just divorced, and their teenage son was a drug dealer with a pack of friends who favored motorcycles with two-cycle engines. Every night at dark, the garage door went up and the kid was open for business. "We put up with that every night for two years," Rusty says. "Then one morning at dawn we woke up to gunshots. Police swarmed the place within minutes. As it turned out, the kid and his friends were just drunk and loaded, shooting at trees, but before the police had left I'd called a realtor and put our house up for sale. It was sold within days."
Now Rusty, his wife, and their two children live in La Jolla, off Torrey Pines Road, in the same neighborhood he grew up in. It's a quiet are of mostly retired people, many of them former professors at UCSD. Rusty's home is comfortable but modest. Some of his own artwork decorates and walls, along with photos from the San Diego Historical society showing
how La Jolla looked in its early years when cattle grazed on the beach.
Rusty has a key to get through the gate at a lifeguards’ road to Blacks, saving himself the long walk down the trail from the hang glider port across from UCSD. As he creeps down the road in his pickup, he points out all the different paths he and his friends used over the years and gives the name for each; most of them are eroded away now or grown over with brush. He pauses for a moment to look at the steepest, gnarliest trail of all. “That one," he says, “we used to call 'the psychopath.’ ”
As he walks the few hundred yards to the peak at Blacks, he points out the landmarks and gives a ten-minute discourse on the geography of the area. He explains how the waves move rapidly through the deep water of the canyon off Scripps, unimpeded by the continental shelf, then begin to refract on the reef at Blacks before jacking up into a wave that is surprisingly big and fast.
He always carries a spear to the beach with him and often comes home with a corbina for dinner. “We used to see a lot more life in the water: small tiger sharks, seals on the beach, killer whales. We saw dolphins every time we went surfing. You don’t see as much anymore.” But like all of the La Jolla area, there are frequent shark sightings—great whites and hammerheads. “I have friends who work at Scripps who tell me you don’t want to know about some of the things that swim up that canyon.”
Just as the haze lifts and the sky becomes crystal clear in all directions, Rusty paddles out to perfectly glassy five-foot waves. For a shaper who is famous for designing small, thin surfboards, Rusty’s own board is big: 9'2", thick, and wide in the nose and tail. “I shape a few longboards for me and my friends, but I try not to let too many people know about it,” he says with a laugh. After spending hundreds of thousands of dollars promoting his image as a short-board designer, he would hate to get tagged as a longboarder.