Surfing is big money. Position yourself as a new fashionable surf brand, and you stand to make considerable money.
But it’s not that easy. A bunch of big dogs have been winning the gear and apparel race for decades.
So, who are these monsters of the surf industry and what makes them so dominant in the world of surfing retail?
Let’s find out in our list packed with our favourite surf shops, shapers and everything in between:
- Rip Curl
- Florence Marine X
- Channel Islands (Al Merrick)
- Sex Wax
*More reading – Don’t miss our guide on the best surfboard brands to find the best place to get your new stick.
The story of Rip Curl is synonymous with surf in Australia. It started in 1969 when Doug Warbrick and Brian Singer decided to start a surfboard company in Torquay, Australia.
They started making high-performance surfboards for the local surf community and quickly got a reputation for quality craftsmanship.
In 1970, they began making wetsuits by transforming traditional diving suits into something that let them comfortably surf in cold water.
Today, they’re responsible for sponsoring some of the world’s best surfers with a roster of pros, including Mick Fanning, Gabriel Medina, Mason Ho, Owen Wright and Morgan Cibilic.
*Interesting note – Alan Green, the co-founder of Quiksilver, was credited with producing the first-ever pair of board shorts at the Rip Curl factory in Torquay.
Starting in 1973, Gordon Merchant burst onto the surfing scene with his signature triple stitched boardshorts and Billabong was born.
Operating out of the surf-drenched Gold Coast of Australia, Billabong quickly grew, but by 1980, Gordon changed his focus to loftier goals.
Billabong began exporting to the international market, considerably increasing its reach and power as a top surf clothing brand.
Come to 2011, and Billabong hit some pretty stormy waters financially with looming debts and no apparent way out.
Head over to Billabong’s Wikipedia page to get the full scoop on the long financial troubles and what’s happened.
Alan Green was the first man to create the classic boardshorts we all love and know. Making wetsuits for Rip Curl during the day, he spent his time off developing a wonder short for the warmer summer months.
In 1970, boardshorts debuted on the beaches and waves around Torquay, Australia. Locals quickly jumped on the new trend, and Quiksilver was launched as one of the first surf lifestyle brands.
Perhaps Quicksilver’s boldest move was the creation of Roxy in 1990—a female-focused clothing company in an (at that time) male-dominated support.
And Roxy was a success, boasting a roster of some of the best female talent, marking a massive win for Quicksilver.
With a name change to ‘Boardriders’, Quicksilver has been scrabbling for new ways to increase market share and save money, with a noticeable drop in sponsored pros and previous talents Dane Reynolds and Kelly Slater leaving to pursue their surfing ventures.
O’Neill started in 1952 when founder Jack O’Neill started experimenting with neoprene before creating the first-ever wetsuit. Working out of his garage off the Great Highway in San Francisco, he produced wetsuits for surfers, windsurfers and water skiers.
Now, they make some of the best cold water wetsuits in the game and sponsor a good stable of shredders with South African powerhouse Jordy Smith and US title hope Kolohe Andino at the helm.
I’ve owned several O’Neill Epics (their budget wetsuit), and they’ve held up with some of the pricier suits on the market and last a good few seasons of regular surfing.
We’re also big fans of the O’Neill Cold Water Classic held at the iconic right-hand point at Steamer Lane (big congratulations to Michael Dunphy for taking the trophy this year).
Coming out of South California, Hurley (known then as Hurley Surfboards//International Pro Designs) is the brainchild of Bob Hurley, Bob Rowland and Joe Knoernschild.
Initially known as a surfboard brand, in 1983, they snapped up the rights to Billabong in the US and started making surfwear. After growing the company, the choice was not to renew the Billabong contract, and in 1999, Hurley International was created.
Seeing three years of success drew the attention of Nike, and after short negotiations, they purchased for an undisclosed amount in 2002. Now, Hurley sponsors some of the best surfers in the world, including John John Florence, Filipe Toledo, and Carissa Moore.
This core surf brand keeps you warm and flexible in extreme surfing conditions.
Their Drylock series is up there with the warmest rubber you’ll find on the market, and their wetsuit accessories are some of our favourites here at Honest Surf.
These wetsuits are super stretchy across the range, and from adults to kids, you’ll struggle to beat a good suit from these guys.
Combining punk culture with surfing, Volcom had a distinctively different, more rebellious identity than brands before it.
It all began on a snowboarding trip with two close friends, Richard Woolcott and Tucker Hall. With a shared love for surfing, snowboarding and skateboarding, it only seemed fitting to start a board-riding company.
They both quit their jobs, and Volcom Stone was born. Volcom had one core philosophy that drove its brand voice, “Youth Against Establishment” (edgy right).
In their first year of trading, they sold a whopping $2,600 of clothing from Richard’s bedroom in Newport Beach, and growth didn’t stop anytime soon for the pair.
With a team of competition specialists and free surfers, this iconic surf company captures the raw side of surfing culture.
Florence Marine X
A new surf project from JJF himself, Florence Marine X is full of high-end technical surf gear for anyone not shy of spending a pretty penny.
The wetsuits and surf apparel look flashy, and I don’t doubt it’s a quality product, but you know you’ll be paying a little extra for the two-time world champs sponsored gear.
We’ll update if we manage to get our hands on one of the wetsuits, but with the 2mm wetsuits starting at $750, that probably won’t be anytime soon!
Channel Islands (Al Merrick)
The Ferraris of surfing! Channel Islands surfboards have been under the feet of so many world champions it’s hard to keep count.
Kelly Slater, Tom Curren and Dane Reynolds have all surfed with the Al Merrick logo emblazoned on their boards.
In 1965, the shortboard/thruster revolution started by Simon Anderson began to transform surfing. Al quickly took note, and within a year, he’d picked up a planer and started to craft his own surfboards.
His first world title win came from Shaun Tomson in 1977, but it wasn’t until he started shaping boards for a local grom called Tom Curren that Al would really start to become a global name.
Tom burst onto the pro scene in 1982. His effortless style and raw power worked wonders on the world tour and positioned the Channel Islands as one of the world’s most sought-after shapers.
Since then, Channel Islands has become a surfing dynasty, with son Britt Merrick taking the reigns to continue developing surfboard tech while respecting his dad’s iconic contribution to the sport.
RVCA was the brainchild of Pat Tenore and Conan Hayes. Starting in 1999, it combined the world of skate, surf, MMA and Brazillian ju-jitsu to create a forward-thinking action sports brand.
Alongside their involvement in sports, RVCA was one of the few names to support street graffiti artists, sponsoring several well-known exhibitions worldwide.
In 2010, RVCA was purchased by Billabong International Limited. Sadly, this didn’t do the brand many favours, and the initial homegrown attraction was lost.
In 2022, they began focusing on extreme sports fashion and still have a whole heap of amazing athletes signed to the brand.
When it comes to surfing brand ambassadors, it doesn’t get much better than 11 times world champ Kelly Slater, owner of Outerknown.
This high-end surf fashion brand is pricy and for a good reason (and we don’t just mean Kelly’s seal of approval). Outerknown’s fundamental goal is to make the best products sustainably.
Unfortunately, this high price tag did alienate some of the surfing world, but nevertheless, Outerknown has carved out a spot in surfing culture for years to come.
Created by Matt Biolos, Lost is all about high-performance surfing. It started in 1985 as ‘team lost’, appearing as scribbles in school books and light graffiti before making its way onto t-shirts and hoodies.
In 1987, Matt Biolos turned his hand to shaping surfboards. His early work was mainly spray jobs, which helped him build relationships with local shredders like Christian Fletcher and Matt Archbold.
These relationships guided Matt on his shaping journey and helped him build Lost into one of the biggest brands in the industry.
Matt and Lost Surfboards are credited with creating some of the best performance shapes out there, with the Round-Nosed Fish and the Lost Driver both carving out their place in surfing history.
Sex Wax is one of the most universally recognised brands in surfing purely down to its fantastic choice of name.
Surf wax isn’t the most exciting of products, but Sex Wax managed to create a brand that embodied fun. Frederick Charles Herzog and Nate Skinner (chemistry wizz) were passionate surfers out of Santa Barbara.
The pair were inspired by trying to solve the ongoing traction problem on surfboard decks. The slippery surface wasn’t great for performing manoeuvres, and they needed a solution to help them stick to the board.
Using Nate’s chemistry skills, they developed a paraffin-based wax that added a grip layer to their boards. The two spoke to a good friend and artist, Hank Pitcher, who created the brand ‘Sex Wax’; the rest is surfing history.
Vans is a global clothing and apparel brand with a history rich in surfing and skating. In 1966, brothers Paul Van Doren and Jim Van Doren, alongside business partners Gordon Lee and Serge Delia, opened The Van Doren Rubber Company.
In 1976, they started using the iconic ‘Off The Wall’ slogan to sell surf/skate-inspired footwear. Vans quickly grew, and while their shoe line was successful, they overreached, and their other lines of products failed, leading Vans to file for bankruptcy in 1984.
To attempt to recover, Paul Van Doren took the reigns at Vans and decided to focus all their efforts on footwear and reinvigorate the struggling brand.
Vans’ most significant move came in 2011 when they created what many considered the dream surfing team. The Gaudusakas brothers, John John Florence and Joel Tudor jumped on board and a slew of epic content followed.
Surfing and eyewear? You can’t look much further than Oakley. Their signature wrap-around shades have been on salt-encrusted faces for decades.
It was founded by Jim “The Mad Scientist” Jannard. With a passion for motorbikes and, more specifically, Moto X, he wanted to improve the motorbike grips he used.
After pondering the best brand name, he settled on his trusty hound, “Oakley’. After a few years, he tackled motorbike goggles and then ski goggles before eventually entering the world of shades.
In the following years, they put their specs onto the faces of surfing world champs, with Occy, Mick Fanning, and Lisa Anderson all joining the Oakley surf team.
Vissla founder Paul Naude grew up in Durban, South Africa. Forgoing college, he started work in a shaping house, working on ding repairs and learning the craft.
He made trips to the North Shore and even got a win at Sunset Beach, one of Hawaii’s most challenging waves.
After returning to SA, he started the well-known South African surf mag ZigZag. After a stint working for Billabong, Naude wanted to return to what he loved about surfing, the core culture.
In the early 2000s, he started Stoke House, an umbrella for several brands, including Vissla. Naude wanted Vissla to be unapologetically surf: no skate or snow influence, just a cool surf brand for surfers, by surfers.
Now, it’s on the cutting edge of wetsuit and boardshorts technology, with their logo becoming commonplace in lineups all across the globe.
Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, first found his love of extreme sports when he started climbing in 1953. He made his passion his work and started his own climbing apparel brand, Chouinard Equipment, in 1965.
They eventually transitioned into the name Patagonia, but It wasn’t until 2010 that they turned their gaze to surfing, initiated by the Malloy Brothers jumping on as brand ambassadors.
They decided to crack the wetsuit game, and their merino wool-lined wetsuits combined with limestone neoprene (although rather pricy) were a hit. Alongside their wetsuits, they started producing boardshorts as well. I own two pairs, and they are undoubtedly the comfiest I’ve ever owned, with literally no weight to them whatsoever!
It may not be cheap, but between its rubber offering, environmental commitment and long-lasting outdoor clothes, it’s one of the best lifestyle brands in the world.
Reef is the creation of two brothers, Fernando and Santiago Aguerre.
After moving from Argentina to La Jolla, San Diego, they quickly began the surf brand – Reef. Initially selling their well-known sandals and thongs, they eventually moved into surf clothing and apparel.
One of Reef’s most notable creations was the novelty sandal with a bottle opener on the sole.
While questionable on the hygiene front, these sandals were a massive hit, and people were popping beers with their thongs for years to come.
In 1995, there was a change going on in surfing that very few even knew about.
Brian A. Whitty, in Elanora, Australia, was designing a revolutionary new system for surfboard fins. Until this point, most boards had glassed fins. Fins were shaped into the board’s fibreglass, making them a permanent, unchangeable addition.
The FCS system lets surfers change their fins and even lose fins without a visit to the repair guy.
Even more exciting was the opportunity for everyday surfers to try different fins on the same board to see how they changed how the surfboard felt underfoot.
In 2003, FCS arrived with another new technology, FCS 2, which made entry and removal more accessible and could even retrofit the original FCS system.
While FCS has continued to go from strength to strength, Futures (coming up soon on this list) and the Future Fin System were a severe hit to their market share and created a direct competitor for this previously unchallenged surf brand.
What’s not to love? The excellent boards or the even more impressive roster of pro athletes on the team.
John Pyzel is a bit of a shaping genius. His boards have been firmly planted under the feet of JJF since he was knee-high to a grasshopper, and the results speak for themselves.
Now, surfboard models like the Phantom and the Ghost are common at surf breaks worldwide as average Joe’s all try to surf just a bit more like JJF.
Don’t miss the new Red and White tiger models hot out of the shaping bay and set to become two of this year’s most popular surfboards.
Did someone say challenger brand? Futures arrived with a splash (no pun intended), with FCS dominating the fin market. Futures were perfectly positioned to stir up the pot.
Their simple yet effective fin system was a significant hit with surfers and, in many opinions (including mine), was a step up from the FCS system.
Futures started in a small garage of all places. The Longo brothers were both aerospace engineers, but in 1996, their love for surfing encouraged them to tackle a problem close to their heart: the fin system.
They set about simplifying the entry, exit and fastening of the fin to the embedded plug, and after lots of research and trialling, Futures was born. Since then, Futures has created a wide range of fins for all surfing craft and even developed their own system to grade fins called ‘Ride Number’.
Personally, I’ll always opt for a pair of Futures over FCS; what about you?
We couldn’t complete this list without highlighting one of the best UK surf brands.
The Animal brand was born out of the southwest of England in the swell-drenched county of Cornwall.
Staring out with sturdy wrist straps for watches, they quickly ventured into surf clothing and started sponsoring some of the UK’s best surfers.
Their stable includes Alan Stokes (UK champ for several years running) and now focuses on supporting up-and-coming talent with Alys Barton, Logan Nicol and Sam Hearn all joining the Animal surf team.
Founded in Hawaii in 1979 on Maui’s North Shore, Rob Kaplan, a surfer and tinkerer who initially tackled the problem of busted surf leashes, created a more durable design and started the brand Dakine.
In 1980, the brand came through significant innovations in windsurfing equipment, including the first adjustable foot strap and the thermo-moulded waist harness, helping windsurfers and establishing Dakine as a trusted brand.
Now, they stock grip pads, leashes, travel bags and a heap of wetsuit accessories for reasonable prices.