Mr Kelly Slater, 43, is in South Africa braving icy waves and dodging sharks. He may have narrowly escaped a shark attack during the finals of the J-Bay Open surf competition on 19 July – long-time competitor Mr Mick Fanning had an extremely close encounter with a great white and swam to safety – but the 11-time world surfing champion is wasting no time out of the water.
Predators and extreme weather are simply another day in the office for Mr Slater, whose day job as a professional surfer has, for the past few decades, consisted of chasing waves and confronting the elements in every rare corner of our tempestuous planet.
But now Mr Slater, quite objectively the greatest surfer of all time, is embarking on a challenge of a different kind – and it’s trips such as this one that are inspiring him along the way. Together with friend and designer Mr John Moore – who, thanks to his work with heritage Hawaiian-Japanese swimwear brand M.Nii, is at the forefront of a surf fashion revival – Mr Slater launched Outerknown on 15 July 2015. It’s a menswear brand envisioned by the two creative minds and inspired by Mr Slater’s peripatetic lifestyle.
“When you travel like I do, you might be in South Africa one day and Paris the next,” says Mr Slater, fresh from a week of camping in the desert, following the recent Open. “You’re kind of a chameleon in some ways because you fit into all these different ways of life. And you experience the diversity of what the world has to offer.” Pausing a second to think about the type of person who embodies the Outerknown spirit, he adds: “I think a lot of us are dreamers and we follow our passions; that’s the one common thing between us all.”
Since he first embarked on the surfing ASP World Tour 24 years ago, when he was just 19, Mr Slater has quite literally been living out of a suitcase. As both the youngest (20) and oldest person (39) to win the ASP World Title, he has had the longest professional surfing career in the history of the competitive sport. Every year in Mr Slater’s adult life has been a whirlwind of remote places, far-fetched cultures and mind-blowing physical accomplishments and Outerknown, in many ways, is a place for the wandering waterman to channel all the things he has encountered along his journey. In particular, his exposure to the natural world has led him to become dedicated to sustainability. Outerknown, he says, aims to “lift the lid on its supply chain”, meaning that the brand aims to be transparent about all aspects of its production process, from its raw materials to labour practices and distribution. Fabrics are also ecologically sourced – the first collection even incorporates discarded fishing nets into its threads via a new technology called ECONYL, whereby the nets are broken down and transformed into a nylon yarn.
Mr Slater is a nomad but he is not an island. He keeps consistency in his rolling-stone life through the people and interests he surrounds himself with. He searches out a health food shop in every new destination and makes sure every room he stays in is stocked with familiar snacks and produce. “I’m maybe OCD about it,” he laughs, “but it’s what makes me feel comfortable on the road.” Even Mr Slater’s surfing is far from a solitary pursuit; propelled by healthy competition alongside friends and peers. It’s in that spirit that he also hopes Outerknown exists in the fashion industry. He wants the brand to be a part of a wider conversation about how things are made and their impact on the environment.
“I want to use Outerknown as an educational tool and be a little bit more transparent with how things are created… And put up a challenge to encourage other brands to implement that. That could extend to retailers and maybe even different categories beyond clothing – a car manufacturer, somebody making books. All those things cross over at some point.”
Outerknown is an organic extension of Mr Slater’s lifestyle. The clothes themselves – lightweight bombers, windbreakers, alpaca pullovers and overcast beanies – are cool by virtue of their function. “If you’ve just surfed in freezing water and you can’t feel your hands, feet and face, you don’t care if you look silly putting on 10 layers of anything that someone throws at you,” says Mr Slater. “But I want a few pieces where I can go, literally, from the beach to a nice dinner. I’m constantly in and out of places where I need somewhere in-between zero style and high fashion – I guess it’s very relaxed-casual.” Freezing water and world titles aside, is the prospect of joining the roster at luxury goods company Kering – alongside Alexander McQueen, Gucci and Saint Laurent – a different kind of intimidating? “I would probably revert to saying, ‘Ignorance is bliss’,” says Mr Slater. “I didn’t grow up living my life by brands in any way, other than the ones that sponsored me. So, I think because of that, I have some sort of an ignorance towards it. I’m not intimidated at all. I’m excited that we have this opportunity but at the same time I don’t see it as a competition. I see it more as a way to connect with people and share things.
Style, for a teen Mr Slater, was only something to be found in the sea. “The only style I recognised or understood was surfing style,” he admits. “The way someone’s arms looked when they surfed, the way someone bent into a turn, or whatever. I’ve never really thought of people as my fashion icons.” Mr Slater is both the archetypal surfer and the transcendental one. He still cuts an amphibious figure at surf competitions around the world but he’s also at home on the red carpet – recently donning a dark navy Brioni tux to the Met Gala, fashion’s Academy Awards. He’s representative of a new breed of surfer – evolved from logo-loving rebellious young guns and competition-rejecting rambling free spirits – into something more refined. These days, when he’s not surfing – or searching out new spots – Mr Slater enjoys the good life; fresh cuisine, rounds of golf and writing and playing music with his guitar (he downsizes to a ukulele on the road).
“I think that as a kid I always thought I’d have more of a home and a family, more of a normal life, but as I’ve grown and evolved, I think it’s not abnormal now [to be nomadic],” Mr Slater reflects. “Almost all my friends that I’ve made around the world are travellers of some sort. I don’t think I’ll ever be settled. I love too many places and people around the world to stay in any one of those places for too long.”
It’s no secret that Mr Slater has been the oldest surfer on the ASP World Tour for a while now. Does the thought of his pro-surfing career ending unnerve him? “I don’t know. I’m kind of on an unbeaten path,” says Mr Slater. “Everyone’s wondering when I’m going to retire, I think I’m wondering half the time… I don’t know how much longer I want to do this full time, but I’d like to keep myself at a surfing level that I could keep competing at events. I don’t see a reason why in 10 years from now I can’t be at a very similar level, or even stronger, than I am now.”
Mr Slater was made to surf. He is to surfing what Mr Muhammad Ali is to boxing, or what Mr Pablo Picasso is to painting. Even if your taste draws you to the underdog or wildcard, Mr Slater’s prowess on a surfboard is undeniably divine to watch – it’s one of those rare chemical reactions in life where everything just seems to fall into place. He will always be known for this skill but through his passion for new projects, such as Outerknown, he’s able to share a different side to his personality. He tells me he’d like to extend the brand, eventually, into different types of content, such as video and maybe even print, and I wonder aloud whether he thinks about shaping some sort of a legacy.
“Yeah, I do. We all do. We all want to have a legacy of some sort. Although you can’t think too hard about creating it because then it’s not real,” says Mr Slater. “It’s pretty simple. I’d like to be thought of as a good, honest guy who stuck to his principles and followed them through.” He goes on to tell me about his daughter’s boyfriend’s graduation speech – the tale of how Mr Alfred Nobel turned his legacy from “the merchant of death”, as the inventor of dynamite, to one of ultimate pacifism, founding the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s one of many anecdotes that Mr Slater is able to bring to mind at any given time throughout our conversation. He seems genuinely amazed by these stories of wisdom, almost childlike in his curiosity.
The mention of his daughter catches me off guard. Would he wish his unorthodox life, I can’t help thinking, for her too? “It’s been fun and it’s been a blessing; the people I’ve met, the places I’ve gone and the access I have to experiencing different things around the world is really second to none,” he says. “I mean, yeah,” he continues, laughing, and reverting to something of a Southern drawl in his appreciation, “not to toot my own horn, but you’d have a hard time finding a better lifestyle than what I got.”
Photography by Mr Ben Weller
Styling by Mr Dan May, Contributing Style Director, MR PORTER
Words by Ms Shelley Jones, Deputy Editor, Huck magazine