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Surf Shacks 017 – Randy Hild

Randy Hild is a living legend in the surf industry. He helped usher in a new era in women’s surfing with the birth of Roxy. In doing so, he is responsible for balancing out the gender ratio in the lineup and forever raised the bar for marketing in the surf world. His creative curiosity and deep love of surf history and culture more recently led to him starting M.Nii, which was named one of GQ’s best menswear labels last year and is a tribute to surfing’s golden age roots in post WWII Hawaii. A couple years ago Randy moved into a beautiful mid-century home in Laguna Niguel, which is of course rich in California architectural history itself. I recently spent the day down there to comb through his extensive collection of vintage surf scrap in his library, talk a little shop, and catch a rare near-empty evening session at San-O.

Who are you? Tell us a little about yourself.

My name is Randy Hild. I’m blessed to be a husband, a dad, and a regular foot from Orange County. I have also worked in the surf industry for over 35 years, so I am sort of an “old guard” guy who was in at the very beginning of the industry when it was just formulating.

It all started with the first surf shops in the 50s and 60s. Hobie opened his first surf shop in maybe 1954, so that was before my time. Then the surf apparel industry as we know it today with mass production of products and brands all started in 1981 really with The Action Sports Retailer Trade Show. That’s kind of when the industry formed at that event with people who had trade show booths and there were enough surf shops by then to justify having a trade show.

Then it just exploded from there and went through this crazy growth in the mid-80s when there was this great neon trend happening. That was maybe not the best thing for the sport because it became too broad and mainstream way too fast so it was viewed as more of a trend – a trend that blew the industry up in a great way, but then it crashed and burned just as fast almost in the 90s. No one really saw that coming, companies went out of business, which was just a correction. Since then there are just a lot of comes and goes, but the surf industry has come a long way and there have been many changes.

What do you do for a living now?

I am now a partner in M.Nii, a brand that was started 3 years ago. In addition to that I am a creative brand consultant for a variety of brands.

Where and when did you learn to surf?

I was raised in Orange County. I grew up in the west side of Garden Grove as a grommet. I have very clear memories of building this little surfboard trailer rig on the back of my bike out of 2x4s and wheels that I ripped off of shopping carts at the local market. We would ride our bikes all the way to Seal Beach, which would take about an hour and a half to ride there, but it didn’t matter, we were so stoked. I learned how to surf at Seal Beach jetty and at Ray Bay as a kid.

I’ve kind of just been moving a little bit south ever since. I don’t know why the migration south, but I would surf Golden West Street in high school, then I lived and surfed in Newport at 49th Street, then moved to Laguna and lived there for almost 30 years, then a little bit further south to Laguna Niguel (near Dana Point), which is where I live now.

When this home was first built, this area was called South Laguna Beach. At the time Salt Creek was still private – you couldn’t even get in, you had to sneak in and hike down. I remember the security in the 70s was this guy on a horse with a shotgun who would chase us out the place on his horse. It was kinda gnarly. It was also the same thing at Lowers and Cottons, you couldn’t really get in there since the military had it on lock down, but we’d sneak in and always find ways.

How long have you lived in your Laguna Niquel home?

I’ve lived in this home for 2 years now. I took a year off of work when I bought it to focus on the remodel. I bought it from the original owner, nothing had been changed, it was all in it’s original condition – which was rad. I looked for a home in this neighborhood for about 2 years and held out for (I think) one of the better original condition mid-century style homes that was available, which we were really happy with.

We really just took it back to original condition, but it has also been that balance of making it current and making some strategic decisions to make it not like a historical museum, but livable and relevant. Pretty much everything is original though except for expanding the kitchen and adding about 400 square feet.

Who was the architect of your house? Tell us about the significance of the area you live in.

I’ve always been fascinated by the history of our culture – surf culture and even California culture. And that sort of goes back to the history of why I bought this home. I didn’t know much about the historical significance of the area or even who the architect of the home was until I started to do a little research and met with the original owners who knew the architect. I also met and hired a local landscape architect named Anne Cristoph and she had actually worked for the original architect of this home. His name is George Bissell. I didn’t know anything about him at the time, but she had done a lot of work with him and through her I have been introduced to a lot of guys who are still alive who worked for him. I’ve even spoken to both of his children over the phone and learned a lot about him.

George Bissell is linked to a really important architect. He graduated from USC School of Architecture, which in the 50s and 60s was the school for architecture out here. A lot of the case study architects came out of that school. One of the most important ones was A. Quincy Jones, who was partnered with Frederick Emmons on the majority of all the Eichler homes, primarily up in the Bay area. A.Quincy Jones shared the Case Study goal of reinventing the house as a way of redefining the way people lived in postwar America. He literally designed the master plan for the city of Irvine and the whole balance of green belts and urban planning, he was the dean at the USC School of Architecture through the 50s and 60s. He also designed that famous Sunnylands Annenburg home in the desert that is the most important piece of architecture in Palm Springs where every President has had a retreat since Johnson.

What makes this so important is that George Bissell was a colleague of A. Quincy Jones. They both served on the board at USC and did a project together that was the Lido Sands development, which was this famous island in Newport. They teamed up and did all the city planning for the island, places for boats, for kids to play, small streets with proper pedestrian walkways, parking away from the streets, ocean accesses, small home lots. It was basically this really intimate, beach lifestyle development. To me, when I learned all that, the lightbulb went on and I realized why this home and others like it were so important having been designed by this talented architect of the Eichler generation.

I’ve just become fascinated by his story and the history surrounding his homes in the area. I think the more we learn about it and the more we value the history, the more of these homes will be saved (and not torn down). We’ve counted a little over 70 of these homes by George Bissell that were built and now only 40 exist in either original condition or close to the original condition. So there are 30 that we’ve lost, which to me is a shame because up until the last 5 years or so there was no real interest in mid-century modern homes like this. But in the last few years, we’ve seen like 3 of these homes sell and all young couples moving in who totally get it and want to keep things original. I’ve even made it a point to meet all the new owners as best I can to offer my help and to share with them the architectural history of these homes. They all really love all that information, so what’s happening is a new community is growing here with a new appreciation for this architectural style, which is super unique for Orange County.

Wow, you are really into the history behind everything.

I know this is sort of a long story, but this is the kind of stuff I really dig about surfing, and thus led to M.Nii. I find that the deeper you dive into the roots of anything you are into, the more fascinating it becomes. It’s like peeling away the layers of an onion and you just see how much everything is connected and how it connects to you individually as a person. I just feel honored to have stumbled across the history and for me it becomes important to honor those with a living connection to our history and inspiring the generations before us and of course the future generations to come.

What are your favorite things about this area?

People tend to either love or hate Orange County. In the industry it’s called, “Velcro Valley”. The surf apparel industry is mostly based here, but it’s always been home for me, it’s where I grew up. I love it though because of the lifestyle. All the pioneers from the 30s through the 50s would come back home to this area from winters in Hawaii and bring pieces of the culture there with them. San-O is a perfect example, you can just drive up, park your car on the beach and surf all day out front, which is the ultimate Hawaiian beach lifestyle that still exists today here. Everyone is welcome: families, beginners, pros, you name it, it’s all about just having fun here.

Also, what you have here in Orange County is this tremendous opportunity with the surf industry being based right here. So if surfing is your main foundation in life, you can make a living from it in Orange County. It’s probably the only place in the world where you can truly do that. Obviously you have other pockets like Melbourne Australia and Biarritz France, but in terms of the epicenter of making a lifestyle around the industry, Orange County is a place where you can do that.

I have had opportunities to live abroad in France for a while, we had a home in Hawaii for a while – all great experiences, but man, I walk in this door here and couldn’t be happier. This is home. For all of those reasons, this is still a pretty darn easy place for me to live.

How did you first get started with Quiksilver and Roxy?

In 1993 Quiksilver acquired a company that I used to work for called Raisins Swimwear. They acquired them for a number of reasons; to grow their business and to bring women’s expertise into their building since they were just a mens brand at the time. I was sort of given the task from above and the whole Roxy thing just landed in my lap. Plus I had a great team by my side.

In 1994 all the stars aligned: Lisa Andersen wins the world title, then I meet guys like Jeff Hornbaker and Art Brewer who are shooting her at the time, I get to know Bruce Raymond and through him Wayne Lynch, Jeff Hakman, then BK, Randy Rarick, Ricky Grigg and on and on. These are all guys who heavily inspired me in the 70s and they’re just normal, great, fun loving guys. I’m getting to go on Tavarua boat trips with them and I’m just this kook in the water trying to stay away from the sets hammering me. I’m just sorta sitting in the peanut gallery watching these guys do what they do, which opened my eyes to how lucky I was at the time. We did so much work in Hawaii then, Roxy put on a contest at Sunset Beach on the North Shore for like 10 years. So every year I’m going to Hawaii and I just kept getting more and more fascinated with the culture and kept wanting to learn more. Quiksilver opened the door to my creative curiosity in surf history. It was a personal thing, but it also became creative inspiration for Roxy as a brand.

Women are different than guys in the lineup – they really just wanna have fun. When they’re out in the water they’re talking and laughing, they’re just girls being girls, having a blast. And that’s what I always loved about surfing anyway, I never had any interest in the competitive side of things. I just want to surf and have fun and I feel like girls have more fun, so I wanted to celebrate that and portray just that in our imagery and also try to connect it back to a little bit of funny history. We’d always have some old photos of women surfing in the 60s and 70s as inspiration. We worked very closely with Margo Oberg and Rell Sunn, so again I tried to weave the story to show respect for our history, but also bring part of the heritage and style along with it.

What led you to start the men’s surf heritage brand, M.Nii?

M.Nii was just another step further for me in my fascination with Hawaiian culture and even the early surf industry there. The first real pro surf contest at a high level was the 1953 Makaha International Championship, which was just an informal and organized group. The sport of surfing didn’t have an official organization, but surfers started coming from around the world to attend it and it was organized by legends that included George Downing, Duke Kahanamoku, Wally Froiseth and Rabbit Kekai. Makaha was the big wave spot at the time, people didn’t even think there was big surf in California then because it was all Southern California based summertime surf. Winter surf in Makaha became the epicenter of surfing in the 50s. They would have this printed program for the event which was an 18 page booklet about the contest and it had these little goofy ads inside. Those were arguably the first official magazines on surfing. The Tom Blake book was out, but in terms of a zine format, these were the first surf mags. So I started collecting them and studying them.

I saw an ad in one of them that was just this simple little square box ad with simple type that said, “Custom surf trunks, M.Nii tailors, Waianae.” And it just always sort of stuck with me, until I actually found a pair of the trunks at a surf swap, a longboard collectors club. I bought them for like $20 and just started asking more about them from the guys I knew that were in Makaha in the 50s. Guys like Walter Hoffman, Micky Munoz, Henry Ford, guys that were in the early Bruce Brown films. Whenever I’d ask someone, they’d always get a little twinkle in their eyes and start reminiscing like it was yesterday, it was a special time in all of their lives. Think about it, they were teenagers, it was probably their first trip to Hawaii, first times living on their own, partying, first time surfing bigger waves of real consequence, probably their first times with women and having relations and whatnot. This was a period post WWII, before civil unrest, before the drug culture, before the war in Vietnam, so everyone’s happy, there was peace, the economy was healthy – especially in Hawaii with the tourism, the Navy base, all the vintage and salvage there.

Some of the surfers coming over from California were buying up the Navy salvaged chinos and converting those into boardshorts because they were more heavy duty than their trunks from California that kept getting blown out in the heavier Hawaiian surf. They were like Catalina cotton shorts that were really built for pool wear or lounge wear, not for technical surfing. They bought the military surplus shorts because they wouldn’t blow out, but they had pockets and stuff so they’d take them to the tailor shop to modify them for surfing. Eventually the tailor just started offering the guys to make custom shorts for them (instead of the alterations) for $4 a pop. The surplus shorts were only a quarter so $4 at that time a lot to these guys, but that was the beginning of arguably the first boardshorts ever made specifically for surfing. Then what happened was these guys would bring them home and they became like a badge of honor that people recognized as a sign that you had been to Hawaii and probably ridden Makaha. It was a brand before there were (surf) brands.

So after hearing all that, I did some more research and got in touch with the family who was first making these custom surf trunks, I got the trademark to re-make the shorts and the rest is history. We tried to stay as true as possible to the original brand and the construction of the shorts as possible though, which is where I give my partner John Moore all the credit. He was really able to mimic the construction quality, the wash, the finish, and the overall vibe.

I get really excited about all the history behind it. I was interviewing Greg Noll for instance and he talks about his first black and white pair of jailhouse striped shorts that were actually made by M.Nii. I asked him, “Why did you have them made black and white striped?” He told me that in those early days at Waimea, Bud Brown would be filming from the beach, you know; long lens, grainy film, kinda out of focus. When he’d go in town every day and get the film developed, he’d come back each night and have a little movie screening of the footage. All the guys would be sitting around stoked and screaming “that’s me!” and claiming each shot and arguing over who was who in the footage. So Greg, being the ultimate self promoter that he was, decided, “Screw that, I’m gonna make sure everyone knows who I am and no one can claim my waves.” So he went to the M.Nii shop and ordered a pair of the trunks in black and white stripes because he liked Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock. He wanted shorts that looked like that because that was like the cool movie at the time and Elvis was a rock star. He wanted to look like that and he knew they’d look rad and stand out visibly from a distance. So that’s where his iconic striped, jailhouse board short print came from.

Later all the shops and surf scene in Hawaii migrated from Makaha to the North Shore and the M.Nii shop just sort of withered away as new surf brands began to surface. Later iterations of the Greg Noll jailhouse striped shorts were made by Hang Ten, Greg’s sponsor down the road, but the original pair they were based on was made by M.Nii.

That’s an awesome story. So that all said, it’s obvious you are enamoured by this golden age of surfing’s history. If you could go back and live in one time period, when would it be and where would you live?

No question: the Quonset hut era, Hawaii, early to mid-50’s. Specifically 1953 to 1955, you had Buzzy Trent, George Downing, Walter Hoffman, guys like that all living in the Quonset huts in Makaha, which was sort of a rough and raw lifestyle, but they only did that in the winter because there was nothing out there.

And in contrast to that, you could drive into Waikiki only an hour and a half away and there are these more extravagant tourist locations like the Royal Hawaiian, Pink Palace, The Moana, beautiful legendary hotels that were built in the 30s. There were wealthy people coming in on steamships from San Francisco and LA. All these tourists are getting off the steamships in their fancy clothes and wool suits after being at sea for a week and being greeted off the boat by these bronzed gods, beautiful women in vibrant floral prints and these beautiful flower leis. I mean, it had to have just melted these people. Why would you ever want to leave and go home after something like that? You see all these people just laying in the sand, living this amazing, relaxing lifestyle, living on these picturesque, colorful beaches.

So to me, it’s that time after WWII, pre-civil unrest, pre-Vietnam, pre-drug culture. I guess the overall time period is from about 1949 to 1969, that 20 year span was just so magical. Again, healthy economy, beautiful place, innocence, tourism, it was exotic, celebrities were there, the Duke, all this stuff happening all at once – it was a pretty dreamy combo.

Going back to your time at Roxy and Quik. You helped usher in a new era for womens surfing. What were the best years that you spent at Roxy and why?

1994 was really when the magic started to happen with Lisa Anderson winning the world title. She was someone we could really put our brand identity behind because she looked good, she sold product, she’d show up to events, you could put her on a poster, in an ad, she was perfect. Then we stumbled across this technical product that no one had done before and that was boardshorts for women. It didn’t exist yet and we made it. We had a product and we had a face, those two things were a marketer’s dream.

That role lasted about 10 years, it took us all the way through 2004 before there was more brand competition and this pressure to grow, going public and that big corporate entity with global eyes. Not that there is anything wrong with all that, I’m not knocking it, but the beautiful time was really that 10 year period where there was no other role besides celebrating women and surfing. That’s really what it was all about and it certainly resonated with the market and at the end of the day it sold a lot of stuff that funded it. Because it was so successful it was really free for a while, we were given the freedom to do what we believed in. Because it was this new niche, we were kind of left alone to do what we believed in and it was working.

That was a magical time period altogether. The global Quiksilver family included Hawaiian Royalty and Fijian Chiefs, World champions like TC and Kelly and soulful legends like Wayne Lynch and Jeff Hakman. All through the calling card of being involved with this brand, I was able to meet and connect with all these amazing people and I will cherish that for the rest of my life.

That run was an innocent time where we got lucky, but we also worked hard. It was about 5 years, from 94 to 99 before the industry even caught on to what we were doing! There was just such a radical monopoly there in the women’s space for a while. Then the competition starting getting pretty darn good after that and the pressure came down to grow and dominate and then globalization, etc. It began to evolve and we increasingly needed to balance more of a mechanical business part with the innovation and naivety part – which is fine and is part of growing, but the beginning of all that was just pretty magical and a special time for sure.

Ultimately getting more women in the water is a legacy that makes me proud, along with celebrating surfing as pure fun time. That became the case through upgraded Women’s contests, World class role models and improved functional product created specifically for women.

Now I love going out to surf my local spots, like San-O for instance, and to see all these girls out having more fun than ever, riding and experimenting with all sorts of boards, wearing all types of clothes and wetsuits. It’s not just about one brand, there are more options and brands catering to them now more than ever and they’re just more comfortable and accepted in the lineup. I think that’s rad and just exciting to see. It makes me proud to have been a part of the movement with Roxy that helped make that possible.

You are clearly a huge collector of surf relics and memorabilia. What is one of your most prized artifacts?

I had the pleasure and opportunity to get to know Rell Sun and spend some time with her from organizing the Roxy contests in Hawaii. I would ask for her advice on what we were doing and I really wanted her OK with everything. I wanted to know if I was doing this correctly, was it her dream of where she wanted women’s surfing to be, and also were we doing things right with the Hawaiian culture? I wanted to make sure we were doing things correctly and in a respectful way to her as a Hawaiian surfer.

Not only did she give me her OK, but she shared what she was so great at, and that was her true aloha spirit – just giving and giving. She had all these great ideas and there was a lot of positivity working together. That was also one of the many rewards: being around historic figures in surfing, but she is one very special woman.

We just had a fun little period of time together over the last few years of her life and I would always make it a point to visit her. Anyway, she gave me a turtle shell that I really treasure and reminds me of those times.

As a guy who appreciates the ‘Golden Age’ of surf culture, what is your take on the current state of the surf industry and modern surf culture in general?

To me what’s happening in the industry now is super exciting. When I grew up in the 60s and 70s there were surf shops, but there were just garage shapers up and down the coast and you shaped your own board usually. Not because you had to, but the generation before that had no choice because there were no surf shops, so you either made your own boards or got one from someone else.

Then fast forward to the 80s with Town & Country, HIC, Channel Islands, and Rusty boards with the shortboard movement. Things began to switch over to a more mass produced, computerized era, which is also great and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But what’s so rad for me to see now is this whole throwback movement going on where kids are more interested in shaping alternative boards, the Mini Simmons, twin fins, single fins and so on. There is also the whole wave of current riders that are radical and amazing surfers in their own rite, but have chosen a different path away from competitive surfing. Ryan Burch, Craig Anderson, Dave Rastovich, Joel Tudor, even Stephanie Gilmore – all these people are crazy great accomplished riders who could (well, some do) compete professionally on the world tour, but they’ve also chosen to carve out this different lifestyle where they are riding contemporary boards, experimenting with alternative boards and stuff from the past, also riding longboards and mid-lengths. They’re connecting the dots between all these eras in surfing that I grew up with and at the same time coming up with new things. To me, that’s really exciting for surfing and it appears to be only in it’s infancy.

Then you have guys like Thomas Campbell for instance, who is an amazing documenter, curator and caretaker of that movement as well. So you put them all in a pot and I stand back and just look at it all feeling super proud and blessed just to know those guys. I also get excited to help or give my 2 cents along the way if anyone cares, and to just encourage it all because that’s the future. To me the future is incredibly bright because of this movement we have with the current generation.

How does that all connect to professional surfing?

Well to me there is room for both – for everything. I think it’s great that we have a world champion, I think it’s great for surfing and makes it a more legitimized sport. A lot of people might argue against that, but let’s also be real: it’s the ultimate surfer dream to get paid to travel around surfing the best waves in the world.

Again, this is something I would always try to do while I was working on Roxy and Quiksilver: to combine the competitive and lifestyle aspects of surfing into one voice. We were so lucky to have Lisa Anderson who was world champ, but we also had girls like Daize Shayne, VK and a group of Hawaiian girls who just had nothing but fun longboarding. I always tried to balance those two worlds and at the end of the day the best surfer in the water is the one having the most fun. That’s a quote you hear all the time, again and again from Phil Edwards, but isn’t that the ultimate? Isn’t that what it’s really all about?

Back to pro surfing you could argue, is that really all about having the most fun? Isn’t it all about getting the score? It think it is to some extent, but the lifestyle I’ve chosen and am more drawn to is just having the most fun. The pro surfers have an amazing life and they definitely have a lot of fun, so if they can make a livelihood from that, why take that away from them? Good on them, if they can travel the world on someone elses dime, it’s the ultimate surfer scam! They’re getting paid to surf epic waves. Why would you not get excited about that and encourage that to happen? Are there some flaws in it? Of course. If it becomes like the NFL, more and more like a sport and you lose some of the charm and beauty of this thing we do, that would be a shame. But again, that’s why I get more excited about the guys like Rastovich and Craig Anderson. Guys who are legitimately as good as anyone in that world, but have formed another path in their life and surf career.

Where do you see the future of surfing headed?

It’s a good question, and hard to say. My hope is that these different movements and sub-cultures within surfing will somehow blend together more and converge. Right now it’s a little bit of this “us vs. them” mentality, which is kind of a shame and that bums me out – and even breaks my heart a little bit. We’ve got these haters on both sides. Some of these rootsy lifestyle surfers wanna hate on the pros, then you’ve got some of the people in the professional camp who think their sport defines the surf culture. It’s a real shame, but I am the ultimate optimist and I do think there is room for all of it.

The great brands have been able to address this in good ways I think. For instance Quiksilver always had Kelly, and now Dane Reynolds and Craig Anderson, which is a great combination. Vans has backed guys like Joel Tudor and get behind his movement with the Duct Tape invitational, but they also sponsor pros like the Gudauskas brothers. So to me that is part of the magic and the opportunity the brands have to shape our culture. There’s definitely room for both of those cultures to live harmoniously.

It’ll be interesting to watch Kelly and see what he chooses with his career moving forward. He is obviously building this base between Outerknown and more recently Firewire. He’s going to bring another awareness to the surfing community, and that is to the issue of sustainability in particular. This whole great playground that we live in is at risk. You’ve got this new voice bubbling up and to see how he impacts surfing and influences our culture in the next 10 years to be more responsible to the environment is exciting. This is something that we as a culture haven’t done enough to participate in, so it’s kinda rad that he is putting his time and his money where his beliefs are and he could end up moving the needle there.

The “Surf Activist”, I like it. Any parting thoughts? Words to live by? Sage advice?

At the end of the day, I do feel truly blessed and I do give thanks to my creator for this life I’ve been able to lead and all the great people I’ve had the pleasure to meet… As far as advice, whoever you are you just need to go out and find your passion. Whatever that is, you’ve really gotta believe in it and do everything it takes to not waiver from that because that is what you’re going to enjoy and in turn be successful at.

So if your passion is in the surf industry for instance, just start somewhere. Work on the floor of a surf shop – even if you have a college degree and it might be humbling, but it’s where you’re going to learn the foundation of the industry and everything grows from that. You’ll eventually be in an even more valuable position at a bigger brand down the road because of that experience.

You have to enjoy what you do or be passionate about what you do or else you’ll just be miserable. It sounds cliche, but I’ve tried to stay true to my passions in life and it has taken care of me so far.

Check out Randy’s love affair with 50’s surf culture incarnate here:

M.Nii

/ Photos and Interview by Matt Titone

Check out more Surf Shacks here.

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