Surf Shacks 019 – Colin Tunstall
/ Matt 06.22.2015
Colin Tunstall is a busy guy. Since co-founding Saturdays Surf NYC with his two buddies Morgan and Josh, Colin has been taking on a constant whirlwind of projects surrounding the brand. From multiple stores in New York and Japan, to product & artist collaborations, a full clothing line, a magazine, and even their own blend of coffee, Saturdays has redefined not only what it means to be a surfer in NYC, but what it means to be a surfer in the modern age. They’ve also changed how the surfing lifestyle is perceived to a new, wider audience. We recently caught up with Colin in his apartment, right down the street from the Saturdays office to talk about what it means to be at the creative helm of such an influential brand and to check out his growing art collection.
You’ve been busy lately, how’s your day been so far?
It’s unusual, I’m actually getting married tomorrow.
Well, like legally. My wedding’s not going to be until September, but my fiancé is French and she has two sisters and a brother that live in Paris that decided to come over here for that. They flew in last night and I had to do some stuff with them this morning. I mean, this kind of sounds ridiculous for this interview, but we got photographed for Esquire this morning with a handful of other NY-based menswear designers, which is pretty cool. And then we’re also shooting a Spring and Summer look book, so I had to run by the studio for a little while. We’re also thinking about opening a store in Australia (in Sydney) in October, so people that we’re partnering with are in town right now so we have had some meetings for that as well… So just a lot going on.
Well, thanks for finding the time. So let’s start by telling us a little bit about yourself.
I’m from Connecticut and grew up skating and snowboarding, not surfing. I found that when I did make the trips to surf destinations – like to parts of New Jersey for summer vacation or Florida with people that were surfing, I was always fascinated by it, but didn’t really understand it so much. When I went to school in Savannah, Georgia I had friends that were from Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina or Charleston, and all up and down the coast of Florida that were making trips and I started tagging along, then just grew an affinity for the sport.
While at SCAD (Savannah College Of Art & Design) for graphic design and photography, I started working for a magazine called Contents. That was a great experience for me. Now looking back, it was a pretty unusual circumstance that these college kids got to work in publishing. I was making phone calls to the director Mark Romantic, Larry Clark, Nobuyoshi Araki, Dwayne Michaels. I was hitting up all these iconic, very established image makers and creative people and asking them to participate on stuff.
We were both in the same class at SCAD, in the graphic design program and moved to NYC after school. What got you into graphic design and led you to New York in the first place?
In Savannah, Contents Magazine took on an investor who didn’t want to do it anymore, then they closed the doors. I was just finishing up college, spending some time down in Savannah and wanted to go on to the next step. Having an affinity for print and magazines, the mecca is NYC, so I came up here. I had some friends working at the New York Times. I talked to a friend in that pretty close-knit community of people that worked in publishing. A job was available at Marie Claire, which was very different from what I was doing before. It’s not somewhere that I would necessarily want to work right now, but I appreciated the Hearst Corporation in understanding how to talk to a certain demographic / market. There are all these rules that they follow, which have been successful for them. It was interesting to understand that design is subjective and that there are certain ways to speak and communicate with different people. I learned a lot. The person that hired me; Paul Martinez (who was the old art director of GQ) has done a lot of award-wining work. He actually commissioned the Hoefler guys to do the font Gotham, which was commissioned for GQ by him. He was very good with type and other things. I was young and wanted to do more progressive design, so I then got a job at Esquire. I stayed there for a couple years (also in the Hearst family) and it is obviously speaking to a different kind of person than Marie Claire. I was learning how to communicate in that way; using fonts in a specific way, finding similarities between what I wanted to do, what I thought was good and also what was good for that demographic.
From there, I went to Los Angeles Magazine. Then I did another book, “The Big Black Book” for Esquire. Then I did financial magazine called “Portfolio” for Conde Nast, did a travel book for Travel & Leisure, and then I ended up at New York Magazine. So I had all this experience working in different magazines, communicating to different people. It was exciting, but I kinda started getting burnt out on working just for magazines and wanted to see what else was out there. I had friends that worked at different agencies and were able to work on different projects – different styles for each project. But I also felt like it was a great boot camp – just bouncing around and learning how to communicate to different people in weeklies, monthlies, quarterlies, bi-annuals. How to take a font, stretch it and use it in a million different ways. How to do something quick because of a deadline, or putting something into a template so that you could make it look consistent every month, week or depending on the schedule of the publication.
When we started Saturdays, I was working in between a couple different magazines. Actually, the art director of GQ (he’s Russian) was going back to Russia for a couple months so he hired me to fill in temporarily on a freelance basis. So I got to work with Fred Woodward, who was one of my idols. There’s this book that I got early on about Rolling Stone Magazine and Fred was there for a really long time. He did a lot of their best work when it was really seen as a very influential magazine. When you think of like the 80s or the 90s as an interesting design period, his work at Rolling Stone during that time is just awesome. While I was working with him, he’d see something on my screen that I had mimicked from some kind of reference, but he’d know exactly where it came from! He’s a genius and also just a very cool calm guy.
I was working at GQ during the day and I was also doing a project for Esquire at night. That was also kinda when we started Saturdays on the weekends making coffee – it was just a coffee shop at first. Then I eventually got a job at New York Magazine and was able to work with Chris Dixon, who’s also just a really smart guy. I learned a bunch from him. But that was weekly and at the end of the week you’d get the magazine off and be able to leave early. So then I was able to slowly make more time at Saturdays. This is before we made clothes and it was just a cafe at that point, we just started taking on third party brands.
What led you to making the leap and starting Saturdays? How did you meet Morgan and Josh?
So when I was in LA, I met a guy named Mike Townsend, who knows a lot of people. He was planning on moving to New York and I was like, “When I’m done with my gig here, I’m going to move back as well.” So when I came back to NYC, we met up and that’s how I met Morgan and Josh, my two business partners, it was through him. We all hung out – you know, we’re into boardsports in general, we were all single at the time and just kind of having a good time. Just going out and taking advantage of some of the good things NYC has to offer. I was in a period where I wanted to do my own thing. Mike had a side business where he was doing a couple of different things. Morgan was working sales at Acne. Josh was in between some jobs, he was doing sales at G-Star and J. Lindeberg.
One day we all went on a little trip, we hopped on the Long Island Railroad and went out to Lincoln Street in Long Island for a surf – this was probably like 6 or 7 years ago. I was just completely fascinated by the New York surfing experience. Growing up heavily invested in snowboarding and skateboarding, I was hooked immediately and just wanted to get involved. I just couldn’t get away and everything just kinda ties around it. So I had conversations with them on the train ride back. I was like “How can we do something here?” because there’s something that’s not really represented in New York.
We talked about the idea and for me it kind of works this way: it’s like when you get something in your head, whether you want to do that thing or not, it kind of somehow entered into the universe. And so just through that conversation, certain opportunities got presented to us, like a friend of ours was working at an art gallery and he’d overheard us talking about it. He told us about this guy that had an art gallery on Crosby Street who was closing it down, but he still had a lease for a couple of years. We went by and immediately fell in love with the space and just took it without a business plan or a real strategy in mind (other than we thought we had a cool concept and we’ll just make it work). From there it was just a lot of scratching and figuring out how to come up with a name for Saturdays – or for this project of ours. One day Morgan came over to my house for some beers ready to open up and just start throwing around ideas. I just said, “Saturdays” – it was like the first thing, and he was like “Ok sounds cool. Alright done.” I spent the weekend designing a logo and put that together pretty quickly. That was the easy part, and it’s just been a struggle ever since – a lot of “one thing leads to the next.”
You guys have done so much since you started Saturdays. You and your partners seem to have not ripped each others heads off quite yet, which is pretty cool to see.
Oh no, we have. We do it, and we do it in public. We don’t pretend to not have those feelings. It’s the air release. Earlier on we had just so much to do, we just kept scratching and as were growing it was difficult trying to find our roles because there was even more going on. It gets a little tough when you’re stepping on each others’ toes. You got to check your ego sometimes and learn how to communicate. We all agree that we think we’re each incredibly important and instrumental, which is true, also at the same time there’s just no doubt that without the three of us here it wouldn’t be what it is. It’s undeniable. So we all understand that, but we still lay into each other sometimes – like it’s fun just to call each other out though.
What have been your biggest challenges so far in starting a brand and maintaining it?
I never worked in retail, I never worked in fashion. So my biggest hurdle, which I think maybe ended up being on the bonus side, was just not really understanding how things worked and just figuring it out on the fly. I mean, now it’s like I would be able to have done it all in like half the time. I think that part of our luck (a lot of it is luck) is that it came in this kind of natural way – it felt authentic, you know? It’s funny at first… You know, in the surf industry there’s a lot of talk – there are a lot of attitudes and fun stuff, just a lot of different styles, a lot of different mentalities, but we’re all sharing the affinity of riding waves in different ways. At first people just didn’t understand what we were doing, you know some people were just scratching their heads and it took us just not really responding to that stuff and just keeping our heads down and moving forward, hoping that everything works out, you know? That’s all you can really do. And it’s worked out and been fun.
Just trying to not be somebody else – or trying to look at somebody and be like, “Oh I want to do that.” I mean, we are obviously influenced by other people, that’s undeniable, but it’s just taking that stuff and trying to repurpose it and find a new perspective on it. That’s been the fun part. The biggest struggle has been just not understanding how everything works. When we started off we didn’t have any investors, just us. I had been working hard for awhile, I had a small savings. I was actually planning on using that money to buy an apartment in the city. I actually read this email recently, my computer got messed up and I was restoring my emails and a lot of them were missing so it was going way back through them all. I found this email I wrote to my dad. My dad was asking me like, “What is this project: ‘Saturdays’ that you guys are doing? Please explain it to me.” He was just being a concerned father and I was trying to explain what I was going to do and what Josh was going to do and what Morgan was going to do and why were doing it and why we thought it was a good idea. It was kind of silly how the financial side didn’t make any sense, but everything else still kind of holds true.
I didn’t realize how this game works, so we didn’t pay ourselves for awhile. We kept on reinvesting and doing other odd jobs on the side. We had events at the store; Kahlua used the space for like a drink demo and we did these other things like that which would help pay the rent. We just really scratched for it. This friend of a friend (which makes perfect sense now because we spend a lot of time in Japan), but a friend was talking to somebody from Beams (a department store in Japan) and was like, “What’s happening in NY? Any cool stuff?” They were like, “Yea, you know this little surf / coffee shop opened up on Crosby Street. You should go check it out.” She came by and was like, “Do you guys make t-shirts?” They wanted something they could sell in their store. I called up my business partners that worked in the wholesale business and they were like, “Beams, no way!” flipping out. So I designed a couple of t-shirts over the weekend and put them on a line sheet. They placed an order and that was our first opportunity to get Saturdays branded stuff in our store. That was I guess the start. It was all these different kinds of circumstances blending into one another. We just kind of figured it out. There was also something in our struggle that helped communicate to people what we were trying to do.
Now there are all these awesome parts of the Saturdays brand, which is so inspiring to see you guys churning them out all the time. You do product collaborations, artist collaborations, the magazine, clothes, coffee, etc. What’s the most exciting part of the brand for you as the creative director behind it all?
Yeah, I mean, you know as a creative person – just working on fun projects is what you want to do. New York is a difficult place for a lot of different reasons: expensive, tiny spaces, its crowded, but at the same time it’s just the interaction with people – it’s just so easy to interact. So with our coffee, we decided we wanted to sell coffee in the store. At the time, I was biking around and just going from tiny little places that served espresso in a very particular way. I’d go somewhere in Brooklyn, then go somewhere uptown, downtown, all around. I remember La Colombe was coming out, I met one of the sales reps and they were just starting their first coffee house on Walker Street. They’ve kind of grown in New York and I guess on the East coast, now into Chicago and they’re trying to grow and grow and grow. But they were like, “Yeah, if you want to do a blend of coffee, let’s do it.” and I was like, “That’s amazing!” It just kind of happened from this chance circumstance, from a recommendation of somebody. Then even with the magazine, it’s like, “Yeah, I want to do a magazine.” I worked in publishing for a while so it’s just something I’ve always wanted to do is my own magazine. I don’t have to fit a bunch of tiny stuff into a sidebar or like a front end page. I could do whatever I want, I could make twenty pages of sunsets if I wanted to – if I think it’s the right idea. So once you put out the idea of something you want to do, all these people all of a sudden become attainable, or want to contribute. New York is just a really great place to network & communicate, to do business. Being a creative person and meeting all these wonderful people and having different opportunities, it’s been great to have these challenges and to do a bunch of smaller stuff.
Right now I would love to work on a movie or do some sort of film. I want to do film because I don’t know anything about it really. I want to do something that has like a 95% chance it’s going to suck and like a 5% chance of it actually turning out cool. That process I have admiration for, but I just don’t know how it works so much. I have some friends that do projects and work in the industry and do some really cool stuff, it’s pretty foreign to me though.
I really love what Larry Clark did for skateboarding with the movie Kids. It wasn’t like a skateboard movie in the sense of tricks or doing the best moves or whatever, but it kind of resonated with the culture and resonated with the lifestyle and personality of a certain age group and what was going on at the time. So I thought it would be cool to like do something similar in regards to surfing, where it’s not a surf movie, but it’s more woven into the lifestyle of the people in the film. Because a lot of the surf movies out there are just about the “extreme” aspects of the sport. I don’t know, they just leave you feeling not so good – over-using the word “surfer” or hinging on surf in general to hold your interest. I think it would be more interesting to use it more as a backdrop somehow, where you’re not really focusing on people catching the best wave or doing the best trick, or being in a barrel, but more about the attitude a little bit. So yeah, I think there’s plenty to pull from in the city, that’s where I’d like to do some stuff that I’ve never done before and see how that works out.
When it comes to the New York City surf scene, nobody has hit the mark like you guys aesthetically in my opinion. There’s always been a strong surf scene in New York, but Saturdays made it unique, stylish and relevant. That seemed to become a catalyst for this larger surf lifestyle movement in the city.
Thanks man. Yeah, I mean it seems pretty obvious now. It didn’t click for me before though. I guess it was because nobody was doing it right, that’s why it didn’t click. It was just like, “Ok, well Quiksilver has a store in Times Square, they have a store on Broadway and they have these high profiles – you know with Kelly Slater for instance and there’s a lot of appeal there and that was what surfing was supposed to be. I would just look at it, like watching the waves and there’s just something that would draw me in to that, but at the same time it was just very foreign, you know? You’d walk around the city and every once in a while you’d see a surfboard in somebody’s window or somebody skating down the street with a surfboard and you’d get excited, like “Ah, thats rad!” You know, that’s cool to see because it’s real and relevant. The juxtaposition is something that we played off of in the beginning: it’s a city, you can’t surf here but you can work here and it’s a place to congregate and share ideas. There wasn’t a place that embraced it here for New York, that was the idea for Saturdays, we’re living here and this is us.
As a business owner, you are always pretty busy working a lot. What do you do to unwind in the big city?
That’s what I’m struggling with right now. I think that’s really important to have balance. The city is a struggle in that sense. For me, I guess right now at my age (I’m 36 and I’m getting married), I love the city for what it has to offer, but I also just don’t want to talk to people sometimes and get away. I didn’t really grow up fishing, but one of my good buddies is a fly fisherman and he took me out fly fishing. It was such a magical experience being in such a beautiful location with just your one friend and just focusing on catching a fish. It’s the same thing with surfing; there’s certain times when you can go out to Rockaway or up and down Long Island or New Jersey and have those sessions where it happens to be better than you thought and nobody’s really out and you’re catching a ton of waves. But most of the time it can be a bit of a struggle to – I mean you know what its like, in California it’s 10 times worse – everywhere is probably blown up all the time.
Finding that balance of doing things that just really make you happy and then also working. I work for myself, I’m not working for anybody else so it’s great in that sense, but then also comes the responsibility of that. The grass is always greener on the other side. Some days I’m wishing I could just check out and not have to worry about anything – that I can just show up to work do my job and leave. Then you’ll be like, “I just want my own business so I can be in control of everything, I want it to be mine.” With owning the company yeah, I’m on the creative side, but I have to worry about every detail. I’m slowly trying to pull myself out of getting too involved with everything because we’re hiring people that are qualified – better than us in certain regards. Trusting in the fact that when you’re hiring people they’re here to help so that you can switch your focus to the next thing or to the next place is crucial. It’s just about finding that balance.
Do you go on many surf trips?
Some people are better at equally separating those out throughout the year. Mine kind of come in lumps I think. So this past year I went out to Hawaii for the first time and that was pretty awesome. We flew into Kauai first and spent a week in Hanalei Bay and surfed Tunnels, that was pretty special. We ended up going to Oahu and the North Shore. I paddled out when it was up to like 8 ft. When it was 15 ft. I was taking pictures. I’ve seen all the movies and heard a lot of stories, so it was crazy to actually be there and experience it first hand. When we were driving there and we knew there was going to be waves, I started getting goosebumps. I would think to myself, “Do I have to like do something in the sand before I go in the water?” Or, “Do I need to like not lock eyeballs with a certain person?” Once I got there, I realized it was just a huge scene, but it’s like anywhere else: you just go and use your best judgment with what’s going on. I’m sure at some point in time it was a little different, but it was fun catching waves there and it was fun showing up. It was the first big swell of the season (this was in November). There was this guy just taking crazy drop offs and airing out and trying rodeo flips – these waves were just so impressive and he was handling it. I thought it was this regular dude and he comes in and it was Nathan Fletcher. Of course it’s Nathan Fletcher! And then another guy comes out and I’m like, “Oh, it’s fuckin Brett Simpson” and then it was a pretty cool experience to see such a high caliber of surfing and people surfing at such an iconic spot.
Surfing Tunnels on Kauai is much different than surfing like Rockaway. I’d never paddled out so far to a break before and Hanalei Bay was a big paddle out as well. From surfing really good waves everyday, I came back to NYC and then I immediately went on a trip to Puerto Rico and there were good waves in Rincon too. It’s funny, I just don’t have the opportunity to surf that often and on those caliber of waves. I just felt so good, my bottom turns and the way that I was hitting the lip – and just my style, I felt so fluid, like where I wanted to be with my surfing. And then you come back to NYC, you go back to work and it’s the winter time and there’s only waves every once in a while. You’re not surfing everyday like you just were, you put on your thick wetsuit and you head out on like a half decent day and you’re like, “Man, what happened?” It’s kind of tough in that sense. It’s the trade off I guess.
It’s amazing what that repetition of surfing every day does.
Yeah, exactly. So I just got lucky with those two back to back trips. When we go to Japan, we always surf in there which is a lot of fun. We go to Japan twice a year and then we’re going to go to Australia in October. I spent three weeks there – I guess it was two years ago for something. We surfed Byron Bay we and the northern beaches, we surfed all over, it was just epic. I can’t wait to go back to that place.
Circling back to your home. You have a rad art collection in your apartment. What are some of your favorite pieces and why?
I would say either a piece by Jeremy Everett “As Far As The Eye Can See.” He did on drywall etched in and coated with black graphite paint. He is doing some crazy experimental work and love his whole approach. He’s a friend and I traded a surfboard for the piece. Or my Jim Joe Mona Lisa. I was on a roof top about 6 years ago and saw this writing “JIM JOE WOMP” in a strange location. I then started noticing it everywhere. I was walking by The Hole Gallery and saw this piece on the ground being thrown away. I guess he was working on something there and this was outside. I brought it home and saw his work continue to grow and develop. Its almost entertainment for me.
Who are some of your favorite artists?
Ellsworth Kelly, Barnett Newman, Peter Beard, Duane Michals, Christo, Araki, Twombly, Yves Klein, Gerhard Richter, Picasso, Sol Lewitt, René Magritte, Bruce Davidson, Renato D’Agostin.
So how long have you been in your apartment and have you ever thought about moving?
Yeah I think so. You know, I’ve thought about it. I’ve been in the same place for 8 years and it’s a great spot. I also had a great relationship with the building owners who just sold the building. It’s also very convenient because it’s downhill to Saturdays – like a couple of blocks, so it’s just a couple of pushes on a skateboard to the office right down the street. So it’s very convenient in that regard, but I’ve been here for a long time and it’d be nice to switch it up. Looking for real estate or looking for an apartment in NYC is really depressing right now though.
I’ll bet. Any parting thoughts?
Um, let me think… Nope. I actually gotta run, thanks!