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Surfers Call the Design Tune at Quiksilver

August 21, 1987|DIANE REISCHEL | Times Staff Writer

Call it quality control, Orange County-style.

When Quiksilver President Bob McKnight wonders if he has a hit swim trunk in the making, he takes the sample to his Costa Mesa factory floor, holds it up and yells: "Hey shippers! What do you think?"

The tanned young men--wearing little more than their surf jams--give thumbs up or down to the newest trunk. Sure sign of how the beach crowd will react.

"Surfers are a unique little audience. They're very critical, outrageous, outspoken," said McKnight, 34.

As this entrepreneur likes to say about surfers: "We know them, because we are them."

Keeping that surfer identity is more crucial than ever for Quiksilver, a one-time sleeper of a surf-wear firm that expects to gross more than $25 million in 1987, up from $18.5 million last year.

From its original niche of "board-shorts and surf junk," the firm has expanded into active sportswear for men and boys. The once privately owned company went public last December, a move designed to generate money for further expansion, says McKnight.

Yet in a business based on an image of in-crowd exclusivity, such moves toward growth sometimes signal the cooling of a hot line.

In other words, when Quiksilver reaches Rapid City, S. D., will Newport Beach touch it anymore?

McKnight says he isn't afraid of the too-big pratfalls, pointing to companies such as Guess?, Esprit and Liz Claiborne, which kept status images while becoming industry giants.

And Quiksilver is to-the-point about remembering its roots.

"When waves are good--we're gone," said national sales manager Michael Lesher, wearing Quiksilver shorts as he sat at his desk, a surfboard behind him. Surfing is research, he said. "It's finger-on-the-pulse kind of stuff."

In addition to monitoring local beaches, Quiksilver gleans ideas from the six international divisions of the parent company, Quiksilver Garments Ltd. of Australia. Last December the American-based Quiksilver became independent of the parent company, but the two continue to pool ideas and promotional money to sponsor surfers and windsurfers as spokespersons.

The original Quiksilver surf-wear company was started by Australian Alan Green in the late 1960s--just about the time McKnight was a high school sophomore in San Marino.

In 1976, a champion surfer named Jeff Hakman started Quiksilver's U.S. division, collaborating with McKnight, a recent USC business graduate whom he had met on a surfing trip in Indonesia.

Eleven years later, McKnight--married with two small daughters--lives in Laguna Beach and still heads Quiksilver in the United States, while former partner Hakman runs a Quiksilver division in France.

Despite the complicated business history, Quiksilver's fashion formula remains basic. "It's hard-core, authentic surf wear," said McKnight.

For fall, Quiksilver is promoting faded, or "pigment-washed" cottons, for "the beaten-down look," frequently shown with the Quiksilver logo of a wave crashing over a mountain.

The name Quiksilver--born of the founder's affection for the rock band Quicksilver Messenger Service--is just nebulous enough to save the company from too narrow a beach identity, said McKnight.

The tanned, strawberry-blond president sees the current surf boom as spawning whole schools of surf-wear competitors drawn to a fad. Throughout, Quiksilver bases its survival on promoting an aura of authenticity.

"Everyone wants to be a surfer," said McKnight.

"If you want to live that life, you've got to have our stuff."

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