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Forever young

Born in the '60s, a family clothing business is still catching waves.

March 10, 2004|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

The sense of smell is said to be the most powerful pathway to memory. But sometimes sight can do the job. A glance at a mere scrap of cloth can open doorways in the mind. We might find ourselves, say, on the beach again during one of those bygone summers of warm sand and bracing surf, sniffing Coppertone while the falling notes of the Ventures play a soundtrack to our days.

For men who came of age in Southern California's surf culture, and for those many others who tagged along from other states, a curious tribal symbol is likely to evoke memories. Measuring 2 by 2 1/2 inches, it is a cartoonish character drawn on a surfboard. His hair is represented by the board's skeg. His hands rest jauntily on his hips. He stands on skinny legs with bumps on his toes. He wears a crooked smile and, of course, surf trunks. Woven into the emblem are the words: "Birdwell Beach Britches."

It's a brand; and for those who know the brand, Birdie is that old friend who never bothered to grow up.

Graying men who took to the beaches in the 1960s associate the logo patch with the freewheeling escapades of their generation. So do men of the 1970s and the '80s. The same is true for those who discovered Birdwells in the '90s. And if you prowl the beaches of France, Japan, Tahiti, California and Hawaii today, you'll see it yet now sewn onto the back of the waistband of these unchanging nylon surf trunks, still having fun.

Just goes to show what happens when a single-minded company stands motionless in this fast-moving world.

In 43 years, Birdwells have never gone out of style. The home-grown made-in-America Birdwell has achieved global reach without ever growing to global size. The company does not disclose its sales or discuss details of its current popularity, but its entire Orange County plant, including inventory, covers no more than 15,000 square feet.

Yet plenty of Waikiki's famed beach boys wear Birdwells, as do growing legions of outrigger canoe paddlers. Ditto lifeguards from here to Australia, charter sailboat crews in the Pacific and, of course, long-boarders practically everywhere.

Today you probably call your trunks board shorts, and you might find yourself wondering at first sight if Birdie is some oceanic progenitor of SpongeBob. But no matter. Whatever the generation or the location, Birdwells cast the same kind of nostalgic spell as the name of an old girlfriend. And behind Birdwell is a family that makes sure things remain exactly this way.

"We never did follow the crowd. Our pants are different. Our way of doing business is different," says Vivian Birdwell, whose late mother, Carrie Birdwell Mann, began the company in 1961. Vivian Birdwell oversees operations today along with her brother, Bob, and her daughter, Evelyn McGee, a wry, graying and self-possessed trio who look deceptively removed from anything related to beach and surf.

First Surfer ad

The entrance to their time capsule can be found in an industrial park in Santa Ana. A faded logo with the word "Birdie" adorns a metal door. Inside, Bob Birdwell, wearing a vest and porkpie hat, cuts the trunks with power scissors from layers of various types of nylon according to the backlog of orders. He was a machinist until Mom's living room business started growing, then the whole family was pressed into work along with anyone who happened over to visit.

"We were only a few years behind the change in surfboards from wood to foam," Bob recalls. "Back then, most boys wore cutoffs."

At first, business was strictly by word of mouth. Then they took out an ad in Surfer. Bob Birdwell recalls that it began with the magazine's fourth issue, back when Surfer published only twice a year. With minor changes, the small ad has appeared in every issue since, evermore quaint against the feverish onslaught of advertising graphics.

Carrie Mann was not the first of Southern California's beach moms to build a brand name and a following for her surf trunks. Malcolm Gault-Williams' history "Legendary Surfers" grants that honor to Nancy Katin, whose Kanvas by Katin began commercial production in 1959. Katin still operates in Sunset Beach with a good deal of tradition and small-scale aura. But for family longevity, for lasting popularity and for its profoundly old-fashioned manner of business, Birdwell is unrivaled.

A sample of the family's approach to the world can be seen on its comically low-tech website, A run-on collage of simple line-graphics, mottos, admonishments, declarations, product descriptions, blurry photographs, tips on sizing (what to do "if you have large thighs"), joshing and a good measure of made-in-America pride, it suggests what the Internet might have looked like if it had been invented back when Detroit still put tail fins on cars.

Some youthful customers, alas, fail to grasp the thread. Birdwell's website is an easy target for earnest student-geeks who are looking for a quick project to re-design and "modernize."

Friends, don't bother.

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