Birdie Branches Out

An old-school surf trunk business expands under new ownership while staying true to its authentic heritage.

 

For Natas Kaupas, a former professional skateboarder from Santa Monica, Birdwell Beach Britches’ surf trunks were a staple of his beach scene. The shorts with the distinctive Birdie logo—a grinning and cartoonish, trunk-wearing surfboard character—were simply ever-present. “It’s such an iconic brand,” Natas says. “The shorts are ingrained in our . It’s part of the landscape.”

Since 1961 Birdwell Beach Britches has specialized in hand-making customized surf trunks—they were one of the first companies, in fact, to manufacture swim trunks designed specifically for surfers. Natas points out that in beach communities from Hawaii to Florida the trunks have a reputation for comfort and durability. That’s why surfers, paddlers and even lifeguards have developed a fondness for the shorts.

So as a child Natas quickly came to recognize the trunks—and especially Birdie, he adds with a smile—as being synonymous with surfing.     
Though Manhattan Beach’s Geoff Clawson grew up on Texas’ Gulf Coast, far from Birdwell’s headquarters in Southern California, the brand was still closely tied to his local surf scene.

“I grew up in the ‘80s surfing and skating , and Birdwell was what the older generation wore in the water. They were everywhere,” he says, adding that the two surf shops that were in Galveston when he was growing up both carried Birdwell trunks. The Birdwell family ran their surf-wear business for well over a half-century, hand-making shorts in a small Orange County factory and rarely, if ever, updating their methods and manufacturing strategies as the decades rolled by.

"Birdwell’s is a true story, and we’re still making the shorts the same way. And we don’t find many other companies like that.”

But in 2014, ready for change, they passed along the company to a new team of owners. Though Natas, Birdwell’s new creative director, and Geoff, Birdwell’s current president and CEO, hope to expand the company’s presence and modernize certain aspects, their overarching goal is a simple one: to keep the Birdwell business—and its shorts—relatively the same.  

“We have respect for this iconic brand, and we want to do right by it,” says Geoff. “We’re members of the generation that grew up around it, and we simply want to introduce the brand to more people.”

“We’ve been entrusted,” says Natas. “And we don’t want to screw it up.”

Carrie Birdwell Mann began Birdwell Beach Britches during California’s golden age of surfing. The sport was at the height of its popularity, and the market for surf-related products—especially clothing—was starting to grow.

Carrie, a sewer by trade, made Birdwell swim trunks in her Orange County home, sewing the final product in her living room. Canvas was commonly used to make swim trunks back then, but Carrie started experimenting with other materials, hoping to make a more durable product. “She set about making a better product,” says Geoff. “And they got it right.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carrie tinkered with nylon, eventually creating a pair of trunks made with two layers of nylon. Using two layers ended up being a brilliant move—not only did the extra layer help the shorts dry a little more quickly and boost durability, but they also made the shorts more comfortable.

“The way the two materials work together,” says Natas, “they’re super-functional. As you go from sitting to paddling , they slide against each other and they don’t bind—they move together.”

Since the two layers don’t bind up when the wearer moves, the shorts became extremely popular amongst not only surfers but also long-distance paddlers and lifeguards too. The shorts became top sellers, and they set the company apart from competitors.

“Customization has been a big part of Birdwell,” says Geoff. Since the beginning of the company, customers could call in with special orders or even write letters with sketches of the type of swim trunks they wanted. Both Geoff and Natas have framed letters dating from the ‘60s and ‘70s from customers who’d drawn images with directions about colors and styling.

Marketing and sales were kept straightforward. Birdwell placed an ad in one of the first issues of Surfer in the ‘60s (an ad that ran, unchanged, for years), and customers could purchase directly from a small store within the Birdwell factory in Santa Ana or order shorts over the phone (or eventually online). Only a handful of specialty retailers carried the shorts, and Birdwell didn’t have any brick-and-mortar locations.

As the collective surf industry exploded into the multi-million dollar monstrosity that it is today, the Birdwells’ approach to business remained relatively unchanged. Though the company eventually relocated from the Birdwell home to a factory in Santa Ana, nearly every other aspect—from manufacturing to the design of the shorts—stayed the same for decades.

And it was Birdwells’ unwavering commitment to keeping the original formula that helped the brand become so iconic. The Birdwell family stayed in touch with their ‘60s-era surf heritage, keeping the same low-key, family-business strategy for all matters—big and small.

Carrie eventually passed the business over to her children, and it stayed in the family until 2014. Few original surf-wear companies have been able to retain this family-focused approach, and it’s something that’s endeared the brand to generations of surfers.

Geoff and Natas are retaining the Birdwells’ subtle approach. The manufacturing process hasn’t evolved that much from Carrie’s original—even today—and the shorts are made by hand in the original Santa Ana factory by some of the same sewers who have been with the company for decades. The shorts’ design hasn’t been altered significantly, and they are still customizable—though the company now carries women’s trunks too.

And last summer Birdwell officially opened its first brick-and-mortar retail location in Manhattan Beach. But all other changes have been slight or cosmetic—Natas and Geoff want to remain true to the brand’s heritage, which they believe is one of its strongest attributes. “We’re not making shorts that allude to heritage or are trying to be vintage. We are original, and we have this heritage,” he says.

 

 

 

 

 

Natas agrees. He points out that the company’s heritage and story is an original one. Many surf brands, he notes, aim to create a backstory that alludes to some sense of originality or heritage, but “Birdwell’s is a true story, and we’re still making the shorts the same way. And we don’t find many other companies like that,” he says.  

The brand has had a major presence in the South Bay since its inception, and the company’s modest recent growth has been received warmly. Locals often come by the Santa Ana factory to see where the Birdwells made their shorts for decades.

“You can check out where these things have been made since the ‘60s. It’s great to watch a dad or granddad come in with his son or grandson or daughters and introduce them to the brand and say, ‘These are the shorts I grew up surfing in,’” he says.

Bree Valbuena, manager of the Manhattan Beach store, notes something similar. “We have a handful of guys—grandfathers and dads—who come in with their children and talk about how they’ve had the same pair of Birdwells for 30 years,” she says. Sometimes people simply wander into the shop to talk about a pair of Birdwells they bought decades ago (before eventually purchasing a new pair).

Geoff and Natas are excited to retain the Birdwells’ original, old-school approach to their trunk-making while gradually expanding the business. They’re careful to note that they aren’t going to change any aspect of the brand significantly—the business was a part of the Birdwell family for more than 50 years, and the duo feel an obligation to stay true to Carrie’s original strategy.

But they’re excited to reintroduce the brand to a new generation. “Now these younger generations are forming a connection to Birdwell, and the brand is a part of their family story,” says Geoff.

It’s these connections, though, that excite Geoff and Natas. So many surfers have grown up with the brand, and previous customers often call the Manhattan Beach store—simply happy to hear that the company is growing.

Geoff notes that one man called the shop recently just to say that he’d “proposed to his wife 30 years ago in Hawaii while wearing a pair of Birdwells.” He still had the shorts, and he was happy to hear that Birdwells was back and doing well.

“He didn’t fit in the old ones anymore,” Geoff says. “But we got him some new ones.”

 

 

 

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