SEA LORDS OF THE REALM
BARRY WOLINS UNFILTERED
© PATRICK FLANAGAN 2018
ALL PHOTOS ARE FROM BARRY’S COLLECTION AND EXPAND
Durban, that easy east coast port city in South Africa has punched above it’s weight when it comes to world class surfers, Jordy, Shaun Tomson etc et al. Durbanites were there at the dawn of pro surfing in the late 70’s. The surf wear industry at that time was firmly based in Southern California and Australia. Durban was so far off the beaten track that it hardly registered as even a market. Then suddenly sewing machines started vibrating down in the guts of industrial Sydney Road.
The awakening started with Lightning Bolt which set off the likes Gotcha, Instinct and Bear International.
A Rhodesian born boytjie with well formed opinions and insatiable energy, Barry Wolins was on the move. Bear International was his offering. This was a time of unleashed innovation into which Barry fitted perfectly and before long his star was on the rise.
Americans have the uncanny knack of recognizing talent. They’re not shy when it comes to making offers to people they consider right for a job. Barry was quickly bagged and off he went to CA. Before long his influences were being felt in the now burgeoning global industry.
You might not be far wrong if you consider Barry brazen. Empathic might be a better description. He correctly describes this trait as being ‘unfiltered’. Many have been subject to his sharp tongue. So be it, because to succeed in the business of surf, you need to be strong in your commitment, believe enough to commit big money to your decisions and manage the most unruly athletes in just about any sport. Barry put it all out there for a few decades and most times he got it right.
For a time the industry rode a wave of incredible returns. Barry was in the thick of it. Playing it safe was not part of his vocabulary. He was never shy to liberally plough the spoils back into the sport, especially when he and Arthur Limboris ran Quiksilver in SA. With innovative marketing never seen before or since, he made it happen in a big way. That was a golden era of surfing and Barry was very much part of those responsible for creating the juice for the industry and the sport to succeed so emphatically.
Since those helicon days, when he exited stage left at just the right time (before the global financial crash in 2008), he continues to influence matters surfing in South Africa, from far off North Carolina. Nowadays much can be done with WhatsApp and good judgement. He still adds his innovative ideas to surfing on the bottom end of the Dark Continent.
Here’s Barry’s story in his own words.
I was born in Salisbury Rhodesia, my family moved to South Africa when I was about six. We first moved to Wellington in the Cape where my dad had a job with a textile mill. Soon after that he got a job with Frame Textiles in Durban, where part of his package was a housing subsidy in Montclair. It was a fairly modest lifestyle in a modest neighborhood, but it was in the age of no TV or cell phones, actually a home phone was a privilege and calls were limited, so therefore we got on with entertaining ourselves and playing outside a lot. We used to ride our bicycles to Maydon Wharf to go fishing, and on one of these trips while cycling through Clairwood in the rain my bike slid out on the wet railway lines and buckled my wheel. I broke my rod and all my tackle was all over the road and got crushed by a bus. I was devastated and had to carry all my stuff and broken bike home. I picked and sold avocados door to door for pocket money. I played soccer at Ramblers football club even though I loved the game, I was never more than average at best. My best friends were Buffalo Hastings and Billy Rushton.
When we first moved to Durban my parents sent my sister and I to boarding school in Potchefstroom for two years in order for us to learn to speak Afrikaans. It was there I met and made good friends with Marius Van Blerk, who was (and still is) a gifted artist, Through his example and my interest, I realized my artistic and creative side. We used to draw and create our own comic books .
I never learned Afrikaans.
Back to Durban where I attended Montclair primary and then onto New Forest High School. I was always in trouble at school, not for anything hectic, but more for my smart mouth and penchant for practical jokes.On my first day of high school, before I even knew where my classroom was I was sent to the Headmasters office (Mr Graham) and got six of the best for mocking one of the prefects who was dating my sister – Dork! (Long story.) My school years were a lot of fun and hold some of my fondest memories. Greg Young was my best friend still one of my closest.
How and when you started surfing:
My earliest memories of my ocean relationship, was when from the age of about seven or eight, we’d go to Brighton Beach as a family and I had one of those orange Banzai Belly Boards. This was still when the Harcourt Hotel was there and the cable car would take you back up the hill to the hotel. Buffalo and I used to hitchhike to South Beach. We made friends with a few surfers who let us use their boards every now and then. My Dad bought me an old beat up longboard which he cut down to 8’ and painted with epoxy. He had no experience with boards or the materials used, but was a gifted mechanic and handyman. In retrospect it was a pretty crappy board but I was stoked. I used to catch a train from Montclair to town, then walk with this really heavy board to South Beach. There were no surf reports and so often I’d get there and it would be howling onshore, bluebottles and jellyfish, but it didn’t matter. My first shortboard was made by some of my high school seniors Des Basnett (Ricky’s Dad) and Paul Maartens. I had saved up forever for this.
I was so stoked, it was so cool.
I hung out at South Beach, but migrated to Addington where I became friends with all the Dogtown crew. Gary Stephens, Hugh Thompson, Shaun Murphy the Dalais bros to name a few. We used to surf at Kontiki, the Wedge (the original Wedge) and Dairy (The Dairy girls were the hottest), and eventually ended up at the Bay.
How you got started in the rag trade?:
When I left school I had no idea of what I wanted to do, besides surf and have a Kombi. I worked a part time job at a shirt shop in Salisbury Arcade on Saturdays and found I really liked fashion. I had a gift for co-ordinating and selling. I ended up as a trainee buyer for Edgars and had to move to JHB. It sucked and I used to arrange lifts back to Durban most weekends. Farrell Ratner who was the head of boy’s wear division liked me and saw I hated JHB and arranged for me to work as a trainee designer and pattern maker at his buddies factory in Mobeni. I was stoked.
I aquired a flat in Broad Street and a Combi. To supplement my trainee’s salary I worked a night job at Swingles at the LA hotel in St Thomas Road. Initially I was on the door as manager/bouncer. This was the coolest club in Durban. I met all the surf stars during the July contests season. I was the guy. I would let all the internationals in and made some really good friends and connections. I also started doing mobile discos for Rueben Israel who owned Swingles and on slow nights worked the DJ booth at at the club.
I never had any issues talking on the mike or in front of people.
After working at the factory for about 3-4 years and at Swingles, Paul Naude approached me and asked if I would be interested in doing a surf movie promo trip down the coast for him and Lammo. The movie was “Going Surfing” and I recruited Gary Stephen (skateboard phenom and excellent surfer) and one of the barmen from Swingles who surfed – Rob Duncan. The three of us went on what turned out to be one of the most fun surf trips ever. We showed the movie from Umbogintwini to Plettenberg Bay, stopping everywhere there was a beach and showed the movie. It was insane fun. with some crazy stories. When we got back to Durban, I settled up the money with Paul and Mike, and I think they were really surprised that they got all of it. This lead to Paul approaching me to help them do Lightning Bolt, which was a license they had just acquired.
I was the only person they knew who surfed and knew anything about clothing manufacturing or fashion. I worked for Mike and Paul at Larmont for about 6 years. It was the era when all surf brands and products were evolving and professional surfing started. Lightning Bolt never took off due to the USA licensors not wanting the political fallout of dealing with apartheid SA.
I left Larmont and tried to start one or two things with Dave Hansen, (his parents had a clothing and screen printing factory) but that never quite worked out.
The Rise of Bear:
I sold my Yamaha 360 and bought 3 industrial machines, rented a dodgy building in Badger Lane, near Dalton Road, hired a machinist and started making track suits under the Barry Robert Designs label. I used to ride off-road bikes, and we had guys like Ian Soanes and John Pauling wearing the stuff. The brand morphed into action sports, but my connections through Larmont and the fact I used to commentate the Gunston, the Smiths Industries, the Renault and all the pro contests in Durban made it easy to make surf related garments.
My accountant John Alleson mentioned that the business would never be worth anything much if I was not there, because Barry Robert suggested a neutral name for a brand. Then I came up with Bear. In those days we used Letraset for type faces and at the bottom of the letterset page was “Letraset International Co” so I added International Co underneath the typeface I had chosen for Bear and so we were instantly a global brand.
Hugh Roe from Gunston and Peter Burness used to turn a blind eye to how I abused the pro events as a marketing vehicle for Bear. Sometimes it would have been easy to be confused as to who the major sponsor of the Gunston was. This was huge as I gave product to most of the Internationals and they were the best endorsment I could have got.
I hooked up with Mark Richards and started making MR clothing, but I never had the money to launch it properly and it just faded out .
After a while a started doing CMT (cut make and trim) for brands like Slazenger, Wrangler, Pierre Cardin, SA Clothing and Gotcha (through Paul Naude). The CMT which was cash business enabled me to finance the growth of Bear. I moved from Badger Lane to a premises in Canada Road, and added made in Canada Rd onto the labels in the garments – the RD was in a circle so it looked like a registered trade mark, a lot of people thought it was imported. Bear became one of the best and biggest active brands in the country.I had a core surf team including Jason Ribbink, Ant Scott, Dave Hansen and Solly Berkowitz to name a few.
As Bear continued to grow, I was once again short of finance, and so accepted an offer from BRM to join them (note to any young entrepreneurs – read the fine print, and no matter how good it sounds and how great the people are. The exit details of a partnership or contract are the most important.)
I paid huge school fees here.
I used to travel to the USA often to attend trade shows and look for fashion direction, and one of my best friends who worked at SA Clothing, Bruce Barbour, took a job in CA with OP. When I visited CA I stayed with him and his family. Through him I met some influential American surf industry people. Michael Tomson and Joel Cooper were flavour of the month with their Gotcha brand and this gave all South Africans in the surf wear industry a level of respect. Bruce eventually changed jobs and worked for C&C Companies who were the licensee for Gotcha knits. C&C also acquired the license to make Rusty Apparel., At the time Rusty just made surfboards and a few tees.
Rusty and the C&C people approached me to work for them and to start the Rusty apparel business. At an interview/dinner at a hotel in Long Beach CA where ASR was being held, Angie (Rusty’s wife and partner) went to the bathroom and had someone try to steal her purse. At that point, I remember having doubts about my intended move. I returned to SA, told the guys at BRM that I was leaving and thought I had enough money in the brand I created and ran, to comfortably start a new life in CA. Once again read the fine print. The Bear contract with BRM was drawn up by BRM and I never noticed that the trade mark Bear was never included in the assets, and the business was worth the value of the nett assets. What was one of the biggest and most profitable brands in SA was not worth much in the way they valued the nett assets. Am I bitter – no. I was angry for a while, but had accepted the Rusty offer and headed of to Southern California, a place I had always dreamed of.
I arrived in CA just after Christmas in ’86 to an extremly cold winter. After summer in SA this was a huge shock. To add to my concern my arrival also coincided with a huge earthquake. This really got my attention. It woke me up in the night, everyone was screaming and rushing into the street. Quickly gone was the impression of the sunny California dream with perfect surf. The way the clothing industry is run in USA is completely different to SA, and it was a huge learning curve for me.
I can remember being in a meeting and the owner was briefing me – he mentioned it was a 1:15 start 3:15 cancel. I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about and just nodded and wrote it all down thinking why and what started at quarter past one and finished at quarter past three. I didn’t know at that stage of my Californian baptism that in the USA they write the month first then the day then the year. 1:15 start meant that the product started shipping on the 15th Jan and last day of delivery was 15th March after which the customer could cancel.
Trade shows were the way most sales were done with the smaller brands, and preparing for these was always stressful.
I lived near Salt Creek and this was my local beach, I used to hang with Lista Sagnelli, Dog Siedle, Bruce Barbour, Mike Savage and Paul Naude when he arrived to work for Gotcha, and became good friends with Jim Jenks whos dad started OP, and of course Rusty and all the sales guys, who all surfed.
It was in CA that all the friends and connections I had made during the pro circuit times in SA proved invaluable, and also gave me some cred in a foreign environment. I would drive for an hour and a half each way every day to work to near Huntington and often would have to drive to San Diego to see Rusty. I spent too much time in my car.
I made good friends with Pat O’Connel a little grom who used to surf Salt Creek along with Vinnie De la Pena.
Everyone wanted to ride a Rusty surfboard, it truly was a core surf company. It was an amazing time to be part of the industry – crazy, wild and creative.
Snowboarding had just started, and surf was on fire! The snowboard companies were out of control. Their parties at trade shows were legendary in their madness.
At one trade show a certain snowboard brand had a booth and if you placed a minimum $5k order you could go into the back of the booth and choose a hooker!
That was the norm. I heard some retailers did the dirty deed and then cancelled their orders.
Rip Curl and the Search:
After about four or five years at Rusty I was approached by Rod Adams of Rip Curl Australia to take over as president of the USA operation, at the time insolvent due to a whole comedy of errors. I took the job.
This was way harder than I expected Unlike the C&C and Rusty businesses, we were understaffed, under financed and had burnt quite a few bridges.
The only thing we had going for us were the accessories and that the wetsuits were not too bad.
I ended up traveling about 6 months of the year between Hong Kong, China, India and Australia.
Eventually we managed to turn it around, but were always faced with the problem of being a “wetsuit” brand, and why should a retailer give us rack space for apparel which was reserved for Quik, Bong and Gotcha. Eventually we started opening destination Rip Curl stores and we revamped and changed the Trestles store into a flagship destination store.
I went into the store a few weeks ago while in San Clemente and its even better now and ripping.
It was a fun time and Brian Singer and Claw (the founders) just wanted to surf and ski and be solvent. We had meetings in Bali, on Martin Daly’s boat in Indo, in Hossegor, it was a great time.
I’m also proud of the fact that I was there and part of the whole original Search Campaign.
With Derek Hynd and Sonny Miller, some of the best footage for the project came from SA. JBay – Currens first surf and the Scottburgh movie that was claimed as move of the decade. We had a fantastic team that included Tom Curren, Damien Hardman, Shane Beschen, Justin Matteson, Frankie Oberholzer, Pancho Sullivan and Brock Little, pretty much everyone because – those who that clothing sponsors also wore our wetsuits by choice.
Tom Curren has always been a humble guy and I think the Search campaign got a little too much for him at times. He had bailed on a few photo shoots, and one time specifically we had arranged a shoot with Tom, Frankie and Art Brewer (at the time the most expensive photographer around). The first day Tom didn’t pitch so Brian Singer called me and asked me to make sure Tom got to the shoot which had been moved to a few days later. I called Tom and arranged for him to come and stay at my house – the plan was that I would take him in the morning early to the beach for the shoot.
Before first light, the next morning, I went to the room Tom was staying in and he wasn’t there.
The bed was not slept in and to make it worse I had no idea where he was or even how to get hold of him. I had to call Art and Brian and tell them the bad news. He did however leave a bag full of tapes of his music under my bed and when I left USA to come back to SA I gave them to Sonny Miller to return.
Pat O’Connell was a good friend and when he got the part in Endless Summer 2 he organized for us to make him suits for the movie. Ripcurl got a lot of exposure out of it. With not a huge budget we were good at ambush marketing with brands that didn’t make suits back then. Every day was a new adventure, we used to make suits for the A list actors and musicians in LA , Chris Isaak was as stoked a surfer as you could get.
Living in California:
Great times, and living in Laguna Beach was not normal or typical California. There were a lot of South Africans living in and around Laguna, mostly from Durban and the majority from Bay of Plenty . To mention a few: Michael Tomson, Joel Cooper, Paul Naude, Mike Savage, Mark Price, Graham Stapleberg, Lista Sagnelli, Dog Siedle, Nick Bower, Matt Austin, Mike Sagorin, James Sampson, Brian Mc Laughlin (although he was from Ape Town) Dianna Garreau, Nigel Gevisser, Michael Ginsberg, Eddie Wolhuter, Mark Chadwick, Shaun Tomson, Paul Tomson, Steve Wilson, Mark Bense, Wayne Shaw, Craig Purkiss and I’m sure there a whole lot more I’ve forgotten.
I got hooked on snow skiing, something I had never done and sometimes used to drive up to Big Bear early in the morning, ski for a few hours and be at work by lunchtime. I used to travel a lot to the East Coast, and also to India even doing one trip to China, when it was very communist and basic.
Surfing was not as easy as it was in Durban due to distances and crowding, but it was all that the Beach Boys said it was.
It was always fun receiving friends from SA, and they visited pretty regularly (mostly the clothing people who used to come to trade shows.)
Peter Lawson came to stay once, which brings to mind an incident that still today is unexplained . Peter used to be on the pro tour and had a lot of friends, I was staying in a gated community and the management was really strict about letting unauthorised people into the complex. Anyway one night Jim Hogan, one of Villian’s good friends came over (they were hanging out and talking and I went to bed).
The next morning I woke up and went upstairs to find the front door open and Villian lying passed out on the tiled floor naked ?
When I woke him up he had drool out the side of his mouth and tile marks on his face. All he could remember was going to the Red Onion with Jim – thats it, no more . How he got back into the neighbourhood or through our security, nobody knows. How he ended up naked? Nobody knows.
The best thing about living in CA, is I met my wife Michelle and we have just celebrated our 21st anniversary.
Coming back to SA:
The whole time I was in CA, I stayed in contact with Arthur Limbouris, Oliver Dawber and Karen Van Rensburg. We had worked together at Bear. They had started their own clothing business “Musgrave Agencies”. They would come and stay with me in CA on their many trips, and every time I came back to SA, I’d hook up with them, bring them some ideas and give them design direction. One morning I received a call from Norm Innes, of Quiksilver in Australia, (whom I’d met on one of my many trips to Torquay in Victoria Australia). At the time Torquay was a small surf town, without traffic lights, no chain stores nor take-aways. Rip Curl and Quiksilver were literally across the road from each other. Everyone surfed together and also hung out at the Torquay pub together.
The highlight every year for the town was the Rip Curl vs Quiksilver footy match, so on all my Rip Curl travels I had met most of the Quik people.
He asked me if I wanted to do Quiksilver in SA, as they had fired Barry Dave the previous licensee of Quik in SA about 18 months previously and wanted to get started again. They wanted someone with global experience to do it this time around.
I called Arthur and asked him if he wanted to do it, he said yes, I called Norm back and it was done. It was that easy. No contract just a verbal commitment.
I moved back to SA in May of ’96 and we started in July. We eventually got a proper license agreement with Quik but it was really simple, they just wanted it to work and helped us as much as they could. The reason the company was so successful was that Arthur and I were always on the same page. He had his functions and I had mine, but we could both cover for each other when necessary. In thirteen years we had one argument and I was in the wrong. I trusted every decision he made and I believe the trust was mutual. At the time when we started with Quik, the other surf brands were just cruising, not spending much on marketing. The stores looked crap and everyone was copying Cheron with pigment dyed tees etc. There was no money in events and not much in sponsorship.
We didn’t follow anyone. I remember I brought some floral nylon boardshort fabric back from USA, (Gavin Spowart of Gotcha told me we would never be able to sell floral boardshorts). Well these became our best sellers.
‘Never’ and ‘can’t’ weren’t part of our vocabulary or marketing strategy.
We spent a load on marketing, we took over the sponsorship of SA Champs and offered prize money – a first in SA. We brought out Tony Hawk who designed the skatepark at Gateway, and did a national tour.
“Kelly was king and was friends with us which helped so much in marketing. It was never a mission for him to help when he was in SA.”
We would host a team dinner during the Gunston which became a legendary event with most internationals like Taylor Knox, Pat O and others in attendance.
One Time Danny Wills and Mick Campbell made the finals of the Mr Price but couldn’t surf because they would have missed their connection out of JHB to the next CT event. Arthur and I arranged and paid for a charter jet to take them to JHB after the finals along with Taylor Knox and sent Ryan Hurter our marketing guy to make sure they got on.
We rented and paid for a luxury bus and branded it very strikingly and cool graphics, to do a trip up and down the coast taking groms to surf with all our pros. Then we took it to JHB and Pretoria with some international skateboarders to stoke out and skate with the local inland groms.
We brought Martin Daly’s Crossing boat to South Africa, and had it in the line up at Supers on Christmas day.
We turned our retails stores into marketing vehicles with insane signage: The first to do photo light boxes, marine fish tanks in the stores, giant banks of tv screens playing surf videos all day, giant octopus custom built into the ceiling of the La Lucia store with fibre optic lights in the tentacles. Our marketing was innovative. We were the first to give a way a free DVD in Zigzag magazine. We also were the first to give a way a DVD as a hangtag on boardshorts.
QS became the ‘Boardshort Company’. We sponsored the World Champs in Durban in 2002 (which SA won) and a six star WS event also in Durban. Instore we provided in signage for free to all our dealers and were the first to build sections. We were also the first in women’s surf wear with Roxy (although Cheron had been doing Country Feeling for a long time but it wasn’t really aimed at core surf girls).
We started the ‘Roxy Learn to Surf’ tour of the coast every December and the Roxy pro event.
These initiatives resulted it so many girls surfing for the first time, and a whole new industry grew out of this. I’m proud of what we accomplished, and unfortunately I haven’t seen any creative marketing or innovation since.
All the innovation currently in the surf industry had and still does, come from surfboards, both in design and construction.
Other brands followed and soon there was a very competitive surf industry with great surf shops, and a thriving surf community, which resulted in some amazing surfers coming out of SA.
Travis Logie, Greg Emslie, Damien Fahrenfort, Wok, Davey Weare, Paul Canning, Jordy, Rosy Hodge to name a few.
The Original Goodwave:
With all the marketing we were doing being big, global and quite corporate in nature, at a regular strategy meeting with Craig Sims , he mentioned that we need to do something more local and cool.
This is when I came up with the original concept of the Goodwave.
At the time a few local specialty events like big wave comps existed but never ran, because the criteria could never be met. I wanted to do a core local event that had to run.
It was to run on one day start at 7am finish at 4pm with a R1 entry fee, and a huge first prize.
(This year its R120k and competitors will have access to jet ski assist when the New Pier is good but getting out is a big mission with four man heat. So that there is continuous action and surfing – a specatators dream).
It became a huge event. When the call was made it became mad scramble to get the branding up, the contestants, the judges, officials and food there, Like putting the Gunston together in 48 hrs. But its become iconic and each new swell is judged by the criteria, “Is it Goodwave good?” We took a lot of flak because of the way and who was invited into the event, and still do, my answer to the haters is always: ”If you want to put up the prize money and run your own event, feel free, then you can invite whoever you like!”
This was our event and we feel the best surfers at the time where/are chosen, and its also not a grom event.
Update on the Goodwave:
We didn’t run last year, and still in the waiting period for this year. To bring it back, I mentioned the event to my long time BF Gavin Varejes and he arranged our sponsorship from Cell C. Gavin also helped a lot us with SA Surfing Legends, where our mission is to help grow junior surfing in SA. Salut Meneer Varejes!
Quik international needed to buy us out, because Arthur and I were both reaching a stage where the business was so good and profitable and the entire infrasructure and business was ours. The sales force, computer systems, leases for buildings -all belonged to us. We had it so totally covered that if we didn’t renew our license, Quik wouldn’t have a business in SA and would have to start from scratch.
They bought us out right before the market crash, and I had a three year deal with them.
Because Michelle is American, I was a legal resident of the USA and my groms were naturalised USA citizens, the choice was easy. Most people are not as fortunate to have the same options as we did. The boys were in grade 1 and 3 and if we were going to move back we needed to do it then.
We decided to move to North Carolina, a state I fell in love with on a promo trip with Derek Hynd, Tom Curren and Shane Beschen for Rip Curl earlier. Michelle had never been to the state so it took some convincing. I was set on moving to Wrighstville Beach and then we heard horror stories about hurricanes (which are not true) and moved to Raleigh which is about two hours from the coast. We have been here 10 years now.
Do I miss it all? I miss how it was, and the fun that we had building it and trying new things all the time. I miss all the amazing people we had at Quik. I really miss our vacations in St Francis. I miss my friends. I miss bunny chows. I miss the convenience of surfing in Durban.
I don’t miss the taxis, the beggars, the crime, the traffic and the corruption.
I believe surfings future is going to be great, in fact better than great.
There are more people surfing now than ever before. Here in USA there is a big movement by local board manufacturers against Chinese imports and cheap boards at Costco.
My belief is that because of the cheap Costco boards result in more people trying to surf, getting stoked. Once they get a little better, they will buy a real board from a real surf shop, and all the other stuff that goes with it.
Wave pools are being built globally faster than anything, from Olympic training centres to recreational surfing venues.
These will grow surfing exponentially in areas that never had a surf market before. It will be a whole new industry, with young entrepreneurs and brands.
Hopefully the WSL can figure out how to sustain the competitive side.
The Olympics will also create new opportunities and heroes.