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Hanging at Michael Tomson's house

By Tiffany Montgomery
September 07, 2007 7:15 AM

I spent some time Wednesday with Michael Tomson, the former professional surfer and design guru/owner of Gotcha, a groundbreaking brand in the 1980s and 90s.


We grabbed coffee at Andree's Patisserie in Laguna Beach then went to his house to look at the book he is writing. "Going Big: Gotcha and the Evolution of Surf Style" will be published in January.

Michael TomsonMichael Tomson at home in Laguna. He also has an apartment
in New York and a house in Hawaii. Michael thinks surf companies
need to take more design chances.


We also talked about the state of the industry. He thinks surf companies have gotten a bit stale and need to move out of "safe mode."


Michael and partner Joel Cooper, a friend from college in South Africa, started Gotcha out of a small house in Laguna in 1978 using the garage as a warehouse. They went from zero to $120 million in revenue in seven years, Michael said, and created some ground-breaking styles, marketing and product categories for surf clothes in the process.


The two sold the company in 1997. By then, the brand had lost its way.


Michael's design sense is very respected in the industry and he works as a consultant for several surf brands. One president of a local surf company calls him a "rock star."


Michael, 52, loves the industry, but is frustrated by what he sees as the lack of risk taking. The bigger the companies get, the safer they play things fashion-wise, he said. Everybody copies everyone else, Michael said, and each season offer slight tweaks to last seasons styles instead of breaking out in a new direction.


"It's rear view mirror," he said. "They've got to take chances. Throw it out there. Run the risk of looking silly. For every one that's a dud, two will hit."


Michael thinks the lack of original thinking is hurting industry sales overall. With no innovative styles in stores, consumers have no reason to buy something new. It's the perfect opportunity for a new or existing brand to make a move, he said.


"This is the time to really step out," he said. "I certainly see a lot of opportunities on the product and marketing level."


I asked him why he didn't start a new brand, and he was non-committal. Been there, done that, I guess.


He'll be at the ASR trade show in San Diego this weekend, talking to friends and checking things out. In addition to his other projects, he consults with a company in Tokyo that's involved in the industry, looking for potential licensing or acquisition deals. The company also owns the Japanese rights to Gotcha and Counter Culture, and Michael designs collections for both in Japan.


He also forecasts trends, and here's his insight into spring lines: Look for men's shorts to grow shorter and the return of neon colors.


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