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Insights from Jeff Yokoyama, design guru, brand creator

By Tiffany Montgomery
May 23, 2011 9:02 AM

Designer, entrepreneur and business owner Jeff Yokoyama gave some interesting insights into his creative vision and serial entrepreneurial history in a Q & A session with SIMA Executive Director Sean Smith at Surf Summit.


Jeff has created several brands over the course of his career, including Maui & Sons, Pirate Surf, Modern Amusement and Generic Youth, which he started with his daughter.


Passion was always the driver of his career rather than money, and he had no trouble walking away from brands - and potential paydays - once the “warm water” was gone.


Jeff said he doesn’t measure success by volume, or dollars sold. But by the ability to pick oneself back up and go back out there if something doesn’t work out.


He wanted those in the room at Surf Summit to know, “You get another shot at it. We are all creative and entrepreneurial and sometimes we forget that when doing the day-to day” work.


In 1980 when he created Maui & Sons, Jeff realized there was a new crop of surfer kids coming up, kids like Danny Kwock that were looking for fashion. He saw what they were wearing and the hairstyles they wanted because Jeff was cutting hair at the time.


He saw an opportunity in the market, an opening, something that felt right, his “warm water” feeling. He always looks for that warm water when he takes on a project.


Maui & Sons was born, and became a big success and an influential early brand in the market. But things eventually changed, he said, and while he doesn’t consider himself a businessman, he does recognize good business from bad business, so he left.


In 1989, he then started a brand called Pirate Surf, an opposite brand to Maui Surf, because he saw the grunge movement starting.


Pirate Surf’s biggest hit was an acid wash flannel. Jeff told a great story about how when trying to do the acid wash, the flannels accidently ended up with holes.


He didn’t think the shirts could sell but took a bag of them to Huntington Surf & Sport to show Aaron Pai. As he was showing Aaron, kids in the store saw the flannels, and loved them.


He knew he had a hit. Jeff and his partner eventually logged $1 million in sales from that one item alone, and it was just the two of them working out of Jeff’s garage, he said.


Quiksilver eventually bought Pirate Surf, and Jeff worked there for about a year. Jeff said it was a lot of fun and he learned a lot, but after about a year he felt the warm water leaving so he departed.


He then went to work at Stussy with Shawn Stussy, with the idea that Jeff would eventually step into a key design role.


He worked with Shawn for a year, and it became clear to Jeff that he could never fill Shawn’s shoes, Jeff said.


“He’s brilliant,” Jeff said. “He is so creative.”


Jeff told a story about Shawn needing to come up with new T-shirt designs. They’d drive to Taco Bell, and come back, and within two or three hours Shawn would create six more designs that he would sketch and draw and ink.


Working with Shawn, Jeff learned lesson after creative lesson. Even back then, Shawn was talking to people like photographer Mario Testino, the fashion label Comme des Garcons.


“He knew people back then that were moving the market,” Jeff said.


Jeff told the audience at Surf Summit they should educate themselves about Stussy and its history.


See Page 2 for the story of Modern Amusement, Generic Youth



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