In 1961, back in the days of Gidget and the Endless Summer, a seamstress named Carrie Birdwell Mann started making and selling swimshorts at her Orange County home. More than 50 years later the company is still in O.C. making pretty much the same thing, and for the most part- only that one thing.
We call them boardshorts. The world knows about boardshorts thanks to Old Navy and Target, but surfers know about boardshorts largely thanks to Birdwell. Mrs. Mann invented the shorts specifically for them.
Not to take away from what Quiksilver, O’neill, or any other surf brand have accomplished, but when it comes to boardshorts, Birdwell is what all of them are trying to be.
Like any responsible adult, the folks at the factory were a little leary of me when I showed up asking questions. But once they determined that, as they put it, “wasn’t up to any weird @*!!” they were more than happy to show me around.The family sold off the business, or as the current owners say “entrusted” them in 2014. Since then, a couple things have changed, while some other significant things have not.
For instance, they started using actual patters.While this may have removed some whimsy from the whole purchasing experience, it did make predicting if the shorts were going to fit a little more reliable.
They also updated the van.And by updated I mean they painted it not fixed the engine, which is why I found it parked comfortably in the factory parking lot.
What they didn’t change were the people working the floor. They have remarkably low turnover and most of the folks sewing the shorts today, are the same folks who sewed them ten years ago.
This might be in part an explanation for what else hasn’t changed, which is that these shorts are nearly bomb proof. I think these shorts are what the authorities use to identify the victims of shark attacks since the shorts are what always survive.
*I said that not them*
It is interesting that in our modern world of fast fashion and quarterly shareholder returns, there can exist a company and brand that survives without attempting to broaden offerings in order to capture market share or lowering quality to widen the margin and spur more turns.
They didn’t do that and they are still right there.
Like I said before, I don’t surf.
But if taking steps past big box mass retail is a sign- I might be on my way.