Living in Style: Brian Bent

Brian Bent is not pretending or acting. He is what, and whom, he presents himself to be. And he is great.

What he presents, is a hot-rodding rockabilly surfer circa 1968, or maybe 1953, I can’t pin down exactly when. You can find images of him all over the internet riding a checkered surfboard while wearing a striped shirt and captain’s cap, ya know, like the one Thurston Howell III wore on Gilligan’s Island.

The pics look great. But what is even better, is that on any given day you can easily run into Brian out in the lineup at Doheny or San Onofre, and he will look exactly like he does in those photos, and he will ride that log for all its worth. He can surf.

When he is done he will haul that log into the parking lot, load it onto a homemade hot rod, and head home to paint.

His paintings are what first caught my attention.

People have been paying attention to his art for decades. He is not new. His work is a loose mix of what appears to be fashion illustration, shapes, and storytelling. He renders spindly stylized characters like you might imagine would exist if Jack Skellington targeted the world of Gidget. He made a splash back in the 80’s when he was designing the interiors of the Becker surf shops and his work was eventually picked up by galleries. He has been and still is, producing.

Producing as in continually creating. Making. All sorts of stuff.

I met Brian as he and his wife were headed from the beach back to their car. I was (still am) just some soggy kook in a wetsuit hollering “Hey Brian” and they stopped and graciously listened as I told Brian I loved his art. He was gracious. They were nice.

Then last weekend he opened up his home for a “garage sale” and Mrs. Hammas and I went to check it out. The Bents were exactly as they appeared at the beach, super gracious, and their home is the best representation of a stylized life I have ever seen. They execute a designed life to perfection.

In front of their modest sized house is a teal, tailfinned car with anchors painted on the cab, then three steel home-made hot rods, and of course all the vehicles are outfitted to carry a surf board. In the garage are tools upon tools and a quiver of hand painted longboards next to a pile of banged up single tailed skateboards.

The house is a collection of mid-mod vignettes made up of furniture, instruments, and art. Skatalites played on a record player, easy going people not wearing shoes milled about the kitchen, and the Bents appeared sincerely happy we were there. They showed us around, shared a bit about their life, and went out of their way to make us feel comfortable.

And I was. Thanks to them.

This comfort came largely from the Bent’s authenticity. The 60’s, or 40’s for that matter, are long gone and most of us do not dress or design a life like the Bent’s so it might be natural to assume they might be a little… weird. Or act eccentric. But they don’t. They are, again, normal. In the best possible way. In the way that makes a person a real person rather than a performance. In a way that makes Brian a master of style rather than a relic.

Brian is not living in the past, he is living in style.

And I didn’t even get to his music.

Birdwell Beach Britches:

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.IMG_6570

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.IMG_6498

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.IMG_6492The 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.IMG_6489While 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.IMG_6597And 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.IMG_6494

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*IMG_6506

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.IMG_6566

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.IMG_6594