Finishing the Board Shorts: A Pro Surfer Turns to Clothes
Photo by Nanette GonzalesThe guys behind Freedom Artists, an independent surf wear company, man their booth at the Agenda trade show.
At 5 p.m. on a Wednesday, Pascal Stansfield, who is as stand-up as they come, who always props the other guys instead of himself, who always makes it easy for everyone else even if he's the one under pressure, finally feels his patience slip from him like a commuter stuck at a green light as a pedestrian slowly inches across an intersection.
It's the board shorts. He's standing in a factory south of Los Angeles waiting for samples of board shorts — surf trunks — the ones that are late, the ones the factory was going to have ready last week. And no one seems to know what's going on. Nothing other than, no, they're not ready, a status communicated wordlessly, with a shrug, as he's been walked through row after row of workers on sewing machines stitching clothing that is not his, until finally he's parked in the factory's office to wait, as two men talk in a language he doesn't understand about office lights that aren't working right.
Flicker, flicker, flicker. The lights dim and dip and pop and the men ignore him as they troubleshoot.
It's not the heat that makes Stansfield's insides wilt. Tomorrow is the annual L.A. stop for Agenda, the trade show for action sports–related vendors — clothing and equipment companies that cater to the surf/skate/snowboard markets and lifestyle. Freedom Artists, the independent company that 34-year-old pro surfer Stansfield co-owns with Patrick Jensen and Tom Reese, has a booth. So, yes, he needs those spring 2014 board shorts samples now.
The plan was to pick up them up by 4 p.m. and be back on the road with a fighting chance of missing the worst of rush-hour traffic, to get back out to Freedom Artists' factory in Westlake, where, even now, Jensen awaits the batch of specially manufactured, soft-cotton tees Stansfield picked up earlier from the dye factory. Because Agenda is important, yes — but the company excels at rapid turnarounds. They have orders that need to be silk-screened and shipped starting Monday.
A factory supervisor finally arrives. "Come and see the progress we've made," he says. And so Stansfield goes.
Stansfield has been moving in that easy, loping, relaxed gait of his, which gives away nothing of what has been going on inside since 7 a.m., an hour at which, for most of his life, he might have already finished a long drive or overnight flight and gotten in the water, paddling out to beautiful Indonesian reef waves on someone else's dime, or waves in Iceland, Norway, Ireland — countries he chose because he wanted to see them as much as explore the surf. Enjoying the sweet life of a "free surfer," a pro who goes not the competition route but is paid to land images in surfing magazines. A man who could be out in the water right now at First Point if there were waves near his old-school Malibu apartment, or if there wasn't Freedom Artists.
But in 2007, a friend he'd surfed with since he was a kid, Patrick Jensen — who'd been designing, silk-screening and running a company since he was 16 — asked Stansfield if he was interested in starting a clothing company. He said yes.
Then Stansfield and Jensen, kicking it in a pedicab, of all things, outside another industry trade show, had run into Tom Reese, who slayed at the sales and operations end. The three hit it off, and Freedom Artists came to life: all three recruiting and working with artists who developed the company's visuals, with Jensen handling design and production, Reese running the company and sales, and Stansfield heading marketing and sponsorships. The endeavor was growing, sure, the silk screens always running, their lines expanding, but they were still very much hands-on.
So Stansfield is not out on a wave but driving around town to feed the dream, even as his immediate dream — beating traffic — is wrecked. From his apartment to the factory in Westlake; then on his first long run of the day, ET Surf in Hermosa Beach; then to the Long Beach Convention Center for the load-in, to set up the booth by himself, as Jensen and Reese keep things going in the factory; to sitting in traffic among the big rigs on the 710; to a quick in-and-out to pick up completed, button-up shirt samples for Agenda; to three circles around a block in another section of industrial L.A. because the dye factory he's looking for is so camouflaged that it reads as an abandoned property; to, finally, the board shorts samples run — the land of flicker, flicker, flicker — where he follows the supervisor who has come to get him, only to find that, basically, there has been no progress.
As he looks down at the pieces of three different board shorts, he sees that the solitary man assigned to the job is not even close on the waistband of the first pattern. That's the hardest part.
When you're a small, quality-focused business in America circa 2013, your board shorts samples might get bumped to the back of the line by a big order. That's life.
Stansfield's stomach sinks even as he figures out the solution: It'll be the next day; he'll drive back the next morning, he'll get there a couple of hours before Agenda opens and he'll pick them up. The man promises him, assures him, they'll be ready.
Yet the next morning, on the day of the show, at 7 a.m., he is there and they are not. What Stansfield finds instead is the factory padlocked shut, an arriving worker who takes him around the side, and the board shorts samples left abandoned, still in pieces from the night before. "You've got to be kidding me," he thinks.
Across the city, a couple of hours later: Agenda has opened and is already rolling with the rumble of a trade show — thousands talking among tricked-out, fantastical branded spaces. There's a big surf company with a faux altar that creates a wall of privacy for those doing business within. The skateboard company that, during the height of the show, will feel more like a college kegger party than anything resembling a trade show that can make or break you. The entity that has positioned a perfectly restored, vintage VW bug under a stack of surfboards, a sculpture at the heart of a booth that itself has been tricked out to look like an art gallery. Showtime.
It is around 9:30 a.m. when the first appointment arrives at the Freedom Artists booth to hook up with Reese and Stansfield. They're ready.
The button-ups hang at the front of the booth's racks. The tees are behind, hats above and, centered on the table, three evocative designs — the board shorts. A photo negative of a palm tree blowing in the wind haunts the black fabric of the first. The second employs a bouncy, Keith Haring–influenced, cartoony style — lines radiating from brightly colored surf-world iconography — while the third is a dreamy, sexy, blue-and-white pattern. Picked up on a final last-minute run by one of the company designers, pried from the jaws of flicker, flicker, flicker land.
Stansfield leans in to welcome the buyers — Blue Tomato, a European retailer — with a smile that makes it easy for everyone else, even if he's the one under pressure.
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