Union Surfboards, menswear with good vibrations
In 2014, California-native Chris Williams hopped on a plane to New York City, trading his finance job in San Francisco for a chance to pursue his passions on a more professional level. A few years later, this staunch surfer and talented board shaper continues to “do right by surfers” with his Brooklyn-based surfboard company Union Surfboards, now a fixture in the budding New York surf scene.
Whether he’s shaping his own boards, or offering custom work to his ever-growing customer base, it’s obvious Williams has the ocean coursing through his veins; this month, he’s launching a new adventure inspired by one of his other passions – men’s fashion. A minimalist foray into what he calls “Surf Traditional,” this collection combines the quality of Japanese fabrics with simple, surfer staples (no bold graphics necessary). From his family home in Maine, Williams chats with us about his debut men’s collection, the New York surf culture and what makes the perfect surfboard.
COOLS: First things first: Is there such a thing as the perfect surfboard?
Chris Williams: That’s a funny question because, on a design level, there is no such thing as a perfect surfboard, because you pick a surfboard depending on the wave conditions on any given day. If the waves are small, you’re going to ride a longboard, but if the waves are really good and barreling, then a shortboard’s going to be a better pick; but sometimes you’ll find a surfboard that will do exactly what you want it to do. And this even happens on a professional level – you’ll hear surfers like Kelly Slater say, “I’ve got a magic surfboard.” They’ll ride it a few times and then put it away and only pull it out when they need something they can really trust; those are magic surfboards. If there’s anything close to a “perfect surfboard,” those are it, but they don’t come around all the time.
COOLS: How many boards do you usually shape in a month?
CW: Oh, gosh. On average, we probably do 15 to 20 in month; so far this year, we’ve made close to 85.
COOLS: Wow, that’s quite a number, especially since they’re all shaped by hand.
CW: I mean, the number keeps going up, but yeah, it varies month to month. Sometimes in the winter, when it becomes a bit more challenging [to surf], people stop buying surfboards as much, obviously, but in the summer – and in the spring especially – they come out of their dens and things start to get really busy. Really, really busy.
COOLS: Are you in your workshop (shaping bay) at the moment?
CW: I’m actually up in Maine right now, spending some time with my mom and dad. We have a place by the beach, so it’s really just back and forth between the house and the beach for me; it’s really just a family spot. My mom’s been coming here since she was a kid. My great-great-grandfather, Arthur Sewall, was actually the governor of Maine for a while and was a shipbuilder up here. I guess this is where my connection to the ocean originated.
COOLS: It’s like you have salt water running through your veins. Are you originally from Maine?
CW: No, actually, I’m originally from California. I grew up in Menlo Park by Palo Alto and Silicon Valley and lived there until I went to college in South Carolina. I went there to sail for their college sailing team but ended up finishing school at the University of California in Santa Barbara. Then I worked in finance for about two years in San Francisco, and then moved to New York in 2014 and that’s when we opened up Union.
COOLS: What attracted you to New York?
CW: I think I’ve always had a connection to the East Coast; I mean, having spent so much time in Maine as a kid, I just love it over here. Although California’s great, I really wanted to be in a place where I could access Maine a bit more easily, as opposed to having to fly across the country. So I felt like New York gave me the opportunity to do something I really wanted to do professionally, without knowing what that was. I felt like there was an opportunity to try and do something different in New York – but deep down I really wanted to be closer to Maine.
COOLS: That’s cool – and a huge leap of faith. What inspired you to open Union Surfboards?
CW: When I was living in San Francisco, I was working a lot, but after work I would go surfing. I was always in the water and that’s when I started making my own surfboards. Since I was spending so much money on buying three or four throughout the year, I decided I would start making them on my own, as an economical way to have all the boards I wanted. When I moved to New York, I didn’t move to start a business, but I felt like there were already so many people there doing things they were passionate about and figuring out ways to make it work professionally. It was just a leap of faith, but I moved out and opened up a shop just to continue making my own surfboards – and that’s how the business started.
COOLS: And then, of course, you became a major part of the growing surf scene there. How would you describe the surf culture in New York?
CW: Well, the surf culture in New York is very young and still trying to figure out exactly what it is. There are so many people who surf in New York; but California’s surf culture, it’s already so deeply entrenched in a wider number of people’s lives than it is on the East Coast. I mean, people think about surfing and associate it with California more than they would New York; it’s never really been known as a surf destination, or a place where somebody could live and surf on the weekends.
It was just a leap of faith, but I moved out and opened up a shop just to continue making my own surfboards – and that’s how the business started.
But with so many people living in the city, there being waves at Rockaway occasionally, and there being more ways to get out to the beach now in New York (on the train and on the ferry), you’re seeing people realize that it’s something we can actually go out and do. Now that it’s more accessible, you’re really starting to see the culture becoming something. So, yeah, California’s surf culture is already so developed, but New York is still very, very young.
COOLS: Which beach has been your favorite to surf so far?
CW: We surf out in Rockaway most of the time, because it’s the closest spot that usually picks up the same kind of swell you would get if you were going further east to Montauk. Montauk’s generally a little bit bigger and more consistent throughout the year, and you could probably surf more days throughout the year if you’re further east, but living in Brooklyn, Rockaway’s the closest spot.
COOLS: How would you say Union is different than other surf shops?
CW: Well, we’re a surfboard company; I mean, we obviously have a clothing line coming out, but that’s what differentiates us from at least the other surf-related brands in New York, like Saturdays and Pilgrim. Saturdays has become a fashion brand, and Pilgrim is really just a boutique surf shop catering to people who want to buy products that are more craft-oriented – as opposed to lower-cost accessible things that people like, and things that are actually affordable for surfers. We want to provide products that are fundamental and also affordable to surfers. At Union, we’re really just trying to cater to surfers as opposed to being a large-scale fashion brand. That’s really it: We just want to do right by surfers.
COOLS: And one way you do that is by allowing customers to customize their own boards?
CW: Pretty much. Yeah, I would say 90 percent buy a custom board. We go through a process of talking about what they want on a physical level (like the design) and then on to the next level. If they want a picture of their mom put on the surfboard, we can do that too.
That’s really it: We just want to do right by surfers.
COOLS: I take it you’ve done that for someone?
CW: We’ve done some pretty crazy things. One of the first customs we ever did was for this girl who wanted to have a surfboard that emulated her favorite bottle of Rosé. So it was pink and it had the same pattern as the wine bottle. People, especially in New York, are coming to us to buy custom things because I think people appreciate having something that’s personalized, but in many cases people don’t necessarily want to even go and surf. They just want a surfboard as a piece of art.
COOLS: So tell me about your men’s collection.
CW: When we started the brand, we always thought we would introduce clothing at some point; we wanted to make clothing we knew surfers would wear. Our creative director Charlie and I have, combined, been surfing for over 20 years, so we know what surfers like to wear, but we also wanted to develop a clothing line that could survive the fashion standards in New York, especially in the category of it being surf clothing – common clothing for surfers.
COOLS: Is that what surfers like to wear?
CW: They like to wear flannels and plaids. They’re not the most fashionable of people, in terms of knowing emerging brands and fashion trends. They have their own routine stuff – stuff they wear in the wintertime and stuff they wear in the summertime – with T-shirts, board shorts and stuff they can wear to the beach; something that is durable and traditional. But the one style you see constantly with surfers is plaids and flannels.
COOLS: In addition to the clothing line, how else has Union evolved since opening in 2014?
CW: Well, since then we’ve maintained a sense that we’re about enabling surfers and allowing them to become more involved in the design of their own surfboards, but we’ve added a modern contemporary feel to it. We definitely favor minimalism over loud graphics, and we like to keep things pretty simple and under-complicated. It was a very colorful brand back then, but now it’s more black and white and minimal.
COOLS: Right, and you definitely see that in your new clothing line; it’s minimalist and filled with quality Japanese fabrics – that and it’s perfect for the beach and the city.
CW: Yeah, since 2014, we’ve only felt more and more confident with that direction, in just keeping things simple and timeless. If it’s somebody living in New York, if it’s a surfer, he’s looking for clothing that’s affordable, something he can wear out at night, and on the weekends in Soho, but that he can also wear to the beach that same day. We wanted to make high-quality clothing that allows people to feel comfortable in any type of setting, but at the same time keep the style very “Surf Traditional.”
COOLS: Will you be following the seasonal fashion calendar?
CW: No, we’re not going to be swapping styles out as much as other fashion brands, or doing seasonal releases. We’re introducing collections of clothing that will stay there; I mean, we’ll alter fabrics and colors each season, or on a biannual basis, but the sort of stuff we have coming out for this fall/winter will include plaids, chinos, trousers and some outerwear.
COOLS: All timeless items for sure – and all produced in New York, right?
CW: Yeah, we make our surfboards in our showroom in Brooklyn, but we make all the clothing in Midtown [Manhattan]. We have a showroom space in Greenpoint, with an attached shaping bay and a little window in between so people can come in to peruse through the clothing and they can see me shaping boards through the window.
COOLS: That’s really a great feature. Is there anything else you guys are working on for the future?
CW: Yeah, we have some longer-term objectives around technology – giving people an easier way of being able to design their own surfboards online. So, taking some of what we do on a production level and exposing it to consumers to give people (whether they know nothing or everything about surfboard design) the opportunity to be more involved in designing their own surfboards – but from the comfort of their own homes. That’s a long-term goal for us.