Brand Q & A: Jeff Fagan, Surf Panda

Pop Up Summer! client, Surf Panda is a surf inspired action sports lifestyle company, taking its name from China’s long-held convention of giving pandas to allies as a gesture of friendship. The company takes this practice to a personal level, doing its panda in the form of surf ware, T-shirts, hats, and accessories in an effort to promote goodwill, sportsmanship, and environmental awareness between like-minded spirits around the world.

Hometown: NYC
Year Brand Launched: 2010
Instagram handle: @surfpanda
Twitter handle: panda_diplomacy
Describe the brand in three words: Graphic, Irreverent, Comfortable.
Personal design heroes:  James Perse, Banksy
Downtime non-design pursuits: Surfing, Paddle boarding with my 100 pound German Shepherd mix – Satchi.
Favorite Hamptons Haunts: The Clam Bar, Shadmoor State Park, Napeague Harbor, Louse Point.

What was the inspiration behind the brand:

JF:                    I have a friend who has a surf shop in Hainan, and we would talk about how there is so much coastline in China and so much ocean, so much surf. Despite that, there are only about a hundred surfers in China or there were when we started the company. We would ask ourselves why are there no surfers in China? We’re working to liberate China one surfboard at a time. It started from there.

We chose the panda as our symbol. She’s not your G-rated panda, but the panda that’s taken this long, has been around the block a few times and is still out there fighting for it. That’s what we’re about.

What is the roll-out like? How do you activate it?

JF:                    At this point, we do a lot of production in China. Since that time, we haven’t really been doing all that much. We’ve been focusing more on the United States. It’s tricky because of the copyright laws and we’ve been really a little bit anxious about doing too much there. That’s why we came back to as opposed to a liberated China, we’re more panda diplomacy is really what we’re about.

Have you been to China?

JF:                    Unfortunately no, as fate would have it. We were supposed to go to China about three years ago. We were sponsoring a surf event in an island called Hainan. We were all set to go and then Hurricane Sandy hit and the flights were cancelled for three days and the surf event went on without us. We still sponsored it and everything, but we didn’t get to go. We’ve been looking for the opportunity to go back ever since.

You were originally in advertising. When was the moment that you knew you wanted to move from the creative agency world to fashion?

JF:                    I wanted the opportunity to build a brand on my own terms and the brand that I would want to build would somehow revolve around my passion for water and surfing.

Can you tell us a little bit about the design process?

JF:                    The design process is such a funny thing. You take inspiration from so many different places, from the ocean, from pop culture, from art. We have a very collaborative environment here at our offices. Everyone brings in ideas. Some stuff works and some stuff sucks. It’s a fly by the seat of your pants; see what works kind of environment. I think its fun. We try not to take ourselves too seriously. I think that’s the most important thing. I say I’m not so much a designer; I’m more of a creative director. I come from the world of advertising, not from the world of fashion.

When we make our videos and things like that, I try and explain they’re sort of jackass meets Disney or Disney meets jackass. I hope that gives a little bit of a sense of what we do and how we do it.

Who is your typical customer?

JF:                    We have a wide range. It’s tough to say what’s typical. [They are] a fit, youthful person (of any age) who likes to feel casual and comfortable, while at the same time expressing their individuality.

I think they all have in common a certain iconoclastic aspect.  They’re a little bit do not go gentle into that good night kind of spirit. Never surrender on the adult side. On the kid’s side, I think we have anyone from panda enthusiasts to the hardcore skate kids.

What are some of the challenges that you face as a new designer of an emerging brand?

JF:                    We are kind of fly by the seat of our pants type of thing. We learn as we’re going along. I don’t come from a fashion background, so a lot of times we don’t get things right the first time, and that’s just part of the process.

What are your favorite pieces of the season in this collection?

JF:                    I’m really excited about our neoprene outerwear that we’re coming out with this fall, jackets totally built out of wetsuit fabric. That’s our big thing. Also, I love our board shorts, our panda jams. Our snap bottoms I think are really cool for women.

What’s happening with the physical product, like the boards and the skateboards?

JF:                    We focus on long boards as far as skateboards go. We make them out of bamboo because the number one source of maple deforestation is skateboard decks. We do that. Then when all of our surfboards, rather than building surfboards, we focus on recycling them. We take trips around Southern California and get dinged up boards and repair them and sell them real cheap so that we can sell kids out and they can start their way on the sport for not a whole lot of money. They can spend $200 and get a great board as opposed to spending $600 or $700 on it. The parents seem to like that too. That’s where we’re at with the hard goods.

Do you have any brand ambassadors that you work with?

JF:                    At this point, there’s no one in particular. We have people who purchase from around the world. We have a wind surfer in Sardinia who is big into our [product].  Wicky Marka is his name. There are a bunch of Irish BMX riders who love the panda. It’s really a wide range. We’re such a grass roots sort of company at this point. We’re not hearing from LeBron James anytime soon.

Let’s talk about surfing.  Are you a surfer?

JF:                    I started when I was 15 years old. I was a lifeguard at Jones Beach. I actually got a fake ID when I was 15 so I could be a lifeguard. That was my thing. Most people get it to drink. I got it so I could take a lifeguard test. I started then and I’ve been doing it ever since. There was a small break when I went to a landlocked graduate school in Chicago, but I’ve just always had this passion for the water and wanted to start a brand that reflected that.

Where are your favorite places to surf?

JF:                    I love Mexico, the West Coast of Mexico. I love Hawaii, Maui. I love Long Island, although it’s getting more and more crowded and Montauk, of course, sure.

Will you be surfing in Montauk this summer?

JF:                    Possibly if I’m lucky. Summers are our busy season so I find that I have less of an opportunity to be in the water. It’s usually in the fall that I get the time to actually surf. It’s ironic. I started surfing and the deeper I got into it, the less I actually surfed.

What beach will go to when you can surf?

JF:                    I really can’t say. I know certain people who would very angry with me. I just want to keep those sorts of things on the down-low.

How did you get involved with Pop Up Summer?

JF:        Last summer, I went to the Hamptons Collective Pop-up in Bridgehampton where there were a lot of really interesting designers. It was such a fun experience in there. I remember thinking about it during the wintertime and I was wondering who was behind all that. I ran into Jess Wade [another PopUp Summer! designer], and she gave me Susan’s contact information and that’s how we got involved.