Credit Morgan Maassen for The New York Times
His first childhood memory of water is of being held beneath the surface until he thought he would drown. He imagines his last memory of water might be a moment when he is towed into an 80-foot monster he anticipates will take him out.
And that would be a good death, said Kelly Slater, the American pro surfer who has spent most of his 43 years in an element that once held terror for him, a fear he not only managed but subdued in the surprising way he seems to do most things, by careful study.
If Zen deliberation is not often associated with the sport that gave us Gidget and cowabunga and viral beat-down videos from Oahu’s gorgeous, lawless North Shore and also decades of glossy, vaguely pornographic images of men sluiced like little gametes through lubricious curling tubes, then that may explain why Mr. Slater became the most decorated surfer in history.
The Perfect Wave
He has been named World Tour Champion a record 11 times, winning five of those titles consecutively from 1994 to 1998. He became the first surfer ever to earn two perfect scores in a two-wave scoring system, a feat he first accomplished in 2005 in the final heat of the Billabong Pro Tahiti contest at Teahupo’o and repeated in June 2013, at an age when most pro athletes have long since given up sports that provoke adrenaline surges powerful enough that fear becomes its own agent for duffer activities like golf.
He is also, as it happens, a two-handicap golfer.
And there is more logic to that than you may at first imagine because in golf, as in surfing, every choice is a matter of personal responsibility. “I’m the one that has to deal with the outcome,” Mr. Slater said. “Golf teaches you that.”
He alighted briefly in New York from his home in Cocoa Beach, Fla., on a rare mild day during a bitter East Coast winter. Depending upon whim and global surf reports, he may impulsively hop a jet tomorrow and head to Australia. This is not unusual for Mr. Slater or anyone else engaged in the world’s most peripatetic line of work.
“It’s nothing for me to get on a plane to the other side of the world,” said Mr. Slater, who was in town to preview his latest venture, a line of ready-to-wear clothing called Outerknown. Ready-to-wear hardly encompasses the full Outerknown brief, although the vaporous rubric of “lifestyle brand” is not much better.
Yet it was Mr. Slater’s lifestyle, his determined yet laid-back manner and how it emblematizes a lucrative sector of the clothing market (luxury and sports-lifestyle) that made him appealing to Kering, the global conglomerate behind Gucci, Balenciaga, Stella McCartney and Bottega Veneta, and now him.
Many took it as a gag when Mr. Slater abruptly quit a lucrative endorsement deal with the surf wear behemoth Quiksilver last year on the cusp of April Fools’ Day; he’d had the gig, after all, since he was 18.
Yet the decision to part with Quiksilver, long in coming, and the later partnership with Kering were part of a strategy to build a brand with lofty ethical goals, one that deployed his renown without turning him into what he called “a fame whore,” one whose nominal cornerstones are “style, sustainability and travel.”
From the start, Mr. Slater chose as collaborators seasoned insiders (Julie Gilhart, the former fashion director of Barneys New York; Stella Ishii, the woman instrumental in nurturing brands like Alexander Wang, 3.1 Phillip Lim and the Row) whose selection telegraphed the intentions of a man who claims to have known from the very first surf contest he entered that he was destined to win. “I looked around, and the other people weren’t that good,” he said.
The Key Partner
Doubtless the collaborator most crucial to Outerknown’s success is the surfer and designer John Moore, who once oversaw men’s wear design for J. Crew and whose influential niche label, M.Nii, last year led GQ to designate him one of the best new men’s wear designers around.
Named for a Japanese-American tailor whose shop in Makaha on the west coast of Oahu once turned out board shorts for the surfing elite in what many judge to have been the glory days of late-20th-century Hawaiian surfing (and also swimsuits for John F. Kennedy and Elvis Presley), M.Nii neatly distills Hawaiian surfing circa 1968.
“Surfing is not just about this Beach Boys phenomenon,” Mr. Moore not long ago told a reporter. “It came from Hawaii, it’s thousands of years old, and it’s always been about that intangible cool.”
Credit Morgan Maassen for The New York Times
Cool, in Mr. Slater’s case, is anything but intangible: He all but radiates it. Partly this owes to the rugged handsomeness of a sun-grooved face still marked by the remnants of boyhood acne and partly to his status as a world-class athlete.
Yet it is his intensity that defines his style and manner, the laser focus that allowed him last October to pull off a 540-degree aerial maneuver surfing off Portugal.
That particular move had never before been successfully completed, let alone by a 42-year-old athlete at what may reasonably be thought of as the end of his career.
The Death Spin
A friend who caught the Death Spin (a name suggested by a 10-year-old from among his million Instagram followers) on his iPhone quickly put it on YouTube; three minutes later it had flowed definitively into the Internet’s noisy slipstream. “I was lucky, the wind coming from the beach allowed me to spin faster,” Mr. Slater modestly said of his aeronautics. “I didn’t really realize what had happened at the time.”
He was seated in a booth at Margaux, a restaurant in the surfer-hotelier Sean MacPherson’s Marlton Hotel in Greenwich Village, sipping an almond-milk cappuccino. Wearing black jeans and a black shirt buttoned to the neck, Mr. Slater had the offhand, slightly eccentric style characteristic of surfers from an earlier era, one in which early proponents of the sport like Mr. MacPherson’s mother wore thrift-shop cashmeres into the Pacific because wet suits then were heavy and costly.
More than most of his competitors, Mr. Slater styles himself both a sartorial and spiritual inheritor of surf greats like the madman Mickey Dora, the longboard god Joel Tudor and the unsung hero Peter Townend, a handsome white-blond champion who, as Mr. Slater said, “probably never earned more than $4,000 a year on the tour.”
“I love surf culture and its history,” said Mr. Slater; Outerknown is his way of tapping the source.
“It’s a way to tangibly create something that embodies our ideals and philosophies, which seems a little philosophical for clothes or whatever,” he said of a label whose website teases the debut next month of a complete line of men’s wear (denims, windbreakers, sweatpants and beautifully detailed plaid shirts reminiscent of “Endless Summer”) with home page images as moody and suggestive as they are provocatively vague: a lone tent pitched on the edge of what looks like a fjord; a frame house floating atop pilings above Stiltsville, the tenuous community set in the shallows off the coast of South Florida; Mr. Slater free-diving into fathomless turquoise depths, sleek and amphibious.
“I love utopian ideas,” he said. “I’ve been a perfectionist my whole life. Well, not a perfectionist, but always looking for a best way to do things.”
In functional terms, he added, that means that — whether glissading down a vertiginous water mountain at Pipeline, or flowing into your swing at Pebble Beach, or bewitching multinationals into funding a clothing line that owes as much to conjuring up archetypes of masculinity as to anything as banal as board shorts — it is important to observe a martial arts precept from one of Mr. Slater’s longtime heroes, Bruce Lee.
“I always related to his philosophy of using energy efficiently,” Mr. Slater said before heading out into the New York twilight and then onward. “The Zen of anything comes from understanding its purpose and function, and then executing in the most efficient way.”