Images by AJ Feducia, John Hook, and courtesy of Salvage Public
The founders of Salvage Public tell a different story of surfing and Hawai‘i with their lifestyle brand.
At the base of Diamond Head, that picturesque icon of Hawai‘i, there once existed a surfing heiau, a shrine where kāhuna, Hawaiian priests of the day, would fly kites to let people know of waves on the horizon. It was the surf report of the time. Back then, surfers could be heard calling out, “Hō a‘e kou aloha he‘enalu i ka hokua o nā nalu”—show your love of surfing on the crest of the waves.
“It was a way for Hawaiian people to say, ‘You can’t only talk the talk, you gotta walk the walk,’” says Nāpali Souza, co-founder of Salvage Public. “Using this phrasing to express that idea shows just how ingrained surfing was to the way things were. It wasn’t just a segment of the lifestyle, it was just life.”
Drawing upon these stories as inspiration, Souza and co-founder Joseph Serrao (along with their third partner, Joseph’s brother, Noah) began rolling out their contemporary, surf-inspired wear for men. Starting with graphic tees, their line has grown to include a full collection that dresses men from head to toe, including jackets, pants, and button-down shirts.
Growing up in Hawai‘i, and being in and around the water from a young age—practically living in oceanwear—was what sparked the designers’ foray into fashion.
“I grew up as a kid in the early ’90s, and what you clothed yourself in—in my case surfwear—was your identity,” says Souza, who counts Volcom among one of his childhood favorite brands. “Back then, Volcom was doing something that was so different, that felt so rebellious and fresh. There was this whole culture that was wrapped up in a brand that you can wear and have become an extension of who you are as a person.”
The surf industry has long been driven by global companies, many of whom are headquartered in Southern California, including the likes of Quiksilver, Rip Curl, and Hurley. But in the last decade, surf culture has entered the high-end market, starting with the lifestyle brand Saturdays Surf NYC, which debuted in 2009 and has gained global popularity. In 2011, PPR (now called Kering), the French luxury group that owns brands like Gucci and Saint Laurent, acquired Volcom. In 2014, a dreamy Chanel No. 5 campaign produced by Baz Luhrmann featured supermodel Gisele Bündchen surfing glassy waves atop a glossy black Chanel surfboard.
“The idea for this brand started with a recognition of seeing a surf revival happening amongst different brands, and them not happening here out of Hawai‘i, or rather, not on a large enough scale where you’re seeing an impact,” Serrao says. In response, Serrao and Souza seek to impart their personal experiences—which include learning to surf with family and friends, but also more complex issues that arise in everyday life—into their brand. “I think Hawai‘i is difficult, messy, complicated, ancient, and I think if you spend more than a vacation here, you begin to realize that very quickly,” Souza says.
As a result, Salvage Public’s collection includes black-and-white, color-blocked boardshorts that hit above the knee—perfect for staying mobile in the water—alongside graphic tees with unexpected type placements that turn local slang into high-design concepts, and sweaters that turn character tropes meant to marginalize indigenous groups into emblems of power. A sweater from their fall-winter 2017 collection, for example, is emblazoned with a Picasso-esque tiki graphic and the words “Booga Booga,” a nod to the comedy ensemble, which included famed local comic Rap Reiplinger, that blasted through the narrative of native peoples as exotic but bumbling caricatures.
Using that image in that way, Souza says, “is a degree of reappropriation,” of turning the term on its head and presenting it in a way that’s representative of Salvage Public, which is to say sophisticated and intelligent. “Maybe that might spark somebody’s interest to learn more,” Serrao says. “Maybe they seek out something we referenced that might give them a different viewpoint on Hawai‘i.”