Birdwell Beach Britches: The First Wave of Board Shorts
Back in the early ‘60s, surf culture boomed, driving it from a low-key coastal endeavor to the mainstream. Just a few years prior to this in 1959, the very first West Coast Surfing Championship had taken place in Huntington Beach, California and with it came the increased appeal of professional surfing. This change not only had a huge impact on locations like Hawaii, California, and Australia, but it exploded in popular culture, too—directors, musicians, and designers caught on quickly. As you’d expect, many brands making board shorts and surfwear cropped up, but there were few who could do it so well that they’d go on to weather more than half a century of trends and market shifts. Enter Birdwell Beach Britches, which has been in business since 1961 and still makes some of the most reliable shorts out there.
Before delving into its history, let’s take a second to examine what exactly makes a pair of Birdwell’s legendary swim shorts (or ‘britches’). Each style is cut from specially developed two-ply nylon and features a lace-up front fastening, special flap pocket at the back right (for wax), contrasting topstitching and a patch bearing the brand’s emblem (‘Birdie’) on the reverse.
Birdwell Paddles Out
When Carrie Birdwell Mann witnessed the rise of surfing in the areas near her Santa Ana home in California, she got to thinking about the kit that beachgoers were wearing. In the small family living room, Carrie thought up a new style of board shorts that would be more functional and safer to wear in the water than plain old canvas styles. When it came down to fabric choice, she found her answer among the sails of boats docked in nearby Newport Beach. The spinnaker materials were lightweight and certainly durable enough for regular surf sessions.
One further consideration was modesty. A thin layer of nylon would be clingy and pretty revealing, so Carrie settled for a double-layered fabric that not only preserved the wearer’s dignity but minimized chafing and dried super quickly. That two-ply concept is what sets these swim shorts apart its competitors; over the years the abrasion-resistant fabric has also saved surfers from cuts from the reef, for example. After working with off-the-rack fabrics for a while, Carrie eventually collaborated with an East Coast mill to commission her own, dubbing it SurfNyl™. Designed to be highly durable, naturally water-repellent and extremely fast-drying, SurfNyl™ was such a hit that it’s still used in the brand’s shorts today.
Before she knew it, the business expanded from her California living room into something much bigger. Carrie received her first order, and with 100 pairs to produce for a Huntington Beach store (plus more for local lifeguards), she employed one seamstress and roped in every family member to help out. Over the years, all seven of Carrie’s children worked at the family business in some way or another. As things grew, Birdwell took out a regular ad in Surfer magazine and came up with the motto ‘quality is our gimmick’ (courtesy of the title’s publisher, Steve Pezman), which still stands today. Finally, there was scope to develop new styles—cue the creation of shorts for guys with thicker thighs and different sizing needs.
Almost 60 years on, the brand is still in good hands. When the Birdwell family sold the business back in 2014, loyal customer Matt Jacobson took over and brought in legendary skater Natas Kaupas and Geoff Clawson (whom he first met at Facebook) to oversee operations. Its new backers have an impressive collective résumé that ranges from the pages of Thrasher to Quicksilver and Instagram.
The sale of the company has allowed it to flourish without abandoning its past or compromising on core values such as authenticity, functionality, and quality. Swiftly, the trio enhanced Birdwell’s online presence, introducing easier direct-to-consumer shopping and a social media presence, as well as restructuring the manufacturing process and developing software to streamline its management. Indeed, back in 2004, Vivian Birdwell (daughter of Carrie) said the company simply didn’t have the time to create a lineup for women, but now, 15 years later, you’ll find a huge offering for ladies.
Further growth has come with new product lines (using locally-sourced or American-made fabrics), and a partnership with J. Crew. Speaking of adapting, sustainability is another pillar that Birdwell has adopted. The label works by a ‘just-in-time’ structure, meaning it only produces items to meet current demand and never to excess. Of course, Birdwell’s archive is rich in retro items, and with a marked intention of staying true to its roots, the brand issued one-off reproductions of an old 1960s competition jacket for the Mira Costa surf team.
Birdwell’s ongoing success comes down to its small-scale approach and consistent product offering. Where others like it have shifted production overseas and cut corners on the design front, Birdwell still makes everything by hand in Santa Ana at a new 10,000 square-foot workshop. It even employs some of the same seamstresses who’ve worked there since the ‘70s. Other perks, such as a lifetime guarantee on every item, continue to make it a firm favorite amongst seasoned surfers, beachgoers and lifeguards alike.
So, what are the signature styles that have kept it going for such a long time? We’ll start with the original ‘310’ model developed by Carrie ’61 and worn faithfully by loyal customers. Made from proprietary SurfNyl™, this pair has a short length (outseams range from 14”-18”), triple-stitched seams, a back flap pocket with key loop, adjustable lace-up waistband and a patch woven with its retro logo.
Next up, there are styles ‘311’ and ‘312’ – they’re medium and longer length editions of the original, with outseams of 17”-21” and 20”-24”, respectively.
Lastly and most recently, the brand adapted its signature nylon to develop SurfStretch. The flexible fabric is used in its ‘808’ shorts after feedback from customers demanded a stretchier option.
You can find a pair of Birdwell’s classics on their website, in its Manhattan Beach, California store, or in surf shops around the world.