Since 1978, surfers across Australia have been hitting the waves in their distinctive hibiscus-print Okanui board shorts, creating an ocean of memories along the way.
Halfway through my conversation with Simon Kasprowicz, the co-owner of surfwear brand Okanui, he turns the question back on me: “How many brands can you name that are still the same as they were 20 or 30 years ago?” Placed on the spot, I struggle to come up with a valid response.
In the competitive world of fashion, where most labels fight to stay one step ahead of the latest trends, Okanui stands out for exactly the opposite reason. “We’ve stayed the same,” Simon says proudly, having proven his point. “While everyone else has commercialised their product, gone mainstream, looking for a quick dollar, we’ve remained true to the core of the brand.” As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Okanui’s signature item is the cotton longboard short emblazoned with a bright hibiscus print. Renowned for its quality, one pair of Okanui board shorts can last up to 20 years. “That’s why we’re not changing our classics,” says Simon.
With a cult following, it’s not unusual for Simon to pick up the phone to the compliments of satisfied customers. It’s a position plenty of business owners would love to be in. “People just keep coming back. They buy one pair, then they buy another pair. They’ve found the only shorts they want to wear.”
Okanui’s roots is the Northern Beaches of Sydney, a breezy beachside location that still provides the backdrop for its operations today. In what started out as a hobby, the brand’s founder, Dick Ash, would make his own canvas boardies out of old mail bags from the Avalon post office on his mum’s sewing machine. He found the longer style of short was a better fit with the fashionable Okanui surfboards of the time, and drew inspiration for the hibiscus imagery from his beloved Pacific Island waves. The company was born in 1978 and, as the range expanded to include shirts and a children’s range, the classic shorts have remained the staple piece in the Okanui wardrobe.
Four years ago, Dick sold the company to his niece and her husband, Wendy and Simon Kasprowicz, so he could concentrate on his first passion: surfing.
“You ask someone about Okanui and the first thing you hear is the great memories that are triggered by the name,” Simon says. “For us, we want to continue to create a brand that will remain at the forefront of making memories: something that sits close to people’s hearts, that they grew up with, that their kids will also grow up with.”
Simon and Wendy have worked with artists and designers to add new products to complement the classic range, yet have placed emphasis on creating a modern style that retains this heritage feel. The slogan for its recently released summer 2017 range, ‘What’s Old is New Again’, reflects this.
“We’ve brought some original prints back to life, like the two-tone hibiscus shorts.” An original Okanui design, these blue-and-orange board shorts were best-sellers when first released. The traditional comes complete with a modern twist, however. “We’ve added a draw cord and velcro fly. We’ve also used some waterproof-treated fabrics in the range. Not a day goes past without someone telling us we should be doing that!” he laughs.
“We want to continue to create a brand that will remain at the forefront of making memories.” – Simon Kasprowicz
The couple have also reintroduced T-shirts into the range this summer. “We haven’t sold T-shirts for a while, and it’s important for us to get them back into the market as the T-shirt is a big part of beach culture. It’s been lots of fun creating them.”
While Okanui has been dressing the male surfing population of Australia for nearly four decades, the absence of a female range is fairly conspicuous. “I’m hopeful next season we’ll have a women and girls’ range to complement our men and boy’s range,” Simon responds when asked the question.
Looking towards the future, Simon is candid: “Wendy and I are in the business to grow it and see where we can take it. There’s a lot we can do, but we’re just taking small steps to make sure it’s done right.”
He remains adamant about one aspect, however. “The road will always lead back to the classics.”
Proud to be a part of a company that evokes so many memories with so many people, I’m left wondering what Okanui means to him. “As a kid, jumping on a BMX in my Okanuis, going down to the beach,” he says. “That memory: when nothing mattered, you were just carefree, enjoying yourself.”