Tough Nut to Crack: Interview with Almond Surfboards’ Dave Allee
Almond Surfboards was at the forefront of a paradigm shift in the surf industry. After the notoriously neon era of the 1980’s and 90’s a group of craftsman started to focus on making surfboards that reconnected with a bygone era of surf culture and aesthetic. These revivalists were a direct response to the mass produced madness that had become synonymous with the coastal lifestyle. In a small shaping bay in Newport, California, Dave Allee and a group of young makers started shaping alternative surf craft that both paid homage to the past and focused on subtle improvements that made their functional art pieces a bit more modern.
On the 10th anniversary of the label, Almond Surfboards has grown from a small surfboard label into a culturally relevant brand that to it’s loyalist represents a way of life that was once lost. Almond still focuses on producing some of the most beautiful and well performing surfboards in the world, but they have also grown into a clothing label, and have their Almond brick and mortar in Costa Mesa that has become a hub for alternative enthusiasts. When it comes to crafting world class functional art, American made clothing, and a sought after lifestyle not many people are as highly regarded as Allee. We caught up with the busy young entrepreneur and maker to find out more about launching a clothing line, the importance of aesthetic, and what the future holds for Almond.
This years marks your 10 years anniversary as a label and your 8th year of being a shop owner, do you feel like you have your footing at this point or does it still feel exciting and unpredictable?
We have certainly gotten more clear in our purpose over the years—we have a better grasp of our strengths and our processes, as well as the parts of this business that still get us excited. The unpredictable nature comes more externally. The landscape of the industry is changing so fast—in terms of how people shop—and the way we connect with our customers continues to involve. So much of the battle is to maintain a long view of where we are headed, while remaining nimble and flexible enough to react to changes. At the end of the day, our main reason for existing is to build custom surfboards for our customers. Regardless of what happens with technology, we know we have to deliver quality product to our customers, and educate them in ways that will help them get more enjoyment out of their surfing experience.
Almond was one of the brands that was certainly at the forefront of the modern alternative movement, it seems like Newport and Costa Mesa were a hotbed for that cultural shift. Is there something in the water in that part of California that inspires young surfers to approach surfing through a classic lens?
There is something in the water for sure—but it’s not in the drinking water. Orange County continues to drive the industry because of the culture that takes place in the lineup. It’s somewhat of a self-perpetuating cycle, in the sense that it has always kind of been a hub of global surf culture here, so it gets passed down and pushed forward and reinvented and revisited. It’s hard to build a culture from scratch, but once that creative spirit is woven into the fabric of this area, it’s hard to put a lid on it too.
And as far as the dream of starting Almond, how did you concept the brand, how did you know it was the right time to start a surfboard company?
When I started Almond it was 2007 / 2008 and the surf industry was in an interesting time. The primary supplier of surfboard foam, Clark Foam, had just gone out of business in 2005, so many surfboard shapers were still recovering from that kick in the teeth. The economy was in freefall, so many people were getting laid off. I graduated college in May of 2008, and had been shaping a few surfboards and selling a few t-shirts. I was surfing as often as I wanted to, and wanting to give the ol’ Almond thing a serious attempt. Once I met Griffin Neumann-Kyle, I was confident that we had enough pieces to the puzzle to make a run at it. He had been apprenticing for Bruce Jones, and all Griff wanted was an excuse to shape more surfboards. I got the bright idea to open a shop, because I wanted a physical venue to invite people into, and share our brand vision with them.
Obviously aesthetic plays into everything you do at Almond, was the original intent to make functional art, or did you just want to create board that worked?
Our intent was to build boards that would still work, and look good, in 30 plus years. That lead us to use heavier materials, a more subtle color pallet, and a variety of classic-inspired shapes. We wanted to make surfboards that worked for the average days here in Newport. Since the beginning, our stance on surfboards has always been to build boards that catch waves well first and foremost, and then start solving other needs after that. If the boards don’t work well and maximize the customer’s surfing experience, it doesn’t matter how pretty they look.
How has the aesthetic evolved, are you still dedicated to your original vision or has it charged through the history of the brand?
Our aesthetic has evolved in subtle ways over the years, but the foundation remains pretty similar. We aim to highlight the construction of the surfboard in the ways we add color and elements. We don’t want to dress it up too much, we want to emphasize the lines and layers that are already there.
How did you decide to make the leap into fashion or clothing label?
The jump from surfboards to apparel was driven primarily by the surf shop. Since we have a storefront for surfboards, we need product to round out the space. It is an entirely different medium, with its own challenges and rewards. Building surfboards is a one-at-a-time process—each board requires lots of labor and attention. Making clothing has been a learning curve for sure, because it’s done in seasons, with multiple styles, with hundreds of units of each style. It’s certainly not a one-at-a-time game anymore.
Was the concept to keep the successful elements of Almond Surfboards and bring that into the clothing?
The clothing does offer us a venue for extending our values and aesthetic preferences beyond foam and fiberglass. In the same way that we want to build timeless looking surfboards that last a long time, we want to build timeless looking clothes that are made to last beyond just this season.
Most of your clothing is made in California, why was it important to keep manufacturing close to home?
Making clothes in California was accessible to us. None of us had gone out and sourced fabric or worked with seamstresses before, so we started searching around our own back yard for people who could help us deliver product. It’s a struggle though, honestly. It’s has definitely been a journey. Now that we have been at this a bit longer, we have started reaching a little further, in order to expand our capabilities. We now have surf trunks made in Texas, and premium woven t-shirts made in Peru.
The shops been open for 8 years, the boards are as beautiful as ever, and you now have a successful clothing line, what’s next for Almond?
As we look ahead towards our tenth year as a label, we want to press even deeper into the things we think we are best at. I honestly think that is going to be what allows brands to survive and thrive. Not everyone can win the lowest price and fastest shipping game, so the rest of us need to be damn good at what we bring to the table. We have a few projects lined up for next year that may surprise some people, but everything we are going to do next year very much fits within our wheelhouse.