A champion in the water, Kelly Slater has surfed his way to much success throughout his 30-year professional career. With 11 World Surf League Champion titles to his name, the 47-year-old Florida native is celebrated as not only the record holder for most world titles, but also as both the youngest and the oldest men’s world champion in history.
Slater’s career riding waves took off in 1990 with a welcome sponsorship from coveted surf wear giant Quiksilver. “We didn’t have much money as a kid, so the first time I got a phone call saying someone wanted to sponsor me, it didn’t matter if it was $100, I was almost in tears,” Slater admits. Over the years, though, the surfer’s outlook shifted. With the advent of social media, Slater became educated on how clothing was made and the issues of slave labor and living wages, and, very quickly, he knew he had a message to send.
In 2014, after nearly 24 years, Slater walked away from Quiksilver. “It was scary, but I knew the vision I had, and I knew it was something I wanted to do in my life,” he says of the separation. “It’s not until you start to understand what you’re dealing with that you start to question your philosophy and what you put your name on,” he adds.
Slater’s vision was to develop his own brand inspired by clean living and responsible creation. “I wanted to do something that could potentially have an impact on the whole industry and rattle the cage a bit around supply chains and sustainability,” he says. Slater realized his vision through his eco-friendly surf-inspired apparel company, Outerknown, with more than 95 percent of its items made from material that’s organic, recycled, or regenerated. The brand will debut a women’s clothing line this spring that will be 100 percent organic cotton or hemp.
In 2018, Slater partnered with luxury timepiece brand Breitling and joined its three-person Surfers Squad along with surfers Stephanie Gilmore and Sally Fitzgibbons. The Breitling Surfers Squad reflects the brand’s commitment to maintaining clean oceans, beaches, and beyond. “I was intrigued,” Slater says of the opportunity. “I wanted to figure out how we could incorporate a sustainability story into [Breitling’s] brand and why it made sense.” Breitling has been dedicated to improving the planet for years through its Explorers Squad initiative, but by joining forces with Slater, it also gained Outerknown to strengthen its engagement even further.
The collaboration resulted in the Superocean Héritage II Chronograph 44 Outerknown watch. “[Breitling] really researched my brand and what we’ve done and what our goals are,” Slater says of the partnership. Bringing in Outerknown allowed for an impressive feature of the watch to be included: the ECONYL yarn NATO watchband that is made from salvaged, recycled nylon waste such as fishing nets. Outerknown is a proven visionary in the industry, so being able to incorporate its principles into both the watch’s strap and packaging directly supports Slater’s mission.
In another effort to marry his passion for sustainability and his love of surfing, Slater works with Firewire Surfboards to design boards that impact the environment as little as possible. The company boasts a facility in Thailand that produces close to zero waste and focuses on making minimalist boards that allow athletes to surf their best. “The sustainable message is nice, but it isn’t a priority for everyone,” Slater admits. “Our mission is to get the board to perform as well as any others and to have people feel good about how it’s made.”
Motivated by his desire to spotlight the story of sustainability by producing responsible products, Slater has propelled himself and his brand into a number of arenas. But, at the end of the day, he is a surfer. “I would love to win a world title again,” he says. “I like the idea of being able to win another one at my age.” So how does this multi-hyphenate surf god get inspired to perform in the water? “The waves motivate me, but so does any challenge I’m up against.”
From living up to his exceptional reputation on a surfboard to continuing his legacy of advocating for sustainable and clean living, Slater is clearly up for the challenge.