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When Kelly Slater won his first world title in 1992, he became the youngest surfer to win this prestigious prize. Now, almost 30 years later, and with ten more world titles under his belt, Slater’s place among the world’s greatest athletes is undisputed. But the record-breaking number of titles hasn’t slowed the Florida-native down. At 49, he is still competing professionally. In 2020, he finished 8th in the World Surf League’s Men’s Championship Tour—an incredible achievement given that the other 34 surfers on the Tour are in their 20s and 30s.
But Slater’s constant traveling and notorious talent for wave riding also gave him a front-row seat at how plastic pollution affected the oceans. He remembers surfing in Japan, Bali, and France early on in his career and at times thinking that if he fell and accidentally breathed water in, “I would get a bag down my throat.” So, in 2015, Slater parter ways with his longtime sponsor and founded the sustainable lifestyle brand Outerknown. It became the first brand to use Econyl (regenerated nylon made from discarded fishing nets) in fashion products that same year. The brand has an ongoing partnership with luxury watchmaker Breitling, and their watches are fitted with straps made from Econyl. Outerknown also just launched its first fully circular collection. To make sure its line of jeans doesn’t end up in landfills, the brand has committed to repairing, replacing, and recycling every pair. The label also became a pioneer in offering biodegradable stretch denim made with plant-based rubber, among many other eco-friendly initiatives.
And if being the greatest surfer of all time and owning a fashion brand isn’t enough, Slater also somehow finds time to film a new surf competition series (“The Ultimate Surfer” premieres on ABC on August 23) and golf. And he’s pretty good at it—just ask former President Barack Obama.
We caught up with Slater to chat about all things travel, golf, sustainable fashion, surfing in jeans and why you should probably not attempt it.
Q: What is your favorite place to visit when you’re not competing?
KELLY SLATER: [It’s] pretty hard to pick one. I've fallen in love with so many places. My top pick would probably be Fiji, Tavarua Island, in particular. The waves are perfect. People are really nice. It's probably my favorite place to just be and relax and not really worry about the rest of the world.
Q: What are some of the destinations you are looking forward to visiting once travel resumes?
KS: Well, I love Australia. I live part-time in Australia. And I was actually fortunate enough to go there last year. I got there the day that they close the borders down. I still had to quarantine for two weeks but I was there for three months during the beginning of lockdown […]
I'm looking forward to getting to Tahiti again, and New Zealand. I also want to go to Iceland.
Q: What are some of the best surfing spots in the world for beginners?
KS: In Hawaii, the obvious one is Waikiki. It [the surf] is always small, easy, and waves go for a long way. And that's really the trick to a good beach for surfing.
In California, there are a number of beaches like Doheny State Beach, or San Onofre, which are both down in Orange County.
On the East Coast, in Cocoa Beach where I am from, it's pretty easy to learn because it's small surf, and there aren’t any areas that stick out. It's all kind of the same. It's shallow really far offshore and you could ride waves for a long period of time. They're pretty friendly.
Q: How do you recover from jet lag?
KS: I try to get ready for jet lag before I leave. So what I'll do is I'll try not to sleep the night before. And then when I fly, I'll try to fall asleep on the flight at the right time for the time zone that I'm going to.
So, for instance, if I'm going to France, I'll try not to sleep the night before. I’ll make myself busy the night before. I'll try to pack all night, watch something, or do some work I haven't caught up on. And then when I get on the flight at like ten or eleven in the morning, I'll try to fall asleep right away. And then when I wake up we're usually landing about 10 hours later. So I do my best to try and get on the time zone as I'm flying.
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Q: You're a very good golfer. What are some of your favorite spots for golfing around the world?
KS: That's part of why I want to get to New Zealand again. There's a golf course, a friend of mine built called Tara Iti. I think, in the future, it's probably going to be one of—if not—the top golf destination in the world. They have seven miles of coast, and they've built three golf courses on the ocean. And it's just a beautiful part of the world. It is about an hour and a half drive from Auckland on the east coast. That's rated as number two golf course outside of the USA in the world.
And then, I really enjoy going to Scotland and playing St. Andrews [Links] and Kingsbarns [Golf Links]. I love those. I love the area, and golf is such a natural part of the environment. You know, every little town in Scotland and Ireland has a little nine-hole golf course at least that the community kept up for years and years. And it's such a big part of the culture.
I mean that would be like going to the North Shore of Hawaii if you're a surfer. Scotland is really the home of golf.
I’ve golfed in Fiji. I’ve golfed in Tahiti. I’ve golfed pretty much everywhere I've gone. I actually get a lot of good golf in South Africa when I am there.
There's a Jack Nicklaus course in a city called St. Francis Bay. It’s called St. Francis Links and it's an amazing course. If I am there [in South Africa] and the surf’s not good, we can golf.
Q: When Outerknown launched a denim line, you filmed the campaign in Teahupo’o, Tahiti, and you surfed in jeans. So I just have to ask you, how easy is it to surf in jeans?
KS: It's not that easy, actually. I was a little bit scared because the waves were big that day. And actually, the images you're seeing, there were waves that were much bigger than that. That was just a medium big-sized wave, but there were some that were maybe 30 or 50 percent bigger than that that day, but the swell was slowing down. I was just worried that I was going to fall with jeans on, and that’s a lot of extra energy when you’re wiped out. But I wasn’t paddling, I was towing from a jetski. That's pretty easy, but if I was paddling, it would have been a bit difficult.
Q: How is Outerknown different from other sustainable fashion brands?
KS: We use 95 percent recycled, regenerated, or organic textiles in our products. You know, I had two principles that I wanted to build a brand on. And one was environmental sustainability, meaning we're using textiles and fabrics that are more friendly environmentally. And then, equally as important to me, maybe even more so, was social compliance and sustainability in factories with workers. It was really important to me that we only work with production facilities that treated their workers well and gave them a living wage, insurance, etc. So we were the first clothing brand in the history of the world to be Fair Labor Association-certified before we even built our products.
A lot of this stuff was very challenging because it hasn't been the norm in the clothing world. And I thought that was a shame because there's such an impact on the environment and in our lives from clothing. Food and clothing are the things every single person needs. And I felt, because I have been sponsored and made most of my money from clothing, that it was my responsibility to make some kind of difference there and partake in the change.
Q: What are some of Outerknown’s pieces that you wear regularly?
KS: Well, I'm in Hawaii [now]. Before that I was in Bali, and before that I was in California in the summertime so my list of clothing is pretty small. [It] fits into one bag really. That's kind of how I live my life. So I'm wearing Apex surf trunks and shorts and golf shirts most of the time, but I like a hoodie. That's kind of an essential travel piece for me.
[I wear] our blanket shirts, which come in a million different colors. If I wake up in Hawaii and it’s kind of rainy or a little bit cold earlier in the morning, that's what I put on first thing. And then I get to wear that for about a half an hour until it warms up.