June 2, 2014

Lightning Bolt Surf Shop

On my road trips, I seek out a few specific things: epic surfing, peaceful beaches, cold beer, surf shops, and, above all, original surf shop t-shirts.  These t-shirts are the kinds of t-shirts that can't be found anywhere else but the surf shops that make them.  Not only do they capture the spirit of surfing, but they also express the identity of a particular surf shop and embody the vibe of the local surf scene.  Only with rare exception will I stray from this standard and review t-shirts from surfwear brands or other sources.

For several reasons, I'm making one of those exceptions for Lightning Bolt, a global surfboard and surfwear brand based in Venice Beach, CA.  For one, Lightning Bolt has a fascinating brand history, from its birth in Honolulu, HI in 1970, to its rise to fame on Oahu's fabled North Shore in the 1970s, to its disappointing decline in the 1980s, and up to its recent rebirth in the 2010s.  Second, even though Lightning Bolt apparel, especially its t-shirts, can be found in some national retail store chains, local surf shops, and online stores, it has a single physical presence in the United States, a surf shop on Venice Beach's Pacific Avenue, a street that runs just one block parallel to the famous Venice Beach boardwalk (outside the U.S., however, there are Lightning Bolt retail outlets.)  Third and last, the brand has a unique style that distinguishes it from the major surfwear brands of today.

One of the two original founders of the Lightning Bolt brand was surf legend Gerry Lopez.  Born in Honolulu in 1948, Lopez began surfing the waves of Waikiki Beach at age 9, but he didn't fully commit himself to surfing until after high school, after which he began winning some local competitions.  In the early 1970s, Lopez cemented his place in surf history by forging his unique style of deep, effortless, and tranquil tube-riding at the Pipeline break on Oahu's North Shore, earning himself the nickname "Mr. Pipeline."  As if to solidify his nickname, he won back-to-back Pipeline Masters titles in 1973 and 1974.  Though he never really threw himself into the professional surfing circuit that began taking shape in the mid-1970s (preferring instead to pursue surfing spiritually rather than professionally), Lopez nevertheless in many ways became the face of surfing in that decade as he was prominently featured in numerous surf movies, documentaries, and magazines.

Besides his talent as a surfer, Lopez was also a skilled surfboard shaper.  Shaping boards since 1968 under the influence of Dick Brewer, he specialized in making sleek, pintail, 7'6"-8'2", mini-guns that served his unique tube-riding style.  In 1969, he began adding a lightning bolt logo to his boards, which represented, as Lightning Bolt's current website states, not only "...the energy of Hawaiian surf, but also the energy of human physicality and artistry to make the surfboards to ride that energy deeper, faster, and more radical."

Naturally, that logo became the official logo of the brand that Lopez co-founded with Jack Shipley, a friend, co-worker, and board salesman at a Honolulu surf shop called Surf Line Hawaii.  Having moved to Oahu at the age of 9, Shipley was also a surf competition judge who judged his first event in 1966 and later became a long-serving judge with the ASP.  Forming a partnership with Lopez, who brought to the table both his persona and shaping skills, Shipley used his life savings of $2500 to buy a former Hobie surfboard outlet store on Kapiolani Boulevard in Honolulu.  Lightning Board Surfboards, as the brand was initially called, became a kind of shaper's co-op where some of the best local shapers (like Bill Barnfield, Tom Parrish, Reno Abellira, Barry Kanaiaupuni, Tom Nellis, and Tom Eberly) brought boards they had shaped in their own homes and branded with the Lightning Bolt logo.  Combined with Lopez's growing fame and Shipley's marketing skills, which included distributing surfboards to professional surfers like Mark Richards, Shaun Tompson, Wayne Bartholomew, Rory Russell, and Jeff Hakman when they competed on the North Shore, Lightning Bolt Surfboards became a red hot surfboard brand.

In the late 1970s, Duke Boyd, founder of Hang Ten, considered by many to be the original surfwear brand, joined Lightning Bolt Surfboards, and in fact he gained a controlling interest.  Under Boyd's direction, the brand branched out from surfboards into surfboard accessories, surfwear, and surfwear accessories.  Friction quickly developed between Boyd and the founding partners who felt that a far too commercial spirit was sapping the brand's original purity and energy.  Lopez left the company in 1980, and Shipley did as well a few years later.  Both the loss of the guiding hand of its founding partners and the dilution of its brand identity caused the brand to grow out of touch with surfers and surf culture, eventually fading into irrelevance in the United States (though retaining some catchet overseas, especially in Europe.)

Source: nytimes.com
In 2008, however, the brand was resuscitated by new owner Jonathan Paskowitz, whose ambition it is to make the brand a respected and desired name in the surf merchandise industry all over again.  The Paskowitz name itself might be familiar to those who closely follow surf culture.  Jonathan's father Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz was a Stanford-educated doctor who abandoned a successful medical career to pursue a more spiritually-fulfilling life as an itinerant surfer with rigid lifestyle beliefs about community, education, parenting, and health.  Along with his wife Juliette, Doc Paskowitz kept his growing family, which over time grew to nine children, on the road in a caravan that included a 24-foot camper van and assorted cars.  The Paskowitz family traveled around the world, everywhere from Hawaii to North Dakota to Florida to Venezuela to Spain and to Israel, all the while surfing and being instilled with their father's peculiar philosophy of life.  The one break from their nomadic existence came every summer after 1971 when Doc Paskowitz started the Paskowtiz International Surf Camp in San Onofre, CA.  Based on this camp, the Paskowitz family reputation grew in the surfing community, and they began receiving national media attention, all of which led to their moniker as "the First Family of Surfing."

Source: surfwisefilm.com
The Paskowitz family saga would later be immortalized in the 2008 documentary Surfwise, produced by none other than Jonathan Paskowitz.  While the documentary was honest about the mixed results of Doc Paskowitz's parenting in terms of preparing his children for the real world (Doc Paskowitz himself later claimed in an interview that he wanted to raise great men, not succcessful men), it didn't hold back Jonathan.  Not only did he grow up to be a professional longboard surfer (winning the U.S.A. Longboard Championship in 1987 and 1988), he became a very successful marketing guru, helping to lead the nascent Black Flys sunglasses brand to success in the 1990s and later working for Gotcha, Tommy Hilfiger, and Fab Optix.  He also branched out into the movie industry, doing some stunts and/or advising on the movies Big Wednesday (1978), Back to the Beach (1987), and Blue Crush (2002) and later becoming a producer of his own film projects, including, as mentioned, Surfwise.

Now Jonathan has marshaled his experience and talents to resurrect the Lightning Bolt brand.  While the brand practically disappeared from the American market, it was kept alive worldwide, with its strongest presence in Europe.  In 2008, through an old distributor he knew from his days with Black Flys, Jonathan purchased the license for the Lightning Bolt brand in the United States, now known as Lightning Bolt U.S.A.  Working with his partners in Europe, Jonathan is attempting to bring both uniformity and buzz to the brand worldwide, but his attention is clearly focused on the United States.

Much of that effort is being undertaken at Lightning Bolt U.S.A.'s corporate headquarters at 1510 Pacific Ave. in Venice Beach, CA.  Perhaps unique among surfwear brands, this brand's headquarters is in the back office area of an operating surf shop, which opened in 2010.  It was the surf shop that I walked into in April 2014.  Though I didn't get to meet the owner in person, I did speak with Leah Dittrich, the shop manager, who filled me in on some of the company's recent history, its brand strategy, and the shop itself (I deepened my research on the brand through the internet, with sources cited below.)

As I checked out the new Lightning Bolt apparel, which included mainly t-shirts, hoodies, and boardshorts in men's and women's styles, it was clear to me that the brand is trying to recapture the original Lightning Bolt look, which today would be described as a vintage surf look, recalling the 1970s specifically.  In contrast to today's major surfwear brands that have crisp, streamlined looks, the result of bright colors, long cloth cuts, and futuristic, waterproof materials, Lightning Bolt goes for a worn, weathered, surf bum chic look with faded colors, bold stripes, short cloth cuts, and cotton and cotton/polyester blend materials.  It all definitely has a nostalgic, 70s feel, and as a 70s kid myself I couldn't help but look around the shop to see if it also sold checkered Vans slip-ons or Converse high-tops with knee-high, kaleidoscope-stripe socks.  Lightning Bolt plans on experimenting with its apparel, however.  Some of its future apparel lines will have more contemporary looks, but I would wager that anything new it produces will retain a comfortable, weathered, surf bum chic look.

Focusing on its t-shirts, I noted that the t-shirt blanks used for printing were more stylistic than perhaps original Lightning Bolt t-shirts were.  They were those light, 4+ oz cotton t-shirts, not the usual heavy, 6+ oz cotton t-shirts found in most surf shops.  They were the kinds of t-shirts you might find at a trendy retail store like the Gap or Urban Outfitters, which as a matter fact sometimes stock Lightning Bolt apparel.  A couple of the t-shirts had original designs printed on them, but most Lighting Bolt t-shirts simply carried variations of the company logo.

I purchased a t-shirt with the shop logo on a big oval background.  The design was printed with a distressed look, and the hand on the t-shirt was very soft, likely due to the use of discharge ink.

Lightning Bolt Surf Shop is mostly an apparel surf shop.  It doesn't offer surf equipment rentals, surfboard repair services, or surfboard accessories.  It doesn't book lessons or tours.  It does, however, have a limited selection of surfboards branded with the iconic Lightning Bolt logo, though the boards are modern shortboards, not the classic Lightning Bolt mini-guns.  The boards are shaped by Cole Simler out of San Clemente, CA.  Though he has his own surfboard brand in Cole Surfboards, Simler supplies Lightning Bolt Surf Shop with its surfboard inventory.  If requested, the shop can also take custom orders for boards to be shaped by Simler.

Now for an awesome revelation: if a surfer desires a classic Lightning Bolt surfboard or a custom board shaped by some of the original members of the Lightning Bolt co-op, including Gerry Lopez, it is possible to obtain one through Lightning Bolt Surf Shop, which is still in contact with them.  Bear in mind, however, that given the stature of these men, it will not come cheap.

You can visit Lightning Bolt Surf Shop 7 days a week from 11 a.m.-6 p.m.  If you can't visit in person, you can shop for Lightning Bolt apparel at Lightning Bolt's website, which offers a secure shopping cart.  There is also a webpage on its site that lists other retail store chains, surf shops, and online shops that stock Lightning Bolt apparel.

Additional sources consulted:

"Lightning Bolt Surfboards," Encyclopedia of Surfing
"Gerry Lopez," Encyclopedia of Surfing
"Jack Shipley," Encyclopedia of Surfing
Adam Higginbotham, "One Family's Global Surfing Odyssey," The Telegraph, May 30, 2009
"Pret-a-Family: Jonathan Paskowitz," Pret-a-Surf Blog, May 16, 2011
"Jonathan Paskowitz," IMDb
"Jonathan Paskowitz, President at Lightning Bolt," Interview, Malakye.com, August 23, 2013


  1. I remember much of the kids in our school wearing the Lightning Bolt brand at Foster A. Begg in Manhattan Beach and Aviation High School in Redondo. Those were good times indeed!
    Thanks for sharing!

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  6. Shop looks great guys, next time i am in Oahu we will stop buy. Article was a good read as well, thanks.
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