Catching Up with Legendary Surfer Kelly Slater

Jamie Lisanti

What has the world’s greatest surfer been up to lately? Though a nagging foot injury has kept him out of the ocean and out of compeition, Kelly Slater has been busy. Between constructing an artificial wave pool at the WSL Surf Ranch in California, to growing the sustainable, surf-inspired clothing brand, Outerknown, that he co-founded with John Moore, the 46-year-old is always on the move. When he’s not rehabbing his injury or relaxing in Florida, Slater is balancing a variety of social circles and business ventures, jetsetting between New York, Los Angeles, Paris—and anywhere there are big waves, of course.

With a pulse on the worlds of style and sustainability, it only made sense for the 11-time World Surf League champion to team up with Swiss watch brand Breitling to create a timepiece that is fashionable, functionable and forward-thinking. The new Superocean Héritage II Chronograph 44 Outerknown watch features a strap is crafted from a recycled material called ECONYL yarn. “As strange as it sounds, the beach is, actually, my office, so I am confronted with pollution on a daily basis,” Slater said in late November. “I will do whatever I can to help keep the world's beach­es and oceans clean.” Slater joins female surfing powerhouses Stephanie Gilmore and Sally Fitzgibbons as part Breitling’s “Surfer Squad.”

We caught up with Slater in New York as he unveiled the new watch to talk about saving the oceans, surfing's place in the Olympics, his plans for the future and more. (Note: The following interview as been edited for clarity.)

Jamie Lisanti: Are you amazed how technology has been able to help progress sustainability and help move certain initiatives forward? The strap on the watch is just one example of an innovative material helping to make a difference.
Kelly Slater: We made the band out of ECONYL yarn, a recycled fabric from fishing nets—nylon is the thing that is really recyclable. A lot time the nets just get stuck in the ocean. That was the storyline we were bringing with the product, bringing together our brand [Outerknown] and the Breitling brand. Both of us have this common goal together.
Ocean conversancy will benefit in the long run from the things we are doing and some of the donations we are making. We started talking about this project a year ago. It made sense on my end to try to have Outerknown as a piece of this as well.
JL: How important is sustainability to you and with what you do outside of surfing?
KS: People are starting to see that sustainability is something that we all are going to have to incorporate into our lives—at some point, in every facet, because we are polluting the earth so quickly, in the water, the air, and so on. There are so many innovative ideas and we are implanting those seeds in kids right now, so as they are growing up they are seeing products.
Usually when you have something established, whether it’s a clothing company or whatever, it’s hard to bring that aspect in after the fact. But when you start a brand and bake that into what the brand is it is a lot easier and that’s really what we’ve tried to do with Outerknown. That’s why I’m really proud that Breitling wanted to partner with Outerknown to send that message in a bigger way.
JL: You co-founded your sustainable fashion label, Outerknown. How would you describe your style? What does fashion mean to you?
KS: Growing up, fashion wasn’t much of anything to me. I was talking recently on my social media about how I didn’t have socks as a teenager. When I was kid, we really didn’t have much money or anything, so if I got a new t-shirt I was happy. At this point, to be able to create and co-found my own brand with Outerknown, and have other people who see that vision and that idea is great.
We wanted to upscale what surf fashion was—make nice stuff that doesn’t date itself and will last a long time because it’s really well made and, in some cases, has a lifetime warranty on the clothing. It really has to go with the lifestyle. I am in a lot of different places, always traveling. It had to be informal enough to be beachwear but also able to be worn in places like Paris or L.A. or New York. Our nicer pieces are really nice but not ultra formal in any way and even our most basic stuff is low maintenance.
JL: What are your plans Tokyo 2020? With it being the first time surfing is including in the summer games, do you feel a need to compete?
KS: I haven’t made an official statement but I have said that if I were to make the Olympic team in 2020 I would surf. I would probably make that my official retirement after that.
JL: Were you excited when you heard that surfing would be included in the Olympics for the first time?
KS: I do believe the best surfer in the world competitively wins the World Surf League title every year. We surf a number of different types of conditions and stuff. When you’re going for an Olympic medal, you have to be on that day, you have to feel good, your mind has to be in the right place. Whether it’s a course or whatever we’re going to be surfing, that type of wave has to suit your style and what you’re good at, either on your forehand or backhand in surfing. A lot of things to need to come together at one time. But it will be more rare than a world championship title will be.
Already within surfing there’s already somewhat of a revolt against competition with some of the grassroots stuff. Some people think surfing is not a sport; it’s just more of a lifestyle, something you do. And then within that, you have more of the competition purists who think we should just have a world tour title and maybe we don’t need the Olympics. It’s a smaller and smaller percentage of people. But the Olympics open surfing up to a broader population of people that go, “Oh, cool, surfing in the Olympics, let’s check this thing out.”
There’s always that initial shock factor when there is a change that people have to get comfortable with and figure out what it means for them and the sport, but I think things will change once it settles in. To be in the in Olympics is a huge honor for any sport, especially in an emerging sport that is growing and is looking for acceptance outside of its hardcore population.
JL: It’s great for the young surfers coming up in the sport as well, to have the Olympics as an option.
KS: For the guys that are before me, it seems so foreign, because those guys were never going to have a chance to surf in the Olympics. So there probably is a bit of a bias there. But I have to think of my godson right now, he’s 11, he’s probably thinking: when I’m 18, I could make the Olympic team. Those kids are going to change that DNA in surfing.
JL: At your age and at this point in your career, where do you you’re your motivation, both in surfing and outside of the sport?
KS: I’m passionate about a lot of things, so that kind of just sustains me everyday. I do my best to get away from all of that from time to time, whether it’s a couple of days or a few weeks, and just tune out and surf. Or even just do nothing.
I’m born and raised in Florida but I moved out and I don’t live there a lot now. But when I go back there I feel like that is my vacation time to go to a place where nobody makes a big hoopla about me. I grew up with all of the people there, it’s a small town, and I can go home and be by myself for a week at a time. Even my best friends don’t call [laughs]. That’s how I recharge and get away.
JL: What is it like to be part of the Breitling “Surfer Squad” with Stephanie Gilmore and Sally Fitzgibbons, two powerful women in the sport, supporting a good cause like this?
KS: It’s cool. Actually, Stephanie and I have been pretty good friends for a long time, she and my girlfriend are really close friends. She and Sally are such different personalities and characters. I think Steph is probably the most naturally gifted female surfer of all time. She just matched the greatest number of world titles, with seven, and I think she could win a dozen if she wanted to. She’s just incredible and really relaxed and really carefree. Sally, when it comes to competition, is much more focused, almost like an Olympic competitor in the way she approaches surfing. And she’s a little more into the branding and marketing side of the sport. So they are such different personalities so it works in that way.
JL: Your foot injury has kept you away from surfing for quite sometime. How are you feeling nowadays?
KS: I broke my foot last year but then I reinjured it in June. We had a competition the day after [we shot the Breitling video in South Africa] and I tried to surf—I probably shouldn’t have tried to surf. I could really barely walk at the time. Now, I can surf everyday but I can sit here and wiggle my foot and it hurts a lot. I’ve been doing some rehab, a little bit of something everyday to get better.

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