Boardriding legend to shut down surf store

Wollongong boardriding icon John Skipp is calling quits on the surf fashion business after 45 years on the city’s main street.

Crown Street store Skipp Surf will close next month after a slowdown Mr Skipp has attributed to the global financial crisis, parking meters, online competition and the passage of time.

He was in his early 20s, a surfer and recently schooled board shaper, when he began sourcing fashions suited to the burgeoning Wollongong surfing community.

The first store opened in North Wollongong in 1967 and moved to lower Crown Street the following year.

Illawarra surfers wore football shorts in the water then, popular because they were loose around the legs and didn’t catch on their knees.

Form-fitting jeans and tight James Dean-style T-shirts were in vogue but Mr Skipp, a subscriber to the first surfing magazines, knew the surf world’s trendsetters were the Californian boys, who wore baggy jeans and loose-fitting T-shirts.

‘‘It was a different world [in California]. Most surfers were fit, but you didn’t show your fitness; you wore baggy pants and loose T-shirts,’’ Mr Skipp said.

‘‘I always knew that surfing was about more than surfboards. It’s a way of life and there was clothing to go with that.’’

For a while the store was the only surf shop between Sydney and Melbourne. When the surf was good he would put up a sign ‘‘back at 12’’ and hit the waves, returning to find customers waiting to get in.

He sourced baggy jeans from a menswear store in Kings Cross and bought Lee jeans from a company supplying wharfies and seamen. He opened an account with Levi’s before the company had opened its Australian office.

He later formed a friendship with a Speedos rep and convinced the company to bring out a T-shirt with big, loose sleeves. He bought them in batches of 144 to keep up with the demand.

He learnt quickly of the surf world’s tendency to support its own, and built much of his supply chain around friendships and the credibility he had won through his board-shaping business, which will continue to trade on FlindersStreet into its 50th year.

‘‘Gordon Merchant called in one day and said, ‘Me and my wife are making board shorts. We’re going to call them Billabong. Do you want them?’.

Skipp Surf retail outlet founder John Skipp and his youngest daughter Chloe. Picture: KEN ROBERTSON

‘‘There were few guys who tried to break in, but unless you lived the lifestyle the brands never got in.’’

A father of five, Mr Skipp’s children and his wife Maret have taken over much of the day-to-day operations at Skipp Surf in recent years.

John Skipp in 1988.

The business continues to enjoy a loyal clientele, but had suffered under the GFC, online competition and parking meters, Mr Skipp said.

He credits daughter Chloe Skipp, the shop’s principal buyer, with keeping an eye on shifting trends and making good buying decisions.

Ms Skipp said it had been a long time since the store had ordered a 144-batch of T-shirts.

‘‘Back in those days they had one style and they did it well. Fashion is so diverse now. We’ve got so many different lengths of boardshorts and you have to have a little bit of everything,’’ she said.

The family hopes someone will take over the premises, which were fitted out only five years ago.

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