In typical late-2000s style, Central Coast surf brand The Critical Slide Society started its life as a blog, sharing updates and photos from surf enthusiasts. In the eight years since, it has evolved into a surf-lifestyle apparel company worth millions of dollars.
In 2009 TCSS founders Jim Mitchell and Sam Coombes were both working day jobs – Mitchell as a long-time key artist for Mambo, Coombes in marketing at MTV (the pair met when Coombes worked in the marketing department at Mambo).
They started making T-shirts and board shorts in their spare time as a creative outlet, and sold a small number through their blog.
“It allowed me to get my hands dirty and make physical stuff,” Coombes says. “It was one of those organic approaches, not mapped out. In hindsight, if we’d known that we’d [later] start a brand, we probably wouldn’t have given it the longest name known to man.”
Within 18 months TCSS’s clothes had attracted a following and was stocked in Australia, Japan and the US. Coombes and Mitchell had inadvertently tapped into a niche but influential market of people like themselves – weekend surfers not concerned with the hyper-competitive world of professional surfing.
“It’s an attitude towards surfing,” Coombes explains. “It’s the enjoyment of being in the water. Our guy goes to festivals, loves travelling and that nomadic lifestyle.”
TCSS is now a full-time operation with 70 per cent of product exported to overseas markets (Japan is the fastest growing). The brand produces a range of men’s casualwear and surf apparel from board shorts and T-shirts to wetsuits. Its shorts were a two-time winner (2014 and 2015) of STAB magazine’s Best Board Short.
“I think what stood out was that we did the prints in-house,” Coombes says. “Some technical board shorts are super long with crazy fluoro colours. [Our style] has a laid-back approach.”
TCSS offers different leg lengths and pre-washes its shorts so they feel supple rather than rigid on first wear. “We enjoy making quirky details,” he says. “Printed linings, stash pockets, things you don’t discover until you’ve worn the shorts and they’re on your bedroom floor inside out. That’s something we pride ourselves on.”
Mitchell’s design heritage is clear in the brand’s original in-house prints, but TCSS also regularly collaborates with artists and the wider surf community. The current campaign, Movers and Shapers, is a “celebration of the craftsmen”. The campaign includes work by typographer Georgia Hill and photos of longboard shapers including Eden Saul (aka. Dead Kooks), Thomas Bexon and Johnny Gill from Keyo Surfboards.
TCSS is part of a new breed of contemporary surf brands that have expanded beyond the traditional T-shirts-and-boardies formula into something bigger. Take the increasingly urban-focused Saturdays NYC, or the surf-inspired luxury fashion label Ex Infinitas from Melbourne. Coombes and Mitchell are even putting together a 12-inch record with licensed tracks from eight different bands.
But what makes one brand, and not the next, truly accepted by surfers?
“It’s got to be an intuitive sort of thing,” Coombes says. “From our side, it’s what we do and love. We’re here doing art, surfing on weekends. Our buddies are shaping boards. Hopefully that comes through and doesn’t seem contrived.”