Chairmen of the boardshorts: Vans' Fletcher, Tudor talk surf gear design

Inside the design process of Nathan Fletcher's and Joel Tudor's signature surfing gear.
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Nathan Fletcher doesn’t know what will come next for his signature boardshorts. He may go a bit more plain. Or maybe abstract. He may even opt for freestyle finger painting. But whatever he settles on, it's a safe bet that the surfer will put his own personal stamp on his signature short.

Take his upcoming release from Vans, a black-and-earth-tone-colored short with a Native American pattern across the top. “Everything is a certain way,” Fletcher tells about making sure that his style stands out in the marketplace. “Everybody has different designs, bright designs. I’m a Native American; that is something cool and I like the designs of that. I thought it would be cool to bring that feel to my trunk.”

In a world in which everyone is trying to follow everyone else, Fletcher says, he wants to come up with a design that stands out—so that when people look at a rack of trunks, his “are kind of different.”

Joel Tudor, the other signature boardshort athlete from Vans, couldn’t be more different from Fletcher. But he couldn’t be any more individual, either, and the two like it that way.

athlete for Vans over five years ago. Now with more than a dozen Vans designs to his credit, he is still exploring the styles he has found from his world travels and the short structure taught to him by a legendary Hawaiian seamstress decades ago.

For his part, Fletcher, too, stays heavily involved in the process, letting Vans designers design in the end, but staying focused on style, pockets, zippers, logos and everything involved in creating a signature look.

Both Fletcher and Tudor use Vans’ sturdy stretch fabric, a more durable four-way stretch that cuts down on clinging. Fletcher opts for a 21-inch length—right at the knee for most—while Tudor won’t stray from the 19-inch length.

“In the ’90s with long trunks, that was something I was not into,” Tudor says. “I didn’t see a purpose for below-the-knee.” His lifelong quest to keep shorts short lives on in his signature line. Tudor has come up with a silhouette he likes—the shorter length couples with a narrow leg width and small waistband because his seamstress teacher once told him that thick waistbands looks bad running high on his back. With the silhouette dialed in, Tudor puts a focus on patterns, changing up the look every season. His newest short, releasing early in 2016, offers blues and reds in an uncluttered leaf pattern, a style he sees as a piece of art.


Fletcher, though, he likes a little longer short simply because “I’ve got skinny, hairy, white thighs,” he jokes. “It is just comfortable,” he says. “I like a surf short right at the knees so it doesn’t snag. You don’t notice it until you surf and go from sitting and lying and go for a wave.”

As Fletcher and Tudor prepare to release new boardshorts in early 2016, they do so keeping in mind an entire line of clothing, from shoes, flip-flops and T-shirts. “It all has to have a theme,” Tudor says. “It has to have a consistent pattern or color.” For Tudor’s coming line, the leaf from the shorts shows up on the sandals, inside the shoes and on t-shirts. The color scheme and geometrical Native American pattern plays through Fletcher’s entire collection.

Fletcher, who recently welcomed his second son to his family, says he can look back at past boardshort designs and see different phases of his life. Simply having that opportunity, though, proves powerful for him.

“It is a big honor being a surfer and getting older and watching things change and progress as fast as it has,” Fletcher says. “It is almost like a reward for something I’ve done in my life. That’s the way I think.”

As Vans continues to create with Fletcher and Tudor, expect both surfers to continue to explore personal style, inspiration and meaning. Even if that means finger-painted patterns in the future.  

Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, sneakers and design for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.