WHEN CONAN HAYES left home at age 14, he set his sights on big ocean waves, hoping to make a splash on the World Championship Tour. The surfer from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, quietly rode his way through the pro circuit for nearly a decade. He did all right but never displayed the flair of Sunny Garcia or the dominance of Kelly Slater. Hayes's best finish in the WCT standings was 13th, in 1996, and in '99 he won the GShock Hawaiian Pro at Haleiwa Alii Beach and took second in the Triple Crown.
A year later Hayes walked away from the big swells and the endorsement deals tied to his competitive surfing to try his luck on another tenuous venture--as a bohemian fashion designer. "[The decision] was one of the biggest of my life," he says. Suddenly Hayes was popping up in Sheryl Crow's Soak Up the Sun video with his surfing model wife, Malia Jones (they have since divorced), and publishing photographs, poetry, drawings and paintings in a $200 coffee-table book. At 29 Hayes had found success designing keep-it-real duds for disenfranchised youths.
Hayes and designer Pat Tenore launched RVCA in 2000 as a high-end apparel brand for the action-sports market. (Pronounced ROOkah, the name originated as two opposing chevrons, signifying opposites, "like industrialization and nature balancing each other," says Hayes.) This past summer, the company opened its flagship retail store in Costa Mesa, Calif., amid the ultrahip Orange County scene. With its low-riding jeans, button-down dress shirts and silkscreen zip jackets, RVCA sees itself as an alternative to casual surf clothing companies as well as contemporary brands that have their own line of action apparel. "Quiksilver doesn't do Barneys. RVCA bridges the gap both ways," Tenore says. "We stay true to the subculture. RVCA's a lifestyle brand. Mainstream America tries to buy into that lifestyle, but it's a fraud."
Turned off by big-name brands selling pseudo-surf tees, Hayes works 14hour days to help RVCA promote a community of surfers, skaters, artists and musicians. In 2000 RVCA established the Artist Network Program, which promotes awareness and a creative exchange among artists and musicians. Struggling and established artists alike design Tshirt logos for RVCA, which then donates a portion of the sales to a charity of the creator's choice. The eclectic network features icons such as skateboarder and artist Ed Templeton and surfer-songwriter Jack Johnson.
Though his current focus is on establishing RVCA, Hayes says he will never abandon surfing. "It's been a part of my life for so long," he says. While he dreams of the powerful, hollow swells off Teahupoo, Tahiti, where he finished second at a WCT event in 1998, competition has taken a backseat to art. "I'm not travelling as much or chasing contests," he says. "But if a good opportunity to shoot a video comes along, I go for it." --Y.Y.