In Orange County, “heritage brand” means something different. There are no tailoring houses that have been owned by the same family for centuries or dressmakers that can trace their origins to the court of Louis XIV. Southern California has historically been a very casual place, and most of the clothing companies that are founded in Orange County tend to be very practical and utilitarian. The dominant “California look” isn’t a 3-button suit roped shoulders, it’s t-shirts and Vans. That’s why sports apparel brands do so well here- especially beach apparel brands. Most boardshorts are disposable, but Birdwell’s commitment to quality have made them a local favorite for over 50 years.
One aspect to Birdwell’s longevity was getting in at the right time. Founded in 1961, surf culture was reaching its peak in American culture. However, the apparel industry had yet to catch up with the trend- swim trunks were still being made out of wool and canvas. Carrie Birdwell Mann, a seamstress and the mother of several surfers, set out to make an improved product for her children. She introduced a two ply construction for increased durability and used spinnaker cloth she saw on the sails of boats in Newport Beach. Soon, she received an order of 100 shorts from Newport Beach lifeguards, and she recruited her family to help her keep up with production. Demand grew to a point that they had to purchase a factory in Santa Ana, where nearly all of the company’s products are manufactured to this day. In 2014, the company was bought by a group of investors, including Geoff Clawson, a former client partner at Facebook, who now serves as the brand’s president.
In recent years, Birdwell has collaborated with brands like J. Crew, RVCA,and Todd Snyder. Outside of this, Birdwell has garnered the respect of high end brands around the world. “The conversation we end up having with those brands stems from a mutual admiration for a decades-long dedication to quality craftsmanship, both from a product development ethos that focuses on designing timeless pieces and from a production approach to scaling hand cut and sewn manufacturing capacity here in the USA.. ” says Clawson. He says that their ethos resonates especially with Japanese retailers. “We’ve found our goal of continuous improvement, whether it be related to product design or handcrafted production, is a meaningful part of the dialog with these retailers and something that seems to be rooted in cultural norms around attention to detail and craft (referred to as ‘shokunin’ in Japanese),” he says. “[We also] think in terms of decades when it comes to product design and construction. Things must get better with age and be just as applicable in the future as they were in the past.”
Since their inception, Birdwell has offered custom clothing. Customers used to mail letters with descriptions and illustrations of what they wanted. Thanks to the internet, the process has recently become much simpler. “Whether it be our Competition Jackets, or racing jackets, board shorts or tote bags, the customer can design it themselves,” Clawson says. “We will build it to the customer’s specifications – colorway, with or without stripes, etc. – it’s part of our legacy and a service we’re able to provide because we’re making everything by hand in our factory in Santa Ana.”
Birdwell’s product lineup isn’t much different today than it was in the 1960s. That doesn’t mean that they’re afraid to make changes. “We don’t want the future of the brand to be based only on what the brand has done in the past,” says Clawson. Recently they introduced board shorts for women as well as the Tac-Short, based on the shorts worn by the crew of a mediterranean mega-yacht.
Birdwell represents something rare in the modern fashion industry. In a time when most brands are cutting costs in any way possible, Birdwell still crafts every item by hand, using quality materials that are made in the USA. If you’re looking for a quality pair of boardshorts that has both a classic design and will withstand the test of time, try a pair of Birdwells. When they say quality is their gimmick, they aren’t lying.