“They were mean-spirited but that is what made Gotcha the dream,” said surf journalist Chas Smith. “It was exclusive, and you weren’t invited, and I wasn’t invited, but son of a bitch I wanted to be as I lounged in my tiny Coos Bay bedroom.”
The teenage Smith, staring at the Gotcha ‘If You Don’t Surf/Don’t Start’ poster (pictured above) on his wall in the late ’80s wasn’t alone in wanting to be invited to the party. All over the world, Californian skate kids, Bondi surf rats, Berlin ravers, and Missouri mall hangers all bought into a brand; and that brand was Gotcha.
And while by the late 1980s and early ’90s a few pioneering brands had captured the surf identity and sold it as clothes, it was Gotcha that stood out. It was a risk-taking idea factory and a creative foundry that took gambles and broke rules. It was a story of bold action and innovation of ambition, but also of overreach. Success became its own biggest enemy as it grew exponentially in a short space of time, before fading in the late ’90s.
The good news, though, is that the famous half-man, half-shark with a flag Gotcha logo has risen again, bigger than ever, as global, brand new collections will be available in Europe from this spring, as well as in Morocco, the US, Latin America and The Middle East.
They are also partnering The Spring Classic Surf Invitational, collaborating with Wavelength to produce a clothing range that will launch at the surf, moto and ride culture festival to be held at Woolacombe from May 27-30.
Gotcha was formed in 1978 when Michael Tomson and Joel Cooper started flogging board shorts from a garage in Laguna Beach, California. By 1982, Gotcha was a household name to surfers around the world and had established itself as one of the most authentic and original surf brands.
Tomson, who died in 2020, was very much the driving force of the brand. Born in Durban, South Africa he was a professional surfer during the 1970s, best known for his aggressive, raw, and powerful approach to surfing Pipe backside. He had also been the assistant editor of Surfing magazine before Gotcha became a vessel and creative outlet into which he poured all his talent, taste, ambition and love of a good party.
“The bottom line is we created a culture at Gotcha, a culture of adventure and experimentation. We took chances and we made good on them. We were not afraid,” Tomson said. Gotcha’s key was its mix of design, creativity, and pure attitude. It was a cocktail that permeated everything from its apparel, surfers, and marketing.
It was Gotcha that brought neon colours, irreverent prints and unique silhouettes to surf, and for the first time meshed surf and fashion. It pretty much invented surf culture as we now know it. Gotcha influenced future generations of streetwear designers and marketing execs alike. It was Shawn Stussy who designed the logo, known as Skinny Mike, and was just one graphic designer who worked at Gotcha before launching their own brand.
“Throughout the 1980’s the sheer energy pouring forth from Gotcha’s Costa Mesa HQ, month after month — the sheer creative horsepower, the audacity — was miles ahead of any surf commerce entity,” said Matt Warshaw in his Encyclopedia of Surfing. “And I don’t just mean Quiksilver and Billabong, but all of it, the mags, the boardmakers, filmmakers, everything.”
Gotcha’s infamous “If You Don’t Surf or Skate, Don’t Start” ad campaigns, with its gallery of American non-surfing and therefore unworthy archetypes juxtaposed against colour action shots of Gotcha team riders, are probably the most remembered of a slew of campaigns that refused to play by any existing rules.
Allied to the disruptive ad campaigns was pure star power. During the 1980s and ’90s the Gotcha team included Martin Potter, Brad Gerlach, Gerry Lopez, Derek and Michael Ho, Brock Little, Rob Machado, Mike Stewart, Sunny Garcia and Matt Archbold, to name a just a few of the best, and baddest surfers on the planet. In skate, Gotcha sponsored Steve Caballero, Christian Hosoi and Rob Roskopp who added further action sports gold dust to the brand.
The combination created a blueprint that action sports brands still follow and its designs, widely considered to be a creative benchmark, are still referenced throughout the industry today. It also led to huge success. Gotcha’s business crested in the early 1990s when sales for men’s and boy’s clothing in the U.S. had revenues of more than $150 million.
However, the decline was swift, with the brand a victim of its mainstream appeal. They over distributed and by the late ’90s it had lost its outsider, cult status. Sales fell and in 1997 Tomson and Cooper sold the brand.
A few attempts have been made over the years to revive the iconic brand, but this feels different. Older, wiser, and with Michael Tomson’s death in 2020, the new team is more ready to carry on the legacy of what made Gotcha great, yet sustainably build the brand.
They have brought in a group of people who were part of the magic in the heyday. The collections will stay true to Tomson’s original concept from the 80s; designs will be vibrant and bold with irreverent graphics across the range as well as developing a new school team of athletes to continue the Gotcha story.
One such surfer is the UK’s Stanley Norman, who will be surfing in the Surf Invitational. “It feels great knowing that such an iconic brand is back, and has got my back,” Norman told Wavelength. “And their support of the Spring Classic Surf Invitational is an epic way to get involved in our surfing culture.”
Grab your tickets for the Spring Classic now and catch Gotcha surfer Stanley Norman showcasing his skills in the Surf Invitational.