By Grass Clippings
Laird Hamilton once said, “surfing is one of the few sports that you look ahead to see what’s behind”. For famed clothing designer, Jeff “Yoki” Yokoyama, surfing has served as his compass since a very young age. As he would put it, his life has been a journey of “finding warm water”.
Jeff “Yoki” Yokoyama
Yoki is a beloved clothing designer amongst the surfing community on the West Coast. He has founded over 7 clothing brands dating back to 1980 and currently continues to design out of his surf shop, “The Yoki Shop”, in Newport Beach.
Born in Glendale, California in 1955, Yoki was immediately drawn to the ocean. He tells the story that the American Dream in California at that time was portrayed as a house, a white picket fence, 2.5 kids and a dog. For him, his American dream was paddling out into the waves.
"I was 17 when I graduated high school and I had nothing more to do than finding warm water."
With that in mind, he picked up and moved to Hawaii where he surfed and sailed for 3 years. He made his way back to Newport Beach and found work as a hairdresser. He saw the amount of money his buddy was making cutting hair and told himself “that’s warm water”. While working as a hairdresser, it seemed to him that each of his clients had kids who played sports and surfed at a time when there were only a handful of surfing lifestyle brands. It was the beginning of the 80’s when so much was happening and Yoki knew the surf culture was only going to grow. So he started what we know today as Maui and Sons. Being that the company only consisted of himself and two high school buddies (also partners), he knew he was going to have to be creative when it came to marketing.
“I would get off work at about five, put on a Maui and Son’s T-shirt, and run on PCH from Dahlia St to the end where the 5 crowns was. The PCH would be lined with cars and people would be chanting ‘Maui, Maui and Sons’. That was my marketing and advertising.”
Maui and Sons’ took off when we created elastic waistband shorts which really hadn’t been created yet. He attributes the ability to scale Maui and Sons’ to their ability to tell the story.
“Nowadays when people tell a story they tell it so fast and it's a swipe. Those days it took us 5 years to build a company. In our fifth year we did 10 million bucks. In our first year, we did $300,000 and in our first 6 months we did $30,000.”
The 80’s was a renaissance to Yoki and he believes it's all happening again today.
Speaking with Yoki, you quickly pick up that he’s a man of wisdom and a man looking to pass it on. He urges people today to draw on their past, their memories, and even their hardships. Through our memories, we form meaning and meaning is what people are really looking for.
________________________________________________________________The Yoki Shop
Five years after starting Maui and Sons’, Yoki had made it. He was on the cover of Inc. Magazine as one of the fastest growing companies and his career was as good as written. But success has a funny way of humbling people and it did the same to Yoki. His struggle with success eventually led to him leaving Maui and Sons’, but even without Maui and Sons’ he was the same old Yoki. He went on to start Pirate Surf shortly after which sold to Quicksilver. Then he started Modern Amusement which he went on to sell to Mossimo. As the success continued to pile on, Yoki wasn’t going to make the same mistakes twice. Having initially thought corporate roles and limelight were the benchmark for success, his outlook on life had changed.
“I say be everything everyone else isn’t.”
Yoki realized early on that corporate companies for the most part fail to grow with their customer base and he was hell bent on staying in tune with his. Just because someone is 65 years old doesn’t mean they gave up surfing. It also doesn’t mean that their memories aren’t as important to them as say a 20 year old. He believes the key to a clothing brand is being able to continue to connect with someone over the arc of their life. This outlook has led Yoki to 2429 West Coast Hwy Newport Beach, California where he runs his small surf shop that houses his brands “Pidgin Orange”, “Yoki’s Garden”, and “Yokishop”. 40 years since “finding warm water” in Hawaii, Yoki still subscribes to the values of surf.
The Yoki Legacy
Yoki thinks about the legacy he’ll one day leave behind. In what he calls the second chapter of his life, he has spent a substantial amount of time working on a project to repurpose thrown out athletic garments specifically within college athletics. He’s made some traction with colleges in his backyard. On yokishop.com, you’ll notice a plethora of USC and UCLA repurposed jerseys. His hope is that not only colleges, but corporate clothing companies will begin repurposing discarded garments. Seems pretty logical right? Well, Yoki can tell you about the endless voicemails he’s left or the times he’s been stood up at scheduled meetings. It just isn’t a priority for corporations (even universities) to tackle sustainability. Profitability goes over much better with shareholders. It’s poetic really if you think about it. These same companies are the ones asking Yoki how he’s been able to connect with his customers over the long haul. It’s simple. It’s not all about money for Yoki. He actually gives a shit.
“You need to start thinking about yourself again and how much God gave you. Thinking about how much your Mom and Dad did for you and how important it was for you having Tommy’s burger with your brother, sister and Dad on the side of the road”.
Denzel Washington famously said, “you’ll never see a U-Haul behind a hearse”.
The Yoki Shop has had a big impact on us at Grass Clippings, hence why we are so honored to sell Mucho Aloha (& Mucho Grassy) gear in our own retail shop. Yoki has had a defiant stance on what is possible in life which serves as great inspiration. We changed a lot of things at Grass Clippings because of what Yoki has taught us. Much like floating on a surfboard in the middle of a set, he stressed to us to slow down, observe and make conscious decisions. As we’ve talked with Yoki, the word “meaning” continues to reverberate back. We agree that memories create meaning and it's ever important to remember where you came from. Yoki does and that’s why his brands have been so resilient.
In light of everything going on in the world, leaning on people like Yoki has never been more important. When we opened our retail shop, we were met with a lot of negativity. “Retail is a dying business,” they said. But what Yoki has taught us is we have the ability to write our own story and that’s what we intend on doing.
We look forward to what the future holds with Yoki. In the meantime, life is pretty simple.. Think different, do different. All in your pursuit of “warm water”.