GQ recognition propels surfwear designer to next level

June 30, 2014

John Moore and his Los Angeles-based luxe retro-surf label M.Nii. Moore was recently named by GQ as one of the best new menswear designers in America for 2014.

When John Moore was named to GQ magazineís 2014 class of best new menswear designers in America for his retro-cool surf label M.Nii, it was the branding equivalent of catching the perfect wave. Not just because the 3-year-old label is stealth-brand small (with barely 50 retail accounts globally, retail sales are about $1.5 million annually) but also because the entire line was born out of a chance flea market find ó a single pair of navy blue twill surf shorts.

"This is what started it all," Moore says, sliding a photograph across the conference table in his Culver City. Calif., studio. "My [business] partner Randy [Hild] is a ferocious surf memorabilia collector, and he found these. When he threw them in front of me, I just fell in love with them. I had this immediate reaction to the label. But we didnít know the story; we had no idea."

It turned out to be a story that stretches all the way back to the birth of the first surf-specific boardshorts, which Moore and company discovered as they started researching the name in the waistband label ó M. Nii (pronounced EM-nee-ee).

That, Moore says, was the first initial and last name of a mom-and-pop tailor shop in Waianae, Hawaii, on the island of Oahu. In business from roughly 1948 to 1968, it crafted everything from menís jackets and trousers to school band uniforms.

At a time when most surfers were tackling the waves clad in nondescript cutoff military-issue chinos, standout styles evolved as a way for surfers to distinguish themselves from afar, Moore says. He shares a tale imparted to him by surfing legend Greg Noll.

"Greg told us heíd be out there charging these waves, and at the end of the night, everyoneís drinking beers and watching footage, and some of the guys were claiming his waves," Moore explained. "So his whole vibe was: ĎI need something to stand out.í So he went to the M. Nii Tailor Shop."

The shop not only had a range of heavy-duty twill fabrics on hand but also all manner of decorative taping, which helped make Nollís trunks distinctive. "Word spread fast," Moore says, "and every guy who would go in there would have a different tape or color."

In pretty short order, M. Niiís surf trunk business quickly moved beyond Hawaii, and President John F. Kennedy was photographed in a pair at Santa Monica Beach in 1962.

The boardshorts with a backstory couldnít have found their way into a more capable pair of hands. Moore, a bearded, surf-loving 40-year-old Venice Beach resident, has been steeped in the art of storytelling for more than a decade. He was the guy who came up with the name of Abercrombie & Fitchís Hollister line, and for the last six years, heís helmed Culver City-based Pop Studios, whose bread and butter is crafting compelling brand stories for fresh-out-of-the-box concepts.

Using that serendipitous flea market find as a jumping-off point, Moore, Hild and a third business partner, Ramez Toubassy, launched M.Nii for summer 2011 (jettisoning the originalís space between initial and last name).

The debut season consisted of variations on that surf trunk ó dubbed the Makaha Drowner ó made of heavy-duty twill, with a lace-up waist, button-fly closure and a wide, vertical red and white contrast taping down each hip.

The current collection includes boardshorts in a variety of fabrics ($110-$195), as well as tees, chinos and other clothing for men and women. The line is designed in Culver City and made in the U.S., most of it in the L.A. area. Itís carried at a range of retailers from high-end department stores such as Barneys New York and Nordstrom to smaller, upscale menswear shops, including Ron Herman, Unionmade and Wittmore locally.

"This is our first season [carrying M.Nii], and itís done extremely well," said Paul Witt, owner of the Wittmore menswear boutique on L.A.ís West 3rd Street.

The brand has proved so popular that heís expanding his merchandise buy for the fall season. "I really believe in it," Witt said.

According to Moore, growth has been steady since launch, but M.Nii still remains a relatively unknown cult surf brand. Thatís about to change.

"I donít even think weíve hit our growth spurt," Moore said. "[And] I think with the GQ recognition, weíre entering the next phase."



Associated Press