Ocean Pacific Apparel Designs, 1979 – 1989

Exhibit / June 31, 2018

Object Name: Ocean Pacific apparel designs
Maker and Year: Ocean Pacific, et al, circa 1979-1989
Object Type: Graphic design
Description: (K.E. Roberts)

Ocean Pacific was founded in 1972 by Jim Jenks, a San Diego-based surfboard maker and former sportswear rep. He had developed the logo in 1969 for a surfboard line, but found much greater success with surfwear, OP’s corduroy “walkshorts” becoming an immediate hit with surfers and, in short order, boys and men everywhere (the high-waisted style was popularized by Tom Selleck in Magnum, P.I.). Edgier brands like Australia’s Quicksilver and Billabong (both established in 1973) quickly pushed OP out of the forefront among the local set, but Jencks had already rebranded OP as a more general sportswear line. While Quicksilver and others were at the time restricted to independent surf shops, OP was prominent in national department store chains, and included lines for both adults and juniors.

OP’s graphic apparel from the brand’s heyday dramatically illustrates the shifting visual aesthetic of the era, from the earth tones and primary color stripes of the late ’70s to the bright neon and jittery geometric shapes of the ’80s. The change is reflective of both the second surfing boom (several more brands, including Gotcha and Maui and Sons, made waves) and the commercialization of a previously esoteric pursuit—which, of course, had been invented by the Polynesians long before European colonization and the arrival of wealthy Americans at Waikiki in the early 20th Century. During the ’80s, image and wealth dominated: one’s association with a given subculture, no matter how “underground,” came to depend less on participation in that subculture and more on one’s ability to pay for merchandise that advertised one’s desire to be identified with that subculture. Skateboarding and punk were the victims of the same process of cannibalization, whereby corporations gobbled up jealously communal rites and spit them out as global commodities.

A commercial from 1984 shows Ocean Pacific chasing a more upscale demographic, with yet another outburst of distinctly ’80s design elements, including the pervasive checkerboard (proven to attract young men). Here a clean-cut, attractive teenage couple drive a red convertible through a magical purple and pink landscape, propelled by a bouncy synth score. Glimpsing an OP billboard on the side of the road, they discover, to their great shock and gratification, that it features the two of them—driving through a magical purple and pink landscape. The spot is deeply innocent and yet deeply vain, an apt description of the decade in which it ran.

OP made attempts to recapture the surfing crowd, namely by sponsoring the OP Pro Surfing Championship from 1982 to 1995, but it survived on the more conservative fare—shorts, polos, Velcro wallets—that became widespread among suburban American adolescents, many of whom lived nowhere near a beach. In 1986, total surfwear sales hit $1 billion for the first time, and the following year saw Ocean Pacific’s profits peak at $370 million.

8 thoughts on “Ocean Pacific Apparel Designs, 1979 – 1989

  1. Thought you might be interested: When our son was young he became obsessed with OP shirts. We purchased some for him which he wore until he outgrew them. Time passed and I noticed that my husband was wearing one of the shirts when he went jogging/walking. The shirt which has been washed a zillion times is still in perfect condition. The color is still a true light grey and every stitch is intact. It is a collared 2 button short sleeve shirt. Even the buttons have the original stitches. The embroidered dark grey ocean pacific logo still has all its stitches. Even though the shirt was pricey at the time, it has certainly paid for itself. Our son is approaching his 50th birthday and I guess the purchase was made right after the company was founded. You surely make a wonderful product.

  2. I worked on OP’s art staff that created the tees 1984-1988. The company I worked for was STS Graphics, Inc., in Anaheim, CA. They owned the licensing to create the art and screen print the tees for the men’s and boy’s tees. Ocean Pacific’s main office was in Tustin, CA. and was known as OP Sunwear. They approved each season’s art before we could print the tees. I supervised the darkroom that made the films used to screen print the tees and was also a concept photographer for many of the images used on the tees. I shot stock photos at the beach, skate parks and everywhere else I was at. We had the best artists and art directors that anyone could ask for, as well as amazing in-house printers. The factory ran 24/7 and I think it was the largest tee shirt printer in the world at the time, with millions of blank tees to be printed and vast automated racks of printed tees. OP and Levis had the biggest booths at the major apparel shows. OP sponsored Tom Curren, the world champion surfer, and the OP Pro contest in Huntington Beach was the largest surf contest at the time, offering double points. It was a lot of fun to work there. We even had pinball machines in the factory’s break room. The riot at the 1986 OP Pro put a damper on the momentum for some surfing, as they moved the contest date after Memorial Day, hoping to avoid another similar incident. The result was competing late-season flat surf and a generally more lax contest, from 1987 onward. Other companies rose to take more of the surfwear market, such as Gotcha, Oneil and Quicksilver. They had been there all along, but now were much bigger and very popular. As for OP, it is now sold in Walmart, with retro tees and shorts. And the vintage OP tees and other clothing can still be found on eBay.

  3. I just left you a message about when I worked for OP tee, but mis-stated that OP Sunwear is located in Tustin, CA. It is actually in Irvine, CA. OP still has an active website that sells modern reprints of some of the tees I worked on in the 80s, including a couple with my photos on them, but I am unable to copy images of them.

  4. I stand corrected again. I googled ‘Ocean Pacific Sunwear, Tustin CA’ and found out they were in Tustin, at least until 1989. They were at 2701 Dow Avenue, Tustin CA 92680. I never went to their office in person, but the art directors talked about it. Their current website in 2021 says they are in Irvine. Another 1/23/1992 L.A Times article from 1991 said they owned Ocean Pacific, Newport Blue, Jimmy ‘Z and Hydro Light. I worked on the OP and Newport Blue lines, among others, at STS Graphics.

    • Hi Mark,
      I remember one of my favorite shirts as a teen was a mint green long sleeve OP shirt with a beach scene on the back – thought it was so cool. I wish I still had it. I am now a Design historian and would be interested in writing about the history of OP. If possible, could I contact you to discuss your experience at the company further?

    • They were located in Tustin.
      I worked for Sunwear marketing in Florida selling OP apparel in the early and mid 80’s.
      A ton of fun…

  5. As an Iowan in the 80’s I became aware of OP while visiting cousins in Los Angeles. Mom got me some shirts at the Iowa store somehow, and I had the most unique, coolest shirts at jr. high (evidently; as one got stolen by a much bigger boy than I, and he wore around school right in front of me). My designs were the 86-89 shirts, and my Mom even made shorts to match the shirts (or she tried). My brother wore Gotcha but I stuck to OP until I couldn’t find it anymore in Iowa. Today, of course, the fashion of Los Angeles is the fashion of Timbuktu is the fashion of Iowa, instantly. The 80’s was special in that if you went somewhere, you had a very different fashion experience than where you lived.

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