Feel Yourself and the Rest Will Follow 

Interview: Zoma Crum-Tesfa
Images: Philip and Alex Seastrom

“I don’t even like looking at black-and-white photos,” Philip Seastrom says, who started the fashion label Mowgli Surf with his twin brother Alex. Dedicated to tie-dye and the aesthetics of late 90s surfwear, the Seastroms are big proponents of bright colors, eternal summer, and the potential of a suburbanite who dreams. Snapping pics in South Santa Monica, they have an urgent message for those who are interested in liberating their latent male sexual energy: Think before you put on that black shirt!

In a selfie stick story for SSENSE, Philip and Alex Seastrom donned pieces by Vetements, Raf Simons, and Off-White and spoke with Zoma Crum-Tesfa about the limitations of skateboard apparel and the “glass ceiling” on menswear. 

Zoma Crum-Tesfa: Wow, you sound really similar to each other!

Alex Seastrom: Thanks! We are twins, so…

There are studies that show twins sometimes having secret languages as infants. Did you two speak a secret language?

AS: Yeah, my mom said we used to like goo and gah at each other. It sounded like gibberish, but I’d be like “Blaaaaaah” and he’d be like “Gu blaah!” And we understood each other. It was somewhat of a rudimentary language.

Philip Seastrom: That’s what language is, you know? A collection of sounds that mean something. A shared understanding. You understand something, and something is represented. And we share an understanding.

You got started surfing in high school, right? Why so late?

AS: I was always really into it. I would always get Surfer Magazine and want to be a part of it. But we lived in La Canada, which isn’t near the beach, and no one in our family surfs. So we couldn’t really start until we were driving.

Were you interested in skating before?

AS: Yeah, at first, when we were young, but I mean surfing always appealed more to us. The aesthetic of skateboarding is so dark! It’s all about, like, smoking weed, wearing oversized clothes, and tattoos.

PS: It’s like hobo chic. It’s been hobo-heroin chic for like 20 years. And that just doesn’t appeal to me. Wearing an old flannel shirt and ripped—you know, old jeans doesn’t appeal to me. Maybe it would if it wasn’t so pervasive.

AS: For a time skaters wore real tight jeans, that was pretty cool, but surfing always appealed to us more. I would say the reason I got into surfing was because of surf fashion, and during the late 90s surfwear was fun and bright.

There’s a theory that subcultures are born in suburbia because it takes the milieu of suburbia to create that kind of resistance.

PS: There is some validity to that. The guy that started Surfer Magazine, John Severson, is from Pasadena originally.

AS: I didn’t grow up at the beach. I was introduced to surfing through representation, and living far from the beach, I didn’t start surfing until I was older. There was a long while where it existed as something to fantasize about, both surfing and to feel what that culture is.

So, there was a sense of escapism for you.

AS: Yes, and I think there’s a sense of escapism that also exists in surfwear and fashion in general. Maybe four people in our high school surfed, out of roughly 2,000 students, yet there has always been a surf shop in our town. The idea of the lifestyle is also appealing, not just the sport. In the 70s, the situation was completely different. When our mom was going to high school—she attended the same school we did—everyone was surfing, despite being so far from the beach. There was a yearbook with a surfboard on the cover.

PS: Surfing is just like a very beautiful thing, you know? We always wanted to be a part of it. It represented eternal summer, an eternal youth, a vibrant way of life. It’s an intriguing sport, it’s very California too.

By the way, La Canada is near the Los Angeles Forest. Did you see a lot of brushfires in your neighborhood growing up?

AS: Yes, lots of brushfires, and mudslides. Los Angeles is just a miracle of modern science and capitalism. On its own, it couldn’t have happened at this capacity until 100 years ago, businessmen like Mulholland and Huntington took the water from Owens Valley. People not from California tend to not realize that we have like 10, 15 major fires a year in California. The drought has been going for a long time, and the population continues to grow—

PS: The population continues to grow, there is no water, and the more people you have the more likely that some are firebugs, like, arsonists.  

"Los Angeles is just a miracle of modern science and capitalism." 

—Alex Seastrom 

Freaky. Anyway, do you think that those associations of eternal youth are time- and place-specific? I think of surfing somewhat differently, and the representation as more about how professionalized it has become.

AS: I think mostly surfing is still unprofessionalized, but—

PS: Well, there’s a big bro culture to it.

AS: I would still say it still has these associations, just that the commercial representation has shifted. More so than in the past, professional surfing is removed from surfing IRL. All of the big contests don’t take place in California anymore like they did in the 70s and 80s. Now they’re, like, all over the world, in Fiji and whatever, and that’s what you see in so many marketing campaigns.

PS: This kind of change—in my opinion—is for the worse. It’s become a very, like, pseudo-masculine activity now; it’s all about motorcycles and wearing black, wearing board shorts. And this is what is trending in the industry at the moment.

AS: I have no real problem with motorcycles, I just think—it’s just an interesting coupling, you know?

PS: I don’t like it personally.

When I think of surfing, immediately two dominant energies come to mind: There are those that are more hobbyists, who surf on weekends with a few friends and have like an extended beach family; then, there are the super territorial types who are also drawn to the sport. There can be a curbside/parking lot flex zone culture. Do you feel like there is a correlation between the way brands present themselves and appealing to these sorts of narratives?

AS: Yes, but that second energy is less present IRL. There are a lot of guys who, if you surf every day, you get an attitude about it, but this locals-only thing that people push is magnified. One company had this slogan for a long time that was like “If you’re not surfing now, don’t start.” It’s a good marketing ploy: “Oh, you can’t have it.”

PS: Like Quiksilver’s Instagram, for example, they only have surf shots, they don’t even put in product shots on their Instagram. You know, do they even make clothes? I’m more interested in presenting attainable as beautiful. Surfing’s all about optimism and opening yourself up to the world. There is no guarantee that you’re going to get waves, and each wave is different. That’s why our company is named Mowgli, from The Jungle Book, it’s about an untamed existence and being free. When you are surfing you are one with the environment and with nature.

"Color is the spice of life!" 

—Philip Seastrom

Your brand is decidedly not about activewear.

PS: I have no interest in activewear. I have no interest in making performance board shorts. I mean, Nike can do that.

AS: We do make functional board shorts that are good to wear while surfing, but we’re not a technical company. For us, fashion is art. I’ve viewed it as we are trying to create art that enhances people’s lives and gives them a better opinion of themselves and a better existence. We try not to limit our audience to surfers.

PS: There are very few brands, maybe no one, trying to do what we do. So much of men’s clothes, especially in this market, especially at our market point, is very similar, very boring, very passé. What’s the difference between a $150 black t-shirt and a $15 black t-shirt? The differences are minimal. Even if the fit is different, it still reads as a black t-shirt. It’s one of the most conservative things you can do.

The painter Katharina Grosse referred to color as representing the illogical in a heteronormative culture, often being associated with the feminine. Because of this, there is a fear of being dismissed and, in turn, less of an embrace of color by both men and women across cultural platforms.

PS: Color is the spice of life! It’s everything. Think of when you’re in a forest after dark, it doesn’t inspire. It might scare you and close off your thinking. Think of a meadow—

AS: Could you imagine receiving a bouquet of black roses? I doubt it would have the same effect.

PS: I don’t even like looking at black and white photos. They’re garbage. I mean, unless they are old and that was the only option at the time. I only enjoy looking at color photos because color is reality. Black and white’s fake, you know? It’s one of the most passé gestures you can make. It’s yesterday, it’s the past. Color is the present and the future. Our lives are in color.

What about those who still feel intimidated by color?

PS: It’s important for men’s clothing to become more sexualized. Society is trying to shame men away from feeling sexy. Male nudity is always seen as comic, which it isn’t, and, like, that isn’t cool. Men are just as sexy as women and they used to understand this more. And our clothes do that. You can see the form of your body.

AS: Like, today I’m wearing a bright blue, fun tie dye shirt. It’s assumed by us that other people can tell I’m like a fun, bright person.

Have men become desexualized as a way of centralizing power with patriarchy?

PS: No, your sexuality is powerful. For a long time I think people were afraid to express themselves and be who they are, they were afraid that they were going to be called gay. But there was a large period of time where that wasn’t necessarily a thing. Now there is this masculine box that is being promoted by many brands and what they make. It’s like there is a glass ceiling on men’s fashion.

Loving the language of feminism injected here.

PS: I hope men will show more skin and wear more color. You need to just do what you see in your heart. I’ve heard some people say “Oh, I love your clothes! But I’ll never wear it.” If you love it, why won’t you wear it? I don’t think you should be afraid to step out and be seen. Be open to the world and be open to possibilities. I think that’s what we represent. You know, life is difficult. It’s difficult to get by, it’s difficult to relate—it’s not easy and we’d like to make it easier, to make people’s lives better. If they have something that gets them noticed, and something that makes them stand out in a positive way, it makes their lives better.

Interview: Zoma Crum-Tesfa
Images: Philip and Alex Seastrom