How Cult Classic ‘Mad Wax’ Epitomized ’80s Surf Culture

The crux of the 1987 cult classic surf film Mad Wax (1987) is that this special recipe that creates surf wax that transports the user to the perfect wave… or something.

Like porn, plot has never been a useful device in action sports films and that’s OK—it’s not necessarily there to do anything but set the video apart from the fray. Produced by Quiksilver, featuring a soundtrack by Australian pop rock group GANGgajang, Mad Wax was never meant to be a compelling narrative, but rather, a goofy story laced with great surfing. When you extract the storytelling construct, you’re left with loud surfing, loud fashion, and the type of post-psychedelic surreality of the ‘80s. It’s innocence peppered with excess, vibrant colour stories, ozone reaching/damaging hair, and splashy pattern.

That specific slice of 1980s techno pastiche serves as the direct inspiration for Quiksilver Originals recent clothing capsule MAD WAX. The recently released offering delves into the brand’s visual and fashion archives, emerging with a vintage-inspired capsule, repurposed and revitalized with a modern sensibility and just enough self-awareness to allow the homage to work, without being kitsch.

“The movie was sort of the apex of the day glow garish surf fashion,” says Ronnie Reyes, Global Head of Design for Quiksilver. “As I’ve spent more time in the archives and speaking with some of the artists from that era, you can clearly see a change was coming with surf fashion and culture. The energy and vibrancy from the art was still there, but the subject matter was getting darker. The music was changing rapidly as well which had a massive impact on surf, skate and street culture.”

Mikey February

Reyes isn’t exaggerating. The mid-to-late ’80s were a garish time for action sports clothing, where neon skull print shorts, berets, and day-glo tank tops were commonplace, often drawing the ire of punk purists. That rift was the entire premise of the equally schlocky motion picture Thrashin’ (1986), starring a young Josh Brolin. The bad guys wore mostly denim and leather, the Valley Boys ran bright and bold and they fought over girls—simpler times. Furthering war of trends, skateboarding brand Powell Peralta also released a plot-driven video in 1987: The Search For Animal Chin. Boasting similarly clunky acting, synthy notes, and the quest for Nirvana, Animal Chin featured as much pop and pattern as Mad Wax, with fewer waves and women. Viewing them through 2018’s culture lens, both videos seem, well, goofy, but that portrayal may have simply been the hand of the directors.

“I don’t think that era was very innocent, but yeah it clearly is by today’s standards,” Reyes explains. “I watched The Search for Animal Chin right after I watched Mad Wax and if you are over the age of 30, it takes you straight back to an era of pure fun and stoke. Movies of this era were very exclusive to the audience they were making them for—they were a snapshot of the culture.”

In many ways, the boisterous surf fashion of the ‘80s was a precursor to the pill happy, acid house Madchester scene that took hold of the UK in the late ’80s. More importantly, it was a key moment in culture where juxtaposition, appropriation, innovation, and a splash of dissent bled together to create something unique to the time. For Reyes and his team, there’s always the caution of not trying to recreate the past, but rather, extract its essence and identifiers in interesting ways.

“Having access to the [Quicksilver] archives is like our own personal time machine,” he says. “As the design team was vibing on the early ’90s as a trend era, I felt the movie was the perfect launching pad for authentic inspiration. Even though it’s technically 1987, the GANGgajang soundtrack, the cover art, and the movie itself are sort of a send-off of the ’80s and a nice segue into the ’90s.”

The MAD WAX collection is available now and won’t transport you to Noosa or the Gold Coast, but the collection does achieve its goal of “inspired by, not derivative of”. But don’t expect Quiksilver Originals to play the heritage card and start to resurrect every old body and style.

“There’s no magic formula for this—the market decides what they want to keep around,” Reyes says. “But for sure, there are some things that are better left in the archives.”

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