The Business of WetsuitsBuell

The Business of Wetsuits, somewhat a loose follow up to our Business of Wave Pools, is a look at how the wetsuit game works, how brands are managing it and what to expect. It’s a run of short interviews, conducted by Jimmy Miles from Lipped, with either the founders, design directors or category managers of wetsuits from a variety of brands. If these short interviews catch your interest be sure to listen to the full run of interviews that will end up on the Lipped Podcast rotation very soon.

Our second article/interview in this series is with Ryan Buell, the Owner/Founder at Buell Wetsuits, and we find out why Buell Wetsuits entered an already saturated market after already having a win with Hotline. Also, what are the challenges of growing a wetsuit brand and how does Santa Cruz – a place that’s always steamer szn – play a key role in the Buell Wetsuit brand?

For those unaware of Buell Wetsuits, they are a (Northern) Californian based independent brand that entered the wetsuit market with a brand that was fun and young approach to what can be a confusing and heavily tech based marketed segment of surf. 

So, the first big first question is…

Buell RB1 Wetsuit Review

Sage Erickson

Why the decision to start your own brand in such a saturated product category?  What were the incumbents not doing that you wanted to do?  Was it product?  Brand?  Storytelling?

All of it. The old boys club mentality, the unwillingness to change. I wanted a brand that would represent me and my friends. A brand that was fun and young. I’m not a big fan of authority and I don’t like being told what to do. why can’t we do this, why can’t we do that?, why can’t we put skeletons on a wetsuit? and eventually I just decided it was my time to chase my dream and passion. The beach, the ocean, lifeguarding, surfing, and wetsuits, glorious neoprene wetsuits that keep us warm. In most surf destinations, your surfboard is the most important gear you own, but in colder climates, like Northern California, or Torquay, the wetsuit reigns supreme. At the core of that statement is the idea that you can’t surf for shit when you’re cold.

So many of the brands seem to be launching new suits at a seasonal cadence, do you feel like this is necessary or is it just a marketing function?

Tradition, it’s a broken system I reckon. Change is good, down with pre-booking racks full of wetsuits a year before they launch, designing them a year before that. We would like to implement a more sneaker style launch, with limited runs and more timely drops.

Noi Kaulukukui

The suit we tested had no thermal lining, no taped seam on the inside yet it was one of the warmest suits we tested. Can you talk us through the magic?

Thickness equals warmth. If you use ultra light, super stretchy foam, glue and fabric, it melts a perfectly balanced blend of thickness and comfort. Thickness of the neoprene is better than the added thickness/bulk/weight of thermal fabrics. Going deeper into that theory, a thermal lining adds around 1mm of thickness to the suit, but the brands don’t account for or mention that in the callouts. So, a 43mm with lining acts, performs and weighs like that of a 5/4. I feel the best use of thickness to warmth, to flexibility and weight ratio is to use top notch, neoprene at its fullest form. We set our thickness parameters a little higher than our competitors. This means our competitors often set it at between 2.75 and 3mm, whereas our parameters lie at 3mm to 3.25mm.

Buell RB1 Wetsuit Review

Jacob Szekely

The suit felt unapologetically Buell - there's no half measures or design tests, it has really clear design features and the suit fits the brand feel.  Is this easier as a specialist brand than for an apparel brand that makes wetsuits (ie Quik/Rip)?

Bright, bold, energetic, confident, and unapologetic. Does that describe us?, or our wetsuits? I hope, both. It started out as a way to express ourselves and get attention to the brand. I made the rubber bones wetsuits as a statement piece, like, If you don’t know, now you do. Never planned on them being for sale. It was a marketing play that turned into the hottest selling suit of 2018. First with kids, then their parents. Now the same thing is going on with the J.O.B! model.

California feels like a big part of the brand DNA - what's cali mean to Buell?

Her bikini. Small. Heels. Tall, she said, she likes the Oooocean. Born and raised on the california coast. The Hermosa beach punkrock scene and Santa Cruz’ unique flair. The waves, the beach, The waterman culture of the 50’s and 60’s, where my uncles ran wild in seal beach. Growing up with a bunch of surf hooligans in santa cruz and later managing a brand that included 2 of the most enigmatic surf characters of all time, in Flea and Barney. I think Santa Cruz is the perfect spot to be designing and testing wetsuits. I’ve immersed myself into it, it’s been my passion for over 2 decades and I love it. I think it shows in the brand and the products we sell today.

Jamie O’Brien

Athlete marketing seems like a strong part of your success and your suits have won multiple world titles that people may not even know (ADS, Carissa) - what role do athletes play for Buell?

I’m glad you noticed. In the beginning, I was running the brand out of my garage (ultimate man cave) and didn’t have a traditional marketing budget. What I did have was clients like Volcom, RVCA, Rusty, reef, Fox and Nike who I was designing and manufacturing wetsuits for. I would create a custom program for each one of them, unique to their style, then give them options on pricing. If the brand wanted 100% of the logo placement, I would charge them full pop, premium price (Volcom, Nike) . If the brand was willing to CoBrand the suit alongside Buell logos (3 brand logos, 2 B! logos for instance) then I would give them a discount off the price, for instance, 2 Buell logos might equal a $50 discount, per suit for the brand. (Reef, Fox) They save money on their valuable Team budget, and Buell wetsuits still turns a profit, and gets the marketing exposure from it. For a small brand, I thought it was a great marketing plan, and who wouldn’t? It was basically free marketing. We had guys like Heath Walker, Kai Otton, Chris Waring, Luke Davis, Nick Rosza all representing Buell (and REEF) without being on our payroll. Later we made some special deals with Adriano DeSouza through Oakley, through Pena, and HD. Each deal was a little different. All my deals were custom. Carissa’s suits did not have a Buell logo on the outside of the suit, so Nike paid full price for her suits. I did however work very closely with her on the perfect suits, function wise as well as looks and colors. It was important for her (and all athletes) to feel comfortable, and powerful in their wetsuit quivers. The inside of her suits had the Buell logos and monster, so everyone knew we were behind them. I took great pride in outfitting her during her first world title campaign. Kind of like a shaper would feel when one of their athletes won a world title on their boards. Did I mention I’m a wetsuits guy?

Overall, in our opinion, Buell Wetsuits are worthy of more of your attention (and dollars). They’ve got a great wetsuit program happening, are approaching ‘surf’ in a unique, fun way and are all about delivering quality product in a fun way.

If you’re looking for Buell Wetsuit info, hit up their website or Instagram. Always plenty of stuff getting thrown around between those two spots. Or if you’re looking to get a solid hand feel and look at their suits, best bet is hitting up the Buell retailer page and finding out who’s closest to you. But if you’re chasing a review on their suits, hit up this post – it’s review we did on the Buell RB1 Wetsuit.

In short, from Tim:
“I’d never tested Buell Wetsuits before so didn’t know what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised at how good the thing is. The fun prints and touches are great, the rubber has more flex than an Instagrammed six pack, the price is really good for what you’re getting.”