Sustainable Fashion and Surfing Intertwine for These Olympic Athletes

“Most people that have tried surfing speak of it like it’s an instant love affair—you try it, you’re challenged by it, you wipe out, you’re struggling, but you need patience. In the end, you walk away from it like, Wow, that was a unique experience. There’s something inside you that is saying go and do it again.” That’s how seven-time world champion and Olympic surfer Stephanie Gilmore explained how she fell in love with surfing. Of course, she’s not the only one. In a hotel in Montauk, New York, overlooking the Long Island Sound, Caroline Marks, the youngest surfer to ever compete in the World Surf League and Championship tour, also conveyed her love for surfing, relishing that “the best feeling ever is like surfing all day.” . Of course, two of the best surfers in the world would wax poetic about the sport. But the tidal wave of increased infatuation with surfing is not strictly limited to a small subculture—the sport as a whole is having a moment. For the first time ever, surfing is an event in the rescheduled 2020 Olympics. It’s also the first sport to move toward equal pay for all professional competitors without regard to gender, and it’s filled with the most stylish female surfers (aka Roxy girls) on the water.  If, while watching competitions, you begin to think that waves are the new runways, you wouldn’t be too far off. It’s worth noting that sports have influenced fashion heavily recently—think of the rise of athleisure or Telfar’s unisex uniforms for the Liberian Olympic team—so it’s only a matter of time before surfing apparel becomes fashion’s next big source of inspiration. Fortunately, we won’t have to wait too long: With surfers like Gilmore and Marks collaborating with brands like Roxy to create sustainable swimwear lines (e.g., the Liberty collection), these professional athletes are redefining how surfing and style intertwine.  Style, of course, is not the only reason to fan over Marks and Gilmore. Whether you’ve watched them both since they won their first tournaments as wildcards or you’re just getting to know them as they make history as the first women to compete in surfing at the Olympics, there’s something to love about both of these phenomenal athletes. Ahead, you’ll hear from both surfers on everything from the environment to their off-duty style to being a part of Roxy’s surfing team to qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics.

When did you realize you wanted to pursue surfing professionally?  I started surfing when I was 10 years old. My father is an excellent surfer, and he got my older sisters and me into it. But I didn’t compete until around 12. (That’s when I got my first surfing trophy.) Mind you, that first surfing trophy was for second place, and I remember saying to myself, “I never want to come in second again.” That moment instilled this fierce competitiveness where I was like, “All right, I just want to win everything from here on out.” It was during high school was when I finally dedicated myself to surfing. I just had this powerful, intuitive feeling that I would be a surfer and wanted to be the best in the world at some point.  What was it like transitioning it from a passion to becoming an award-winning surfer?  I loved competing, and I was competing from age 12 until 16 in junior events. It wasn’t until I was 17 that I was given an opportunity to compete in a professional event (the World Tour event) with all my idols. I ended up winning the whole event as a wildcard, and that’s when I was like, Whoa, wait a second. I can do this. I could transition into being a professional surfer. I just had to complete high school first because my parents would not let me drop out, so I finished school the following year and then went straight into being a professional surfer. 

You’ve been competing for over 16 years. What do you think you’ve learned about yourself since starting?  Surfing not only as a sport but just as an activity teaches you so many wonderful things. I’ve learned there are some things in life that you just can’t control; you can’t control the ocean. You just have to let go and kind of roll with the punches and wait for the storm to pass because no matter how strong you are, you will never overpower it. You will never be able to like outdo it. It forces you to let it go and relax. I do take a lot of that back into my everyday life that isn’t surfing; it’s about just being at ease with things.  Surfing has also taught me how vital the sea is to every single part of our ecosystem and our daily lives. It gives us oxygen, it gives us food, and it allows us to travel. As a surfer, it’s our duty to do our best to help educate others and keep those conversations rolling around how we can do better to make sure the ocean is super healthy because it benefits everybody. But as a competitor, surfing has taught me to be as fierce as possible, to not be afraid of a challenge, and to look at it like it’s fun. When you’re scared at that moment, or you’ve got nerves, you have to look at it like, This is a good feeling because it means I’m excited to be here.

You’ve been sponsored by Roxy for years and are a member of its swim team. What does the relationship with the brand mean to you? Roxy is the most iconic surf brand, not just as a female surf brand, but the brand as a whole is so recognized worldwide. And all my idols growing up were all Roxy girls. I had posters of them in my bedroom, as they were the Roxy girls on these really fun surf trips, just having an incredible time, and that painted the picture of the spirit of adventure and surfers—it made me want to be a part of it. So it’s cool now to be on the team with so many female surfers who inspire me so much. And we get to encourage anyone to get out there in the water, which is so rewarding because I see so many amazing women of all ages from all over the world, and they’ve all fallen in love with surfing because of Roxy. That, to me, means that we’re doing our job right because you’re showing that surfing has always had stereotypes, but at the end of the day, we’re showing people that you don’t have to be anything in particular—surfing is just purely an activity. Roxy embodies that for women and empowers them just to get out there and enjoy.

It’s estimated that eight million tons of plastic end up in the ocean in a single year. Have you directly seen the negative ecological impacts of single-use plastic?  Every year, we go to the same sort of destination that we’ve been to before, and you see more trash in the ocean. Take somewhere like Bali, for instance; it’s a beautiful exotic island. But when you get there and you’re surfing, you see all kinds of trash in the sea, and you’re like, “Where does this come from?” It’s disheartening to think that we haven’t considered the future, in that sense. Everyone is so hung up on right now. That’s why I feel it’s essential to use my platform as a surfer to help people understand the importance of combating single-use plastic. No matter if you’re in the middle of America or on the coastline, the choice that you make when you go to the store will have an effect in some way, shape, or form, which in fact will come back on you. The fish you’re eating will be full of plastic; it will be in the water you’re drinking; it can impact the oxygen in the sea, which can impact the air you breathe—everything is all interconnected.

I’ve been working with Roxy to ensure that we’re using sustainable materials by pulling trash from the sea like fishing nets and plastic bottles and turning them into a yarn that can create swimwear just trying to make products that have a circular solution. Each product has a lifestyle that doesn’t just start here and end here; it can be repeatedly used. It’s important to think about where every product you buy came from and where it goes when you’re done with it.

Do you feel like your relationship to the planet and nature has changed through your surfing? Definitely. As surfers, we are in the elements. Every day, we’re traveling around to the oceans. We’re surfing in places where we’re confronting the damages and all the trash in the sea that human beings are just throwing out there because they have a complete disregard for or unawareness about what’s going on. So it’s important to have those conversations with your friends and families. It seems like because it’s a massive problem and massive Earth, it’s quite easy for people to feel small and feel like they can’t make a difference. But we definitely can. It’s a ripple effect if we can work together within our communities. That just grow,s and then hopefully all the humans on the Earth will think of the Earth as their own body—what they put into it, how they treat it. We only get one of them, so let’s make sure we treat it right. 

As one of the best surfers in the world, what is it like to not only compete against surfers you looked up to when you were younger but also be held in the same historical regard as them? I had such a big dream when I was young to be a world champion and wanted to win a lot of world titles—it’s funny how it’s shifted over time. I’ve always looked up to Lisa Andersen and Layne Beachley and the other women who paved the way in terms of winning multiple world titles. But I also just looked at the females who were unafraid to do it their way and could use their platform in the best way possible. And that’s really what encouraged me to ask myself, “It’s cool to be in the same conversation as all of these iconic female surfers, but what kind of legacy do I want to leave? What can I do with my platform now to make a difference? How can I help others to get into surfing or just make it more inclusive for people?” . Obviously, earning several world titles is great, but there’s always something new to learn in surfing, there’s something new to learn about the ocean, there’s always a way to get better and evolve as a surfer. I think that that’s what keeps me coming back for more and wanting to get better and better. Hopefully, that is the legacy I’m trying to tell: Perfection doesn’t exist, but the continual renewal of inspiration and getting better is really what we should be aiming for. 

What gave you the courage to speak up about the pay inequities within the surfing industry and bridge the gap to open the industry up to different people with different women and people of different backgrounds? I really can’t take full credit for it; it’s been generations of female surfers who have been fighting for what’s rightfully theirs. I just happened to be there at the right time where the World Surf League took on the new ownership and were ready to listen. And at that time, our generation was saying, “We weren’t trying to steal anything from the boys. We surf the same waves as them, pay for the same travel, and all of those excuses about why female surfers shouldn’t have equal pay are invalid.” And the organization was ready to make those changes because it was righting the wrong, and they understood that. I’m so proud that surfing could be a leader in that way. Surfing has always been its own subculture—it’s kind of like what the rebels used to do; they used to run away from working and go surfing. And now here we are, blazing this path to equality and equal pay for so many other sports. Hopefully, they follow along, too. 

What are your hopes for the future of surfing?  The future is inclusive. This is the first year that surfing will be in the Olympics. So I can only imagine that any sport that gets that chance to be in the Olympic Games is an incredible stepping stone to a broader audience to the sport, like growing in so many different ways.  We run these events around the world called Rising Tides. Before the event starts, we have these young girls from the local community come down to the contest to hang out with us, the professional surfers. We chat with them and go surfing with them and watch them catch waves. I think that those sorts of initiatives are so powerful in helping that girl realize her dream and helping that next young generation come through and be like, “Oh, they did it. So I can do it, too.”  

This is the first time that the Olympics will be hosting a surfing competition. What does it mean to you to be a part of this historic moment? I always wanted to go to the Olympics. When I was younger, I didn’t know how to play sports, but I wanted to go—it just didn’t matter. So when surfing stole my heart, I just thought that my Olympic dreams were out the window.  When they announced that surfing would be in the Olympics, it reignited that fire for me. Of course, winning a world championship is a wonderful goal, but I’ve had that for quite a long time. So to have a new kind of opportunity that a very small number of people in the world have had, I thought, “Wow, that’s a cool time in my life. And I’m really in the prime of my career, and let’s see if I can rise to the challenge.” It’s fantastic; maybe it was manifesting or whatever it is, but envisioning going to the Olympics, and here we are. 

What force drives you to continue to compete?  I think because the ocean is forever changing. Every single day is different. You can’t paddle out there and surf a wave that you surf all the time. The waves will always be different from the day before, and they’ll be different again the next day. It just has this sort of magical feeling where you’re always anticipating what could happen next, or maybe I’ll get the best waves tomorrow or next week. We’re fortunate in surfing in that regard because, unlike other sports, you know, say tennis, basketball, or whatever, it’s like the court in the field stays the same every time. So our court is constantly changing and continually challenging us. And not only are you competing against your opponent, but you’re competing against the ocean, and it adds a whole other element to what’s possible. That’s why I keep coming back for more. 

You’ve known since age 10 that you wanted to surf. When did you decide that surfing professionally was what you wanted to do with your life?

It was at the biggest amateur event, the USA championships, where I decided I wanted to be a pro surfer. As an amateur, all the best kids from Hawaii, the East Coast, and California compete at this event. And I remember I was enjoying surfing but didn’t do many contests. I  came into that event really oblivious and just did it because my older brother did it. But I ended up winning, and I remember the feeling I got holding this big trophy, and I just felt so on top of the world. It was so awesome and exciting, and that’s when I was like, “Wow, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life and never, ever want to stop.” 

You’ve made history as the youngest surfers to compete in the pro circuit, the World Surf League event, and the Women’s Championship Tour. What was that experience like for you? 

It was incredible, getting all those experiences so young. I was 13 when I won as a wildcard, and I was qualifying for the championship at 15. Now, I look back to it, and I just think getting that early starstruck phase out of the way was really helpful. Because by the time I qualified, I was like, “All right, I feel like I belong here. And even though I look up to all these fellow surfers, I still want to beat them.”

Surfing can be scary. How do you get over any fear around being in the water and being in the game?  

Surfing professionally can be intimidating, not to mention the ocean is extremely humbling. And being so young and competing against girls who are a lot older than you at waves that you don’t have experienced with—it’s a lot. But for me, I surrounded myself with so many awesome people like, my coach, Mike, who has been great about sharing his knowledge. Having the right people around me to remind me, “Hey, there’s no pressure on you. You’re young. Just go surf,” was helpful. Plus, you’d be surprised at what you put your mind to and at what you can achieve. Sometimes I’ll get caught inside by a wave that I think I’m like, “Oh my god, this is super gnarly.” And then I get through that, and I’m like, “Okay, I got through that.” So I think just knowing that consistency is key, and the more you do it, the more comfortable you get.

Do you feel like you’ve had to deal with misconceptions about you and your age being a professional surfer?

I think many people were like, “Whoa, did your parents just let you drop out of school?” and things like that. But in reality, my parents have always been really on me about education, first and foremost, and just wanted to raise a really good human. I did finish high school in 2020 (that was probably the highlight of my year), but that’s the main thing I dealt with. Otherwise, I’ve experienced a level of welcomeness and have met some incredible people surfing, so it’s been an interesting ride. 

You’ve been an outspoken advocate for body positivity.  What do you hope people take away from you being in the limelight throughout your career?

I think for someone like me, growing up in the limelight, people judge you. It’s about surrounding yourself with good people that have good energy. There’s always going to be people hating or saying negative comments, but do what’s good for you, do what makes you feel good, and do what makes you happy. That’s the most important thing because you can’t please everyone, but you can make sure you’re happy and that you surround yourself with positive people who make you feel good. 

Do you feel like your relationship to the planet and nature has changed through your surfing?

For sure. I’m in the ocean a lot, and that’s my happy place. But I’m still not used to seeing pieces of trash on the beach, and I’m always like, “Oh, I’m just gonna pick this up because I want to protect the ocean.” You’d be surprised how small but effective something like picking up the trash or not using a plastic straw can be. The little things go such a long way.  

What is it like being a part of the Roxy swim team? What does that mean to you?

Oh, it’s insane. When you’re little, your dream is to be a Roxy girl, especially when you surf. So to be on the team with someone like Stephanie Gilmore, who I’ve looked up to my whole life, and now we travel together and compete together, it’s cool. Roxy’s swim team is a great group of girls. And with a lot of surf brands, they’re focused on the guys and girls, but it’s cool that Roxy is its own thing focused on catering to female surfers.

Do you have a favorite Roxy collection? Or an essential piece you swear by? My favorite Roxy piece is its long-sleeve one-piece. I like to wear that because it protects you from the sun, and you feel protected in the water, and you don’t have to worry about wardrobe malfunctions.

When you’re not in the water, what are you wearing? Do you have an off-duty style? It depends on the weather, but usually, if it’s warm, I’ll just put on a romper or a dress. But if I’m feeling more casual, I’m wearing a crop top and jean shorts.  I’m all over the place when it comes to my personal style; comfort is the most important thing.

Swimming in the sea can be dehydrating for your skin. Do you have a skincare routine?  Every morning, I apply a serum on my face that also has SPF in it, which is nice and protects you from the sun and hydrates your face. And I’m constantly moisturizing throughout the day because, as you said, the saltwater dehydrates your skin. I live in California, where the weather’s pretty dry, so I’m constantly moisturizing my skin. Before I go to bed, I make sure to wash all the sunscreen off my face. Sometimes I just want to go to bed and not to wash my face, but that’s pretty important. Nothing too crazy. 

Is there a moment in your career thus far that made you feel like your dream was actualized? Qualifying for the tour was a huge dream of mine, and the fact that it happened that young was pretty incredible. And then winning my first title, which was also the first event in the history of surfing to have equal pay for both men and women—a massive movement. And then, obviously, the other one was qualifying for the Olympics. That’s such an enormous achievement and probably one of the most significant accomplishments of my career so far.  You also made history by becoming the first female surfer to win equal prize money. What was that like? And what do you hope future surfers take away from that moment?  I think that moment shows all the younger generations there’s such a bright future if you choose to do surfing, a more inclusive, equal sport. It’s one of the first sporting leagues to make that move, so it’s pretty incredible to be a part of it. I think it reminds surfers everywhere that even though it doesn’t feel like a job, surfing can be a serious career for anyone. You can support your family, you can travel the world, and you can have a lot of fun doing it.

Tell us how the documentary about your life, That’s Caroline, came to be and the intention behind it. What do you hope viewers learn about you from it?  Initially, that documentary was going to follow me to the Olympics. Then, everything got postponed for a whole year, and plans changed. So Redbull just said, “Hey, let’s just put out this film now and give a little bit more insight of you personally and the family.” The only things I’ve ever put out before were surf edits in certain films, but this is more about who I am as a person, my everyday life, my family, and how much they mean to me. It’s been cool to have people come up to me and be like, “I didn’t realize how big a family you had, or I didn’t realize you ride horseback.” Sharing that side of myself is not something I’ve done before, and it’s made me realize that one day I’d love to do a full documentary. Because having moments like the raw emotions of when I qualified for the Olympics on film is rad. 

This is the first time that the Olympics will be hosting a surfing competition. What does it mean to you to be a part of this historic moment? It’s surreal, and I think it’s so great for the sport of surfing. There was some crazy stat about how many people started surfing during the pandemic (like maybe two million people)? We’ve seen this tidal wave of everyone falling in love with surfing, and it’s a pretty cool time to be a professional surfer with the opportunity to compete in the Olympics. I just hope we get great waves to surf on and put on a great performance. I’m excited to go there and represent my country.

Given all of your accomplishments thus far, what would you say to anyone looking at your career for inspiration? I’d say give it your all and have fun with it. Every single day I wake up, I just want to surf, even the days I don’t have to surf. It’s really about finding what makes you happy and giving it your all—that’s pretty much it.

Sunscreen is a must-have in any surfer’s beauty arsenal. 

This sustainable one-piece is begging to go for a dip. 

Having a comfortable sandal you can put on after surfing is a must. 

This oversize button-up is the perfect beach cover-up to channel cool-surf girl vibes. 

A cute beach towel is something you’ll never regret buying, but if you’re still not sold, you can use Afterpay for this purchase. 

A tote bag for the beach is never a bad idea.

It’s now easier than ever to get that post-surfing wavy-hair look. 

They’ll be able to spot you in the waves every time in this sustainable one-piece. 

Your future self will thank you for packing a warm hoodie to change into after surfing. 

Rash guards are must-haves for preventing damage to your skin while surfing. 

Don’t forget the importance of washing your face after a day of surfing. 

Not only can you nod to surfing with a wave-print bikini, but 10% of all proceeds from this collection will be donated to the Surfrider Foundation to help keep beaches clean. 

If this hat doesn’t give off cool surfer-girl vibes, IDK what will.

Detangling your hair post–surf sesh will keep your locks healthy. 

Sustainable sunglasses? Sign us up. 

Not a professional surfer? This cute one-piece is perfect for wading out into the waters.

Heading to brunch after a morning surf? Throw this dress over your swimsuit. 

Take a deeper dive into the world of surfing and read this book that profiles some of the top female surfers in the water. 

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