How a Surfing Apparel Designer Is Turning Old College Sports Gear into Sustainable Fashion

Maui and Sons creator Jeff Yokoyama is turning old athletic gear at USC and UCLA into a sustainable campus clothing line. Will his idea take off?

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Oct 29 2015, 12:00pm

Michael Light

When Jeff Yokoyama's daughter Coco started playing volleyball at the University of Oregon years ago, he couldn't help but notice how much athletic gear she received.

Shoes and jerseys. Hats and sweatshirts. Veritable closets full of school-branded stuff, which she received year after year.

"I asked her, 'What do you do with all this?'" Yokoyama said.

For Oregon and hundreds of other colleges and universities, athletic gear is essentially disposable: wear it, play in it, get rid of it. Then get something new.

Realizing all that gear represented a lot of waste, Yokoyama, the 60-year-old designer behind iconic Southern California surfing brands like Maui and Sons, Pirate Surf, and Generic Youth, also saw an opportunity. His current creative project is a line of sustainability-minded clothing made from recycled University of California, Los Angeles and University of Southern California athletic apparel.

Read More: Climate Change Is Creeping Into Sports

There are neckties made from used USC T-shirts, and sweatshirts fashioned from warm-up and game-worn UCLA jerseys. Even shoelaces get second chances, attached to tailgate aprons that cost $185 apiece—that is, when they're not sold out.

All are offered under Yokoyama's GARDEN label, which stands for "Gather, Abundance, Repurpose, Demonstrate, Ethos, Now."

"Innovation is not technical fabrics or technical stitching," Yokoyama said. "Innovation is innovation. It's creating something that's never been done before."

The idea behind recycling and repurposing used college athletic gear, he said, is to design different, make different, and sell different. To stand apart from sports apparel companies making most of the gear that ends up in athletes' closets, what Yokoyama calls "the Nikes and Adidases" of the world.

"They're like this big shark that's swimming through the ocean," Yokoyama said. "I'm a feeder fish. All I want to do is pick off some of the shit that you're discarding, and create something so that your back is clean of stuff that is sucking you down.

"It's not what I do that sells. It's why I do it that's selling."

Shirts from Yokoyama's GARDEN line. —Photo by Michael Light

Yokoyama already was creating and selling clothing made from recycled materials at his Yokishop store in Newport Beach, California. There, a five-person staff transforms donated beach towels into sweatshirts; camouflage jackets purchased at Army surplus outlets into sweaters; discarded jeans found at Goodwill stores into cardigans.

He started his partnership with USC and UCLA in 2009. The athletic departments at both schools donate old clothes to Yokoyama. In return, he pays each university a royalty fee–15 percent, in USC's case–for every repurposed athletic item sold.

The supply chain for Yokoyama's USC-themed clothes begins at the school's 14,000-foot Heritage Hall. Upstairs, you'll find a glass-walled trophy room housing Marcus Allen's Heisman Trophy and a bronze bust of Trojans alum John Wayne, who played football for the school in the 1920s.

In the basement, you'll find the football program's equipment room–which is actually a whole wing of rooms, teeming with clothes old and new, much of them organized atop wheeled, steel shelves, the kind libraries use to house extra books. A room with an "Electric Closet" sign on an outside wall is stuffed with historic football uniforms; the door to another room, packed with cardboard boxes, barely opens.

A few times a month, Yokoyama stops by USC and UCLA to pick up used clothes and equipment. Athletic staffers have bags and bags—enormous black trash bags—of stuff for him.

During a visit to USC earlier this year, Yokoyama looked at the shelves that would display the GARDEN line in the school's bookstore. He then dropped in on the Trojans' athletic equipment staff; even though Yokoyama's visit was unannounced, Todd, USC's equipment director, had a boxful of past-season T-shirts for him to take.

For Yokoyama, no item of gear or clothing is beyond repurposing. When Todd disappeared into a back office to grab a key, Yokoyama rifled through a shoebox of what appeared to be thick, beige business cards.

"They cut these off all the socks," he said.

And?

"We could do something with them."

What schools like USC see as waste, Yokoyama sees as opportunity. —Photo by Michael Light.

Back at Yokoyama's Newport Beach store, the work of turning old gear into new items varies from garment to garment, but even the simplest, lowest-cost items take time and attention to fashion. Take GARDEN T-shirts: while the shirts themselves are new and come from a factory just outside Los Angeles, the numbers and strips of fabric from old jerseys that end up adorning them have to be removed, cut into shape, and re-sewn by hand. More complex items, like the tailgating aprons, take multiple people to put together.

"People want a piece of football uniform, they want to be a part of an experience," Yokoyama said. "And it's all just sitting there."

Of course, Yokoyama's GARDEN line isn't just a recycling program; it's a business. All of those pieces of reclaimed gear eventually make their way back to the market. Some are sold directly by Yokoyama in his store and online; others are bought back by the universities at wholesale, then sold to students.

Last summer, USC placed an order with Yokoyama for 2,400 items: T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, pants, button-downs, totes, and tank tops. Yokishop's five-person staff was pushed to its limit. "I'm a one-man band playing to a coliseum with a hundred thousand people," he said. Still, fulfilling the order paid off: during the first three weeks of the college football season, the school sold more than half of its inventory, over $100,000 in merchandise.

Because his raw materials are, for everyone else's intents and purposes, trash, Yokoyama pays almost nothing for them. The materials for a $200 sweatshirt might cost him two dollars out of pocket. Thanks to wholesale pricing and those 15 percent royalty fees, however, his profit margins, he says, are slim. Moreover, wading through campus bureaucracy can be tedious.

Nevertheless, Yokoyama is bullish about GARDEN's future. He has good reason: college and professional sports organizations increasingly are concerned about their environmental impact, and are looking to make their businesses more sustainable. A quick Google search yields many examples of new stadiums and training facilities built in accordance with LEED guidelines created by the U.S. Green Building Council. NBA players now wear jerseys made of 60 percent recycled material. The U.S. Women's National Soccer Team won this year's World Cup in kits created almost entirely out of old water bottles.

Yokoyama considers his GARDEN work with USC and UCLA as proofs of concept: with limited resources, time, manpower, and support, he managed to build a commercially successful brand in an untapped market, using untapped supply chains, all while reducing environmental waste. He calls the USC order a "senior project"; of the three-week sales figures, he says, "we got an A."

The sign on the wall says it all. —Photo by Michael Light

Ideally, Yokoyama would like to expand his college apparel model beyond Southern California, to work with a larger apparel company that has major production and distribution capacity, the better to get other schools—maybe every school—to see their old, wasted gear in a new, reusable light.

"Somebody, just come along for a ride," he said. "You don't have to pry anything open. I'll get you in there."

Back in the workshop and storage garage connected to Yokoyama's store, it's as if the equipment rooms at USC and UCLA have been transplanted. There are rows and rows of football jerseys—blue and white, cardinal and gold—hanging from the rafters like lengths of drying film. You can hardly see the ceiling there, but Yokoyama sees the future.

"What do they do with their old banners?" he said. "What do they do with all their towels? What do you do with your cleats, what do you do with your whistles, what do you do with your footballs? This is my lifelong thing from here on out. I have plenty of work for the rest of my life."

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