I’d heard of his surname, obvs, but I didn’t know the man behind the brand until he died recently and I read an obituary on the flight over to the recent Pitti Uomo. Jack O’Neill’s life is a fascinating story of the birth of surfing and how it came to influence 20th century style and grew to become a huge, billion dollar industry.
Left - Jack started to wear his eye patch in the 1970s after his surfboard hit his eye
“I just wanted to surf longer”, was the inspiration for the eye patch-wearing surfing pioneer who helped to invent the wetsuit.
Before the advent of the wetsuit, O’Neill and his fellow surfers had been braving the Pacific by wearing long underwear or sweaters coated with oily sealant, or by stuffing flexible polyvinyl chloride into their swimming trunks.
He was turning blue from ocean temperatures that even on balmy summer afternoons might barely flirt with 60 degrees.
O’Neill’s wetsuit discovery came about after he moved with his wife to San Francisco’s Ocean Beach neighbourhood in the early 1950s.
“All my friends said, ‘O’Neill, you will sell to five friends on the beach and then you will be out of business,’” he would remark, according to his family.
By one account, a friend, Harry Hind, told him about a compound that had been developed by DuPont about two decades earlier for foam rubber life vests. By another account,O’Neill said a light went off when he examined the rubber undercoating on the carpet of a DC-3 commercial airliner.
Whatever the inspiration, he began developing suits for surfing and bodysurfing, originally covering just the torso. They were not waterproof, however. Rather, the suit trapped a thin layer of water, warmed by body heat, between the neoprene and the skin.
In San Francisco he opened one of the area’s first surf shops, but in 1959 moved his growing family 75 miles (120km) south to Santa Cruz, where he opened his second shop to cater to the city’s growing surf scene.
By 1960 Mr. O’Neill was laminating an elastic nylon jersey lining to the neoprene foam to prevent it from tearing, and to make it easier to put on. He made his first full-length model within a decade.
He began wearing a black eye patch after his surfboard hit his left eye while riding a wave in the 1970s.
By the 1980s, O’Neill had become the world’s largest recreation wetsuit designer and manufacturer and the O’Neill surf brand had reached Australia, Europe and Japan.
While surfing brands have taken a hit during this century, the name is known the world over for an escapist lifestyle that is continually referenced and returned to. There's something very romantic and healthy about the early Californian surf culture and it's worth noting this pioneer lived to the ripe old age of 94 despite the amount of UV rays he was exposed to.