Who Remembers Platts?
Award-winning author and surf journalist – www.bytimbaker.com
The OG Australian boardshort and the great Australian surfer who helped inspire them is a story worth re-visiting. For any Australian surfer who grew up in the golden era of the ’60s they were the most coveted piece of surf wear in the country, before anyone even spoke of a “surf industry”.
Kevin Platt was one of the great surfers of the era, whose devoted mother Jean began sewing up functional surfing shorts at home with simple but eye-catching geometric designs for her son and an elite inner circle of some of the biggest names in Australian surfing.
“One night with nothing much to do, I experimented with two pairs of boardshorts, one for Kevin and one for his friend Midget (Farrelly), and that’s when it all began,” Jean recalled. Soon, a line of Kevin’s surfing friends began assembling at the Platts’ family home in Harbord begging Jean to make them a pair too. It wasn’t long before Jean’s husband Lance was recruited into the family business as general roustabout to try and keep up with demand.
The Platts story is one of the most over-looked slices of Australian surfing history – an elite surfer and shaper whose family became accidental pioneers of the entire Australian surf industry, laying the foundations for the great surf wear boom of the ‘70s and ‘80s and beyond. But it also has a tragic dark side, as Kevin’s life fell into a downward spiral of drugs and alcohol, leaving his family to ponder what could have been. The Platts brand endured through to the ’80s, when larger corporate players sought to cash in on its authenticity and heritage, with the garish fluoro colours of the day, a million miles from its understated origins. In a well-travelled life cycle for surf brands, mainstream distribution eventually led to Platt’s decline.
Now, more than three decades on, just as the surf industry as we know it has been devoured by corporate predators, Kevin’s children are researching the history of the brand and their father’s decorated surfing career and rich legacy. And, they’d like to hear from the surfing community about their memories of Platts, and particularly from Kevin’s surfing friends and contemporaries.
“Jean Platt was the doyenne of the ‘60s boardshort industry. She should have been Mrs Billabong or Madame Quiksilver,” Bob McTavish wrote in his autobiography, Stoked. Bob recalls the first time Kevin wandered into Arthur’s milk bar in Harbord one afternoon wearing a pair of his mum’s two-tone, heavy drill, lace-up boardshorts, unwittingly launching a new family business.
“We’d order them from Kevin then all roll up to the Platt house at Harbord to collect them at 6:30 on Friday evening, before we hit the Dee Why pub for the night,” writes Bob. On any given Friday night, many of the best surfers in the country would be lined up patiently outside the Platt’s home.
The Platt family moved from Sydney’s inner west to beachside Harbord when young Kevin was diagnosed with Polio and a doctor recommended a regular swim in the ocean as therapy, as well as the more controversial prescription of a bottle of stout a day. Both remedies would have far-reaching impacts of Kevin’s life.
Kevin soon became one of the top surfers in the country, seen as occupying the second rung of surfing performance behind the great Midget Farrelly, and starring in many of Bob Evans’ influential surf movies. He also became an in-demand shaper for the cutting edge Keyo Surfboard factory, his sleek and progressive designs contributing to the evolution of the modern shortboard. His high profile only added to the desirability of the shorts that his mum was making at home, which soon segued into a full-time business.
“Platt was a uniquely stylish surfer in the Phil Edwards/Midget Farrelly mould in the early ‘60s and did the Hawaii run very early,” says Bob McTavish. “He started shaping then, doing very sweet, heavy trimming boards at Keyo’s and Woodsy’s too. He was an important figure in the ‘shortboard revolution’ of the 1960s.”
Jean left her job as a legal stenographer to devote herself full-time to keep up with demand for her boardshorts. Her husband Lance took up the role of cutting out fabric and delivering it to a network of piece-rate seamstresses they had scattered around the northern beaches. Before long, they were supplying all the big Brookvale surfboard manufacturers and early surf shops like Surf, Dive ‘n’ Ski, before opening their own surf shop on Pittwater Road, the Dee Why surf shop, stocking Kevin’s boards and Jean’s board shorts, shirts and bikinis. From the outset, they made the decision to stock only core surf shops and forego the mainstream department store and menswear market, setting a precedent that the major surf brands of the coming decades emulated.
“We prefer to stay as close to the surfer as possible. The last thing we want is to flood the market as we have exclusive garments which have proved to be exactly what the surfer needs,” said Jean.
As well as boardshorts, Platts pioneered the trend of corduroy walk shorts, known as “sandhoppers,” and colourful dress shirts for surfers and also coined the term “surfriders” to describe one of their boardshort designs.
Sadly, Kevin’s surfing career was cut short by his struggle with drugs and alcohol and he passed away without fanfare or much recognition from the wider surfing world in 2000, leaving behind six children, Sian, Rachel, Micah, Daniel, Joel, and Promise. They’ve each struggled to come to terms with the sad trajectory of their father’s life and the extent to which Kevin and his parents’ legacy have been overlooked by Australian surfing history.
“Despite every attempt from his parents to curb these quickly forming addictions, dad ultimately was lost to us all,” says Kevin’s daughter, Rachel. “At times he tried to fight against it, he tried to clean himself up for his kids but it just was never enough to keep him free from hooks that had taken hold.”
“In 2000, when we got news that dad passed and learnt how he had died and the state his life was in, I stopped surfing pretty much straight away and really started hitting harder drugs and consuming more alcohol than is ever good for anyone,” says Micah. “I didn’t even attend his funeral; I was a pissed little boy! I continue to self-destruct. I was heading down a shitty path for years.”
For Micah, having children of his own and getting back in the surf himself, have been the keys to his healing.
“In 2018, I started surfing again. It was like a deep soul therapy that I had needed for so long. I started to come to terms with the significant grief I had carried all those years for what was lost, the father I could have had and the life we could have had,” says Micah. “As years rolled by I always wanted to give Platts another lease of life. I had thought so many times about the ‘what ifs’ or the ‘what could be’. I knew Dad and Jean and Lance had a significant role to play in the history of Australian surf but I didn’t really know how to make that happen.”
Recently, Micah and Rachel began researching their father’s storied surfing history and collecting magazine articles, boards, clothes and memorabilia from Platts’ heyday.
“I could sit for hours and look at photos and read articles of him as this surfing icon, to know there was something special about the Platt family but then I was painfully aware that something went horribly wrong and that because of that – I had missed out on so much!” says Rachel. “In one of my desperate attempts to reconcile it all, I decided to set up a Facebook memorial page for Dad. Before long I was getting contacted from people all over the country, telling me about how much of an impact my Dad, Nan and Pop had. I started hearing these incredibly precious stories of the man my Dad truly was, the gentle poet, the deep thinker, the intellect. I heard how much people had loved being able to call on Jean and Lance to get the ‘best pair of boardies’ they had ever owned. It was just so wonderful to have a space to start collating all these incredible stories and memories.”
What’s clear from the family archives of Kevin’s surfing career is that he was a sensitive, artistic soul too easily pulled into the vortex of surfing’s emerging counter culture of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. A short poem he wrote in a surfing magazine of the day hints at an enduring restlessness: