Dave Griffiths took a break from testing at Bells Beach to talk to Curve Editor, Belinda Stening, about his tough life as chief wetsuit designer for Rip Curl.

Rip Curl has been at the cutting edge of wetsuit design for the past thirty years with SlickSkin its latest development. When was the SlickSkin first released and how long was it in development? 

We first released the SlickSkin concept to the market back in Easter last year to coincide with the Rip Curl Pro surfing contest at Bell’s Beach. We had our Pro surf team wearing the suits in the contest.

We did a limited release of only two full-length steamer styles to test the reaction to SlickSkin in the market place. It proved extremely successful after this first drop. We then released a full range of SlickSkin styles for this current summer, which again has been very well received.

SlickSkin was in development for a full twelve months, prior to the Easter release. We always test any new product for a minimum of six months in normal surfing conditions to ensure that no problems arise.

Rip Curl has a global patent on the SlickSkin technology. Can you explain, as far as possible, the process and technology required to develop the special coating?

SlickSkin is a specially developed water-proof coating that we apply to the outer skin of the wetsuit. It has high stretchability to allow it to move equally with the stretch of the neoprene, so it does not inhibit the flexibility of our super stretch neoprene.

Traditionally, all wetsuits are constructed in what we call cut and sew panel blocking. This means seams can be added to the suits to create panels of different colours for look.

Seams are also added to allow for different thickness and types of neoprene and to create smooth skin water shedding panels in the torso area. Seams are also added to create a good fit.

In the end you get a wetsuit with a lot of seams in it. Seams are weak points, they can leak water and reduce the overall flexibility of a wetsuit. And of course it takes longer to make if you have heaps of small panels to cut and sew together.

SlickSkin does away with this traditional way of thinking. The coating allows us to rid the suit of any unnecessary seams, previously used only for cosmetics or to add smooth skin panels. This is because the SlickSkin sheds water (like smooth skin). It also allows us to do some really forward looking technical graphics.

You mentioned the potential for colour and graphics. Can you explain this further?

Coloured wetsuit neoprene is very limited to the colour palette of the supplier. We usually select from about fifty colours and every colour is made available to every wetsuit manufacturer, which makes being different by colour selection impossible.

SlickSkin can come in any colour imaginable, including metallics, glosses and matts. This allows us to use the exact fashion colour of the moment and to produce suits in colours that are only available from us.

How do you generate new concepts? Do you use drawings, computer modelling, or make samples directly? 

I have a few quiet months between each range when I get to think purely of new concepts. During this time we do a lot of R&D and generally brainstorm new ideas, talking with crew that surf.

I try to come up with ‘blue sky’ stuff. Sometimes you get too close to what you do, you need to take a step away and look at what you are trying to do from a different angle. In other words, you need to be the customer.

I make up prototype wetsuits for my own use and go surfing to try them out. I come back to work, make some modifications and go surfing again until we get it perfected. Basically, I make suits that work for my mates and myself in the water. 

We are pretty much hands on here, I have a pattern maker, Lectra CAD operator and full wetsuit factory right here in Torquay. We can pretty much have an idea in the morning, make a suit that day and be surfing in it that afternoon.

I work very closely with my pattern maker; we are on the same wavelength. We don’t have much need for computer modelling as we can make a working prototype just as fast.

How do you test wetsuits for strength, durability, flexibility and resistance to salt, sun etc?

We have some specially made neoprene testing machines. We test for durability with a rubbing machine, a velcro pilling machine. We also test the elongation of all neoprene and the burst strength with special machines.

But, putting all these tests aside, the best method of testing is to go surfing in the suit every day over a six month period.

Rip Curl’s excellent website mentions the new SlickSkin and its ability to ‘shed water’. Can you explain how the SlickSkin achieves this?

SlickSkin is hydrophobic, so it does not hold water on the surface. If you have water being held on the surface of your suit and the wind blows on you, then you get what’s called the evaporation cooling effect and it makes you colder.

The water runs straight off the SlickSkin treated areas so it stops the evaporation cooling effect. That’s why we mainly use it in the chest, back, shoulders and top of the arms, as they are the areas that you feel the most cold – the areas you need to protect to stay warm.

SlickSkin technology has allowed us to get rid of unnecessary seams and panels, increasing flexibility and freedom of movement. With less seams there is also more durability. The SlickSkin lasts for longer and represents better value for this reason.

The SlickSkin technology is not used entirely as a wetsuit. Would you ever envisage an entire wetsuit made from SlickSkin?

It would be possible to make a wetsuit entirely out of SlickSkin, but we did not want to over do it for the first release. Sometimes, you need to give people time to get used to new ideas.

What do you think might be the next direction in wetsuit design?

It’s going to be hard to top the Slickskin, but people said that after we invented the ELASTO 100% super stretch wetsuit a few years back. So who knows?

Are there lots of new materials being developed?

Many of the larger neoprene suppliers are constantly sending us new materials for our evaluation. We are constantly testing new materials.

You mentioned that you were self-taught in wetsuit design. How did you get your break in design?

I have been working with wetsuits for over eighteen years. I started shipping wetsuits in the warehouse as a fill in job while doing a Certificate of Technology in Building Construction at TAFE.

Before I knew it I was managing the warehouse and had been totally seduced by the surfing lifestyle that working at Rip Curl offered. Living and working by the waves; working with products made by surfers for surfers.

I finished the certificate, but never went into the building industry. Attached to the warehouse was the wetsuit factory here in Torquay. I just started to get interested in wetsuits, you know mucking around making up my own suits, colours, designs. It grew from there; next thing I knew I was managing the factory.

Three years later I was appointed International Wetsuit Design Manager for Rip Curl, which is my current role... and I’m still surfing...

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