Interview: Hayden Cox of Haydenshapes Surfboards

The self-taught designer on working with Alexander Wang and forging his own path

At just 32 years old, Sydney-born Hayden Cox has exceeded in making his mark on the surf industry. With Haydenshapes—his line of performance boards—the self-taught computer programmer, web designer and shaper embodies the spirit of modern surfing. Aesthetically focused yet driven by performance, Cox’s boards integrate innovative materials and design features into unique board shapes inspired by free-surfing’s past. Bypassing the competition-focused design approach of many of his peers, Cox bravely follows his instincts and those of his team riders. Following a recent (and unexpected) collaboration with fashion designer Alexander Wang, we spoke with Cox between LA and his native Australia about design, the current state of the surf industry and being your own boss. One thing’s for sure, he never misses a good south swell.

How you get interested in shaping and design?

I shaped my first surfboard when I was 15. I’d started surfing from the age of around four and surfboards were always really interesting to me. I gave up my school holidays one year and did work experience at a local surfboard factory—cleaning, taking out the trash etc. On the last day, the factory owner realized that it was not a school program, but something I chose to do myself and took a little pity on me. He shaped one side of the board, I shaped the other. My side was terrible, but I had a basic understanding and just kept at it. I started building boards from my parents’ backyard for friends and teachers, which is where Haydenshapes began back in 1996. The logo is still the same too.

Actually, I still make mistakes, but that’s really all part of it as long as you grow from them.

I opened my first factory at 22. It was open seven days a week and I basically slept there most nights for the first few years to try and get it all up and running. I did everything myself, from accounting to board-building. I actually even coded my first website when I was around 16 years old, which was pretty valuable because I use that skill a lot today. I’ve only ever worked for myself. I have never been to a job interview nor have I worked for another board brand to learn my bearings in the industry and get my start. I guess I went the slow way around, where I made all my mistakes myself and learned some tough lessons too. Actually, I still make mistakes, but that’s really all part of it as long as you grow from them.

Your boards feature some of the most advanced technology in the industry, but still embody the soul of free-surfing. How do you achieve this balance?

Haydenshapes is pretty well-known for the FutureFlex technology, which is a stringer-less parabolic carbon rail construction (black rails) that I designed and patented back in 2006. Our team is made up of some pretty influential free-surfers which gives me a lot of design freedom and the ability to constantly try new and different things with my shapes. There is no constant pressure of judges and what will guarantee points in heats, etc. Although I do shape boards for a few of the guys on the World Championship Tour, my brand is really about creating stylish designs that are versatile and suit the most elite level, through to the everyday surfer.

Do the riders have a lot of input? Some of the newer shapes seem like more of a “pro-model” style.

I work with surfers that I personally feel inspire my shaping and design, and I like to keep the team pretty small and tight. Craig Anderson (Ando) has ridden for Haydenshapes for over 10 years now and is definitely a muse for the brand. Ando has never been one to get too technical when it comes to board feedback and leaves a lot of the changes up to me, which I make based on what I see when he surfs. It’s been two years since I have released new models as I really like to take my time, whereas a lot of other brands will release up to six models per year. This year the “Merlot” and “Love Buzz” models will drop globally which is exciting and nerve-racking at the same time. My team is pretty psyched on them though and have been riding them for a while now.

Your boards provide a very high-performance surfing experience in a retro package. Is this intentional?

As a designer, I’m all about modern materials and manufacturing techniques when building boards, but the shapes are really based on what inspires me at the time. The Cannon is something I worked on with Ando. It’s my take on the retro single fins from the ’70s—similar to the ones that Gerry Lopez was famous for, but with a touch more nose lift. It’s the modern version I guess.

The surf industry is in an exciting place. How do you feel—as a surfer and business owner—with other areas of design drawing on surfing as an influence?

Surf culture is definitely something pretty popular at the moment, which I think is a good thing. A lot of people get their back up about it sometimes and have a bit of a sense of entitlement. I think that as long as there is some sort of credibility attached to it, or if they are doing it on a really large scale, it’s good to support and give back somehow, like supporting surf events, charities, etc.

Some of fashion’s recent takes on the sport are a little offside, but your project with Alexander Wang is beautiful. How was it working together?

I think that the project with Haydenshapes and Alexander Wang creating five exclusive marble printed boards for their NYC flagship store installation is cool, because it is authentic. They enlisted myself (Haydenshapes) to create and build the boards, as this is what we do best and they had no interest in taking that on. The style element that they added with the unique marble prints really set it off. They did it differently to how other high-end brands have in the past. Although they do look like art, they are still fully functional, high-performance surfboards. We have been in talks with them for awhile now on creating something exclusive for the Cage, and it’s great to see it all happen and get such an awesome response from everyone.

Surround yourself with good people that contribute positive energy into your life and motivate you.

Where do you see the surf industry heading? Are you happy with its current direction?

The surf industry has had its challenges with some of the major brands like Billabong and Quiksilver losing their way a little over the last few years. I think it’s all really starting to turn back around though. In saying that, the “surfboard” industry has always been pretty backward—almost ancient. For years I thought I had to follow a particular formula to grow my brand and make it successful. In the last three or so years, I threw everything I thought I knew and needed to do out the window and just focused on my own path. I don’t benchmark the brand against the big guys like Channel Islands, Lost and Firewire. It’s a little daunting because you never know how people will respond to it, but I’ve gotten to a point where I stopped focusing on that.

As a young entrepreneur, do you have any advice for those looking to make moves?

My biggest word of advice would be to always back yourself. You can’t rely on others to back you. Doors don’t always open easily and sometimes you just need to stick it out until you can create opportunities on your own. Surround yourself with good people that contribute positive energy into your life and motivate you.

Check out Cox’s full line-up of original, retro-inspired shapes featuring top of the line technical design features and innovative materials online at Haydenshapes.

Images courtesy of Haydenshapes