The Rise of ROXY: Boardshorts, Women’s Surf Culture, and the ‘90s

The Rise of ROXY: Boardshorts, Women’s Surf Culture, and the ‘90s

If there was ever a time to launch a surf brand for women, the ‘90s would be a sure bet. The sister brand of Quiksilver, ROXY made its debut in the summer of 1990 as a women’s swimwear line and grew from there, becoming one of the defining brands of the decade as women’s surfing reached new heights. We went deep into the early days with ROXY co-founder Bob McKnight, who shared the stories and moments that built the company into the iconic brand it is today. 

The idea of starting the first women’s surf brand started with a simple observation. McKnight and his business partner Jeff Hakman had already been successful in the ‘80s by bringing Australian brand Quiksilver, popular for their men’s boardshorts, to the US. They would drive up and down the Pacific and Atlantic coasts in McKnight’s Volkswagen van, making sales calls to all the surf shops. On these visits, they noticed a pattern: “There was nothing in [the surf shops] for women. There were half-assed sundresses and maybe some bikinis.” Yet there were lots of women out riding the waves. The ripple effect of Title IX, enacted in 1972, had spurred a new generation of women who were actively participating in sports, more so than ever before. The third wave of feminism had emerged, tied closely to the riot grrrl punk rock movement. No longer content with sitting on the sidelines, women were taking to the waves in unprecedented numbers but there was no gear tailored to them. To McKnight and Hakman, it was an obvious gap. 

Source: @girls_cant_surf_movie

Although this was a potentially lucrative business opportunity, they didn’t just take the idea and run. The need was there but at the time, a women’s surf brand was completely new territory. “We had a year-long debate in the building,” recalls McKnight. They got pushback from some of their employees and advisors, warning them that starting a women’s brand was the “kiss of death” and a “no-fly zone,” and being told bluntly “if you do women’s, you’ll wreck your men’s business.” Despite the naysayers, McKnight and Hakman decided to give it a go. In 1989, they brought in a women’s swimwear designer to come up with pieces that would be functional, athletic, and perform in the surf. Just like with Quiksilver, they focused on a core product, but instead of boardshorts, it was swimwear. “We wanted to create functional swimwear set up for athletes. Swimsuits that women can wear when they are surfing and active, with the right kind of bra cuts and bottoms, that would be sold exclusively in surf shops.” 

Everything was coming together aside from one big obstacle: the name. The team needed to call the brand something and reached out to the company at large for help. A whiteboard was put up where anyone could add their suggestions. They started out with 100 names, and went through the process of eliminating a few each day. One name stood out to McKnight as a definite no-go: Roxy. Roxy was the name of his daughter, as well as Quiksilver founder Alan Green’s second daughter. Each day, he would erase the name but it would turn up again and again, a clear favourite. As McKnight recalls from the discussions, it was the best for many reasons: “It’s the name of the best retro movie theatres across the country. It’s the best nightclub in West Hollywood. It’s a great girl/guy name. It’s got strong letters and Gen X graphics with the X and the Y.” McKnight put his misgivings aside and the brand was christened in 1989 as Quiksilver Roxy.

Quiksilver Roxy was delivered to surf shops in the summer of 1990. They used many of the Quiksilver prints for the Roxy line, as consumers would make the connection with the popular men’s brand. Despite being well received, McKnight knew they had to do better: “To be honest, it was just ok. We didn’t know a lot about swimwear when we started it, the stretches and the fits.” So they acquired the bikini company Raisins in 1993 and hired Randy Hild to lead a team dedicated to Roxy, who could focus on building and nurturing the brand, separating it from the men’s line. Over time, even the name gained independence from its origin brand, with the Quiksilver part becoming smaller and smaller until the brand was simply known, as it is today, as ROXY.

But even with the first few years of relative success, McKnight knew something was still missing: The swimwear was doing well and they added sportswear, even dabbling in denim, but there was something lacking that would push ROXY into the next level of success. As McKnight explains, “[i]t was going fine but it needed something to pop it.” Fortunately, moments of insight come at the most opportune times and for McKnight, the moment was an unforgettable one. 

In 1994, McKnight was in Oahu watching Pipe Masters, with Tom Carroll on his way to victory with the historic snap heard around the world. It was a sunny day, the crowd was pumped, and McKnight was sitting on the beach with ROXY’s head of design Sonia Kasparian. Among hundreds of people, a local teenaged girl walked past them, wearing a pair of Quiksilver boardshorts over her bikini, rolled up at the hip, most likely borrowed from her brother or boyfriend. “It was such a great, athletic look. Sonia and I just looked at each other and went “A-ha!”.” This was the missing piece: the boardshort that had brought Quiksilver so much success, but adapted to a woman’s body and aesthetic. Kasparian went back to design the first women’s boardshorts, with the help of Lisa Andersen who had just won her first world title that year. 

Andersen, who had joined ROXY as their first team rider, had also seen girls and women wearing men’s boardshorts in Hawaii. She wanted similar gear, but with a cut and look tailored to women. Andersen was involved with the development of the first prototypes, acting as a fit model and tester as they perfected the design, creating something that would work for women shredding the waves. Their efforts paid off; the boardshort was an instant hit and became the cornerstone of the brand. “We aligned boardshorts and Lisa Andersen.” says McKnight, “It was the first time anyone had done a boardshort for women and was really cute, endearing, and very athletic, very usable in the surf, which is what girls wanted. They didn’t want the bikinis falling off when they were surfing.” It was indeed a stroke of genius, addressing a need for surfers around the world. The release of the ROXY boardshort took the brand’s success into the stratosphere, while Andersen dominated the pro surf circuit, winning four consecutive world titles and becoming the first woman to land the cover of Surfer magazine. 

With their boardshorts selling like hotcakes and Andersen leading the charge, the brand exploded into global popularity, becoming even bigger and more lucrative than the men’s brands. Whether it was the success of ROXY that spurred on the women’s surf movement, or was a timely coincidence, it doesn’t matter. Women’s surfing made great strides. Wahine, the first all-women’s surf magazine, launched in 1995, WaterGirl Surf Shop, the first all-women’s surf shop, opened up in 1996, and the first all-women’s surf school, Surf Diva, started up in 1996. As the decade came to a close, the ROXY empire rode the wave towards the new millennium, expanding into wetsuits, snow gear, homeware, and even perfume. 

Although its sucess spurred on many competitors and inspired other brands to add a women’s line, ROXY has continued its dominance in surf culture and evolved with the times, doing what it does best; creating gear for active women. More than thirty years later, ROXY is an iconic brand and still one of the go-tos for surfers, with a solid collection of streetwear, swimwear, footwear, and wetsuits. Just like Andersen was involved with the creation of the boardshort, eight-time world champ and ROXY team member Stephanie Gilmore is heavily involved with the wetsuit process, as they look to create warmer, more flexible, and sustainable suits. They also boast the largest female athletic team of any brand, supporting their athletes at all stages of their careers, from the next generation of top surfers, with young riders like Bettylou Sakura Johnson and Izzy Gomez, to moms like Kelia Moniz and Bruna Schmitz, to icons like Andersen. They’ve even looked to the Great Lakes, signing on our very own Maddi Leblanc, SUP athlete, as an ambassador. 

No other brand has had quite the impact that ROXY has, defining women’s surf in the ‘90s and continuing on as an iconic brand surfers wear in the waves. Their impact on the surf industry and women’s surfing is undeniable and lives on today.

Words by Jordan-na Belle-Isle. Photographs courtesy of ROXY.

Jordan-na Belle-Isle

Jordan-na Belle-Isle is a Montreal-born, Toronto-based expert in all things related to stand up paddleboarding (SUP). She is an instructor, writer, and community builder who SUPs and surfs the Great Lakes year-round. A recognizable face in the local scene since 2012, she obtained her first instructor certification in 2017, and has collaborated with organizations and brands such as ROXY, Surf the Greats, Patagonia, Toronto Island SUP, A Greener Future, and Explore Magazine. Her image has been used in a national campaign for Tourism Canada and she has been interviewed by several media outlets such as PBS, Breakfast Television, and the Toronto Star. Jordan-na is a proud team member of Taiga Board and a co-organizer for Lake Surfistas. Learn more at and find her on Instagram.