What exactly was it that predestined Gérard Dabbadie to flood the planet’s line-ups with his boards? All the evidence suggests that it wasn’t much. In fact, maybe nothing at all from his parents’ view, who envisaged a career as a pharmacist for their son. Indeed, he pursued this career successfully, graduating as a pharmacist in 1980 “to make them happy” before returning to his first love – surfing and shaping. “I shaped my first board in 1972,” Gérard remembers. “I even did shaping in a garage in California on a student trip with François Payot [who, a few years later, would go on to become a co-founder of Rip Curl Europe, Ed.] A single, seven-foot diamond tail, which was typical of boards in the era. Gérard was a gifted surfer and won the French surfing championships three times between 1972 and 1974 and was European champion in 1975. At the age of 20, the young man from the Landes region was the only top-class surfer in the region to shape his own boards. “Back then, he was one of the best surfers in Hossegor,” remembers Gibus de Soultrait, who would found Surf Session several years later, in 1986. “He broke the dominance of English surfers on the European scene. But, above all, he was a very good shaper. In addition, he was the first one to have a quiver of several boards in his car, to make the most of the day’s conditions, whereas the rest of us generally only had one board.”
Superfrog, Gérard’s surfboard brand, first saw the light of day in 1975. He chose an English name for a concept that was truly French: “The name comes from Super Dupont, the super hero character created by Gotlib, with his beret and a baguette underneath his arm,” Gérard recalls. “It was my way of putting forward the French aspect in a very English-speaking world.” The surfer split his time between studying pharmacy and the shaping workshop, with small-scale local production using artisanal methods. At the time, surfing was still a minority sport in France and the prospects of making it into a successful business were basically non-existent. However, the creation of Rip Curl Europe in 1981 would be a game changer. Maurice Cole landed on the Old Continent to start a new life and forget his old demons from Australia – and also to create the company (which, by the way, would be called Frogs) with members of Rip Curl Australia and François Payot. The Australian very quickly put together a shaping workshop next to the company’s offices. “I started working there in 1984,” Gérard remembers, “and it was really Maurice who taught me everything about shaping.” The Superfrog label, which had already produced around a hundred boards, was therefore put on the back burner for a while, in favour of the collaboration with Maurice on behalf of Rip Curl. It was not until 1990 that Gérard started out on his own and began working on his Superfrog venture full time. Thanks to his experience and his network, business went well and the frog very quickly became one of the highest profile surfboard brands on the French market. As well as shortboards and longboards, Gérard was one of the first to create hybrid boards. In 1992, Gérard decided to sponsor a surfer whom he had seen in the water over several years: Martial Toubois. “I had already ordered a few boards from him, we got on quite well together and we saw each other again when I started longboarding competitively in 1991,” remembers the surfer. “He suggested sponsoring me the following year.” A fruitful collaboration, because Martial won the equivalent of the European championships for the next three years, as well as cups and French national championships. At the time, longboarding was experiencing something of a boom, driven by brands such as Oxbow and events such as the Biarritz Surf Festival.
Surfing was finally taking off in France. The number of surfers exploded and surf schools started to flourish on the beaches. However, there were still no boards that were truly adapted to suit learners. Bic, which already had an extensive presence in the board market, was looking to diversify at the time. “We got in contact in 1992, via a mutual acquaintance,” Gérard explains. “Surfing was losing momentum and Bic had plans to create industrially produced surfboards.” The idea won him over, and he agreed to take part in the venture. Why him rather than anyone else? “I was an expert shaper of longboards and Malibus, which is what they were looking for, and I already had a good network,” he added. The first board in the range, the Natural Surf 7’9, was launched two years later, in 1994. Made in Vannes, in the department of Morbihan on the Breton coast, on the same production lines that Bic used for surfboard floats, Natural Surf was initially sold via the brand’s existing network. This was a minor revolution in the world of surfboards, which had previously been highly focused on craft techniques. “At the time, some people thought it was scandalous when boards that were made in Asia appeared a few years later,” Gibus remembers. “It was felt to be disrespectful.” The magazine would even say that “the fox was in the henhouse.” However, the journalist did acknowledge that “The label has benefited from Gérard’s reputation and expertise, and has launched some good boards from the outset.” The shaper has a more nuanced view of this period: “There was no outright rejection. Shapers rapidly saw the appeal: beginners weren’t going to surf on Bic for the rest of their lives.” Sylvain Cazenave, who was already working with Bic as a windsurfing photographer, remembers the brand’s launch very well: “They were smart about it, and worked with established surfers, shapers and surfing schools.” The feedback very quickly turned positive. Martial Toubois, who became a Bic surfer that year, remembers it similarly: “Of course, there were purists who were against the arrival of these plastic boards. But I got loads of people to try them and they were all pleasantly surprised.”
The range expanded rapidly (with sizes including 6’10, 7’3, 6’7, and 9’) and Bic Surf’s success soon grew beyond the borders of France – and broke down sporting barriers at the same time. The brand no longer had anything to prove and quickly found a market niche. Business was going well and Bic launched the One Design Longboard Challenge, a global circuit of qualifying contests, where all competitors used the same 9’ Bic design. The sixteen finalists then met for the final leg at a high-profile venue: Costa Rica, Peru and even Mentawai in 2002. “These were the golden years of marketing,” Gérard laughs. “We took roughly forty people to Mentawai on five boats. It was amazing, but there came a time when you really had to ask if it was profitable.” Nonetheless, what better publicity could there be for Bic than for the world’s best surfers to compete on their boards? The level of competition was so high that Joel Tudor and Harley Ingleby, for example, didn’t get through the qualifying stages in their home countries. “I saw Ingleby not so long ago,” Gérard explains, “and he told me how good he thought the board was, and how disappointed he was not to qualify.” The success of the Bic Surf range has never faltered over the years, even though the arrival of NSP boards in the mid-2000s slowed its growth rates, while SUP boards now account for half of Bic Sport’s revenue. In 2012, the Vannes factory celebrated the hundred-thousandth example of its 7’3 board to come off the production line. The range has expanded considerably over the last few years and now consists of around thirty boards. The Natural Surf 7’9 remains the second-best seller. How many Bic surfboards have been made since 1994? Gérard stopped counting a long time ago. “Over half a million boards have been produced,” Gérard comments, without any sense of false modesty. His name appears on each and every one, and it goes without saying that very few shapers can boast a record like that.
And did that make Gérard into the first French millionaire shaper? “Obviously, I earn more than I would have if I’d stayed in my workshop in Hossegor, but less than I would have earned if I’d remained a pharmacist. If you want to become rich, you don’t do shaping.” Having initially been paid on a per-design contract, it would take several years before he earned commission on the sales of his board. Having taken on greater responsibility for Bic Surf’s sales in France, he splits his time between Hossegor and Vannes, where he continues to develop Bic’s ranges as well as his own Superfrog label, which is now made in Asia and distributed by Bic (yes, the same Bic that makes ballpoint pens). With distribution arrangements already in place in Europe, the USA and Japan, his surfboards continue to grow their market: “We recently got our very first order from Iran! This was made possible by Marion Poizeau who fell in love with the country and managed to win acceptance for surfing, as well as Iban Reignier from Surfeurs Solidaires [Surfing Solidarity] who has been a long-term donor of equipment.” Far from adopting a triumphal approach about his success, he remains highly discreet and even distant. “He’s always been a loner,” recalls Sylvain Cazenave. “Even in the 70s, he seemed to want to get away from the world, by going out to surf very early in the day or all alone.” Gibus confirms: “He has always remained very discreet – he’s not the kind of person to take part in the Masters for example.” The former French champion doesn’t hide the fact that he now only surfs very rarely: “I’m still on the water, but sailing on my boat,” he smiles. Nonetheless, he remains satisfied with the direction that surfing has gone over the last few years: “Surfing is going well. I’m happy to see that there is true diversity in the shapes on the water today: longboards, eggs, fishes, alaias, noseless boards – and more and more women as well. What I don’t like so much is the ultra-competitive aspect – there is no longer a club spirit that takes precedence, the kids are under too much pressure. But the number of surfers continues to increase, and there are more and more surf schools as well. It’s clearly not a fad that will disappear.” Gérard Dabbadie does not seem to realise the influence that his boards have had on an entire generation of surfers, nor on surfing as a business in general. In the final analysis, it doesn’t really matter, because the rest of the world is well aware of how much it owes to him.
Interview for Surf Session Collector 2016 by Romain Ferrand