Jimmy ‘Z’ Ganzer is a surf and skate Renaissance man and a true living legend.

    Interview — Imani Lanier
    Story — Alice An
    Portraits — Hideo Oida
    Archive Images — Jimmy 'Z

    Legendary surf and skate Renaissance man Jimmy ‘Z’ Ganzer sounds like he looks, a big teddy bear of a man with a deep, smooth voice and the slightest hint of a relaxed, West Coast lilt. There’s something oddly familiar about his presence, perhaps because his speaking patterns are a little reminiscent of “The Dude,” that Jeff Bridges character in The Big Lebowski. Ok. A lot like the dude minus the dismissive attitude.

    He’s warm, everyone’s favorite 60-ish uncle, chuckling as he regales you with stories of his life. Except, rather than tell war stories or cast his arms wide to show how big the fish was, he illuminates living life on the cusp—arriving in California just in time for the conception of surfing as we know it, and later, burrowing deep in the Venice Beach art scene. Littered with “you know’s” and names that soon became cultural icons, it’s an account straight from the mouth of a cultural icon himself: Mr. Jimmy’Z.

  • Ganzer speaks of the ocean as if it’s an old friend. “Every time I come down and look at the ocean and that expanse, I mean, my gosh, what a thing that is. [It is] endless,” he begins, describing the neighborhood of his formative years. “Pacific Palisades is a beach town, but it's up on a hill. That is where Hollywood filters out. Sunset Boulevard comes down to the ocean, also San Vicente comes down to the ocean right there.”

    His love affair with the ocean began the second he arrived in California, and it resonates in his voice as much as it shows on his sun-weathered face.

    “I moved from a suburb of Chicago to California in ’57, ’58, right at the turn there. We drove out in a white Pontiac convertible, a ’57 Pontiac convertible that had pink, cocoa, and gray and white interior. It was all white with a white top. It was the most beautiful car you ever saw. Unbelievable. My dad bought it off a lot,” says Ganzer.

    The move was a result of a career change for his father, formerly an executive at the Pullman Company, which manufactured railroad cars at a time in history when planes were becoming the primary mode of consumer transportation. The elder Mr. Ganzer found a job making educational films in California, sparking the cross-country road trip via Route 66 to the Pacific Palisades where little Jimmy, who was about 13 at the time, would round out his youth.

    “Man, that was the last year you could take Route 66,” Ganzer reminisced.

  • Suddenly living within walking distance of the Belaire Bay Club and surrounded by the children of Hollywood stars, Ganzer admits the move to Pacific Palisades from Chicago was an enormous culture shock. In the Windy City, he had participated in traditional American sports – football, baseball and basketball – and had never even heard of surfing. But this didn’t matter. Within the first year, Ganzer made friends and quickly became absorbed into the local surf community.

    “Somebody said, ‘Hey, I'll take you. You want to try it? Go down here in the winter.’ I think it was like November or something like that or October just after the water had gotten a little chilly,” Ganzer says of his first attempt at surfing. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is miserable to get in this ice water.’ [With] no wetsuit.”

    “The first thing that happened when I tried to shove off: [I] hit a rock with the fin and landed right on my nose. I went, ‘Well, there's a surprise.’ Nothing like your first experience trying to go out. [There was] no surf by the way. It was ridiculous. I went to all that trouble. Anyhow, it wasn't very long before I was surfing and had met all the guys at the beach,” Ganzer says, chuckling.

    His memories are incredibly intact; Ganzer details his early days on the beach where he met his lifelong friend Robbie Dick, and talks about knowing the original Gidget. Yes. The original Gidget.

    “We went to the Bay Theatre on Sunset Boulevard to see Gidget, and Gidget was the girl that was selling the tickets in the booth. The real Gidget, Kathy Kohner – the real Gidget was selling the tickets in the booth,” Ganzer says with another laugh.

  • But back to the beach.

    Young Ganzer spent much of his free time at what he calls “State Beach.” In the 1960s, Malibu Lagoon State Beach was the converging point for all beach culture. It was there that he connected with Kemp Aaberg of Surfer magazine fame. “Kemp Aaberg was the cover of Surfer magazine for many years. The little logo like the insignia was him doing The Soul Arch,” Ganzer notes.

    Running within Aaberg’s social circle of famous surfer friends, Ganzer was heavily influenced by the surf lifestyle, which was, at the time, a real fringe culture. The surf community was made up of what Ganzer refers to as the “dregs of society,” so if you were accepted into that group, you were really part of something that wasn’t largely recognized by most upright citizens.

    “At Malibu, there were a lot of people that were bums, people who, after the [Vietnam] war, and after a certain period of time – 10 years… [It was] hard for them to change their lifestyle,” says Ganzer, “They hung [around] up there and [did] what they wanted to do. Drove shitty old cars. And the economic conditions of the day were fantastic. Living here, you could make money when you wanted, because there weren't enough people to take all the jobs. You took the job. You did whatever it was. You made enough money. You could survive. Gas was less than a quarter."

    Despite the general public’s perception of the surf community in the 1960s, there were already a number of entrepreneurs on the inside who had found ways to bring their love of surf full circle. In fact, Ganzer’s first job offer out of high school came from a gentleman by the name of Bill Cleary, a kind-hearted older surfer who took to mentoring kids in the community.

  • Ganzer discovered his affinity for art as a seven year old healing from a broken limb. He began to draw while bedridden and carried on through his adulthood. Self-proclaimed “King of the Knife,” Ganzer is a master collage maker; a skill he would later use to create prints. In high school, he applied his artistic inclinations to the school annual. Knowing that Ganzer had experience doing paste-ups for the University High School yearbook, Cleary referred Ganzer to Larry Stevenson, who was looking for someone to do layouts at Surf Guide magazine.

    Interestingly enough, Surf Guide is an excellent example of how many members of the surf community were turning their lifestyles into viable livelihoods. It was originally conceived because Stevenson was unable to convince the owner of Surfer magazine, the first surf periodical, to run an ad for Makaha Skateboards, which Stevenson had founded when he noticed the similarity between skate moves and surf moves. Rather than continue to fight with Surfer for advertising space, Stevenson addressed the problem by beginning Surf Guide with Bill Cleary.

    Outside of layouts, Ganzer took on the additional responsibility of managing the Makaha skate team for Stevenson. And it was through this that Ganzer had both the greatest surf experiences – and the most important revelation – of his life: that there could be an economic life surrounding life as a surfer.

    The first time he saw how his art and love of surfing could be merged with a viable livelihood, he was working at Surf Guide and taking the Makaha Skate team on tour. He says: ‘There I was, with the Woodie pulled up at Maka, this place that was half Makaha skateboards and half Surf Guide. [And then] I went surfing with the Makaha skate team in Hawaii that summer, ’63, and just had the most fantastic time.”

  • But his path would take a few more turns before coming back to this original thought. After avoiding the Vietnam draft by being what Ganzer describes as concise, honest and frank to a military-appointed psychologist, he entered Chouinard Art Institute (now Cal Arts) and took a three-year sabbatical from surfing.

    Leaving the beach sounds like a sharp departure from his revelation that integrating the surf lifestyle with economic reality was possible, but Ganzer emphasizes the importance of being totally immersed in art school.

    Additionally, a virulent “localism” had started to infiltrate his usual haunts. The introduction of short-boarding and the growth of the surf community had brought with it a territorial battle that Ganzer had no interest in navigating.

    “To go to the beach and see the hassles and the fighting and all that bullshit … everybody wanted to carve a piece of turf. They had already seen a commercial boom of some sort. Robbie [Dick] was down there making boards for everybody. But I just wasn't active. If you're going to be a surfer, man, you're going to be a surfer every day, all the time. You know, that’s really the lifestyle,” Ganzer explains.

  • At Chouinard, Ganzer connected with a group of surfers from Palos Verdes, including classmate Rick Griffin. Griffin was buddies with Sepp Donahower, a business student at Southern California who began Pinnacle Productions, a concert production company. Soon, Ganzer was involved with Pinnacle. “Every week, that was what we’d do. I’d go to school all week. And the weekend, come Saturday night, we'd go and just get crazy over at the Shrine Auditorium and see some of the best music ever.”

    Ganzer begins to segue into a discussion about the influence and role of LSD during his rock concert years, but stops abruptly to interject that it was a reality of the time and not something he condones. “I don't know,” he says. “It's very difficult to be totally honest about this stuff, because it's ruined many people's lives. It's nothing funny to joke about. And fortunately, I've survived.

    “I made a lot of mistakes like that. Being in that time period, you were sort of a test pilot,” he adds somberly.

    After school, Ganzer continued his immersion in the fine art world; first at a space in a huge, gutted freezer vault at POP (Pacific Ocean Park) Pier – he pulls out a photo of one freezer-vault creation, a weather balloon that fills up the room – then, at an abandoned Jaguar repair shop on Venice Beach, where he worked alongside well-known contemporaries such as Frank Gehry, Ed Ruscha and Robert Graham.

  • “This is this time period where we're all going through this sort of awakening. ‘What's life all about, Alfie,’ you know? And it was a great, great lifestyle, man. It was really fun, living in this crazy freezer vault. [Being in] the art world at that time.” Ganzer continues, “Remember, pop art has happened. Plus all these other things were happening, [like] minimalism, among other concepts … They were one right after another. That's what the art world is all about.”

    In 1975, Ganzer got married and moved away from the Venice studio to be a responsible family man, taking jobs “making things for people,” but never leaving the fine art scene. By then, he had returned to surfing, making trips to Costa Rica on occasion. Ganzer touches upon the importance of Costa Rica’s influence on his art during this period, an inspirational force that ultimately solidified his relationship with art dealer Laura-Lee Woods and her husband, Bob Woods.

    In 1983, Bob Woods was selling clothes to JCPenney and noticed that Ocean Pacific and Quicksilver were increasing steadily in the market. He mentioned casually at an art opening one evening that surf apparel was making a comeback and that Ganzer should let him know if had any good ideas. “And, you know, in the ’60s, when I was [working on] Surf Guide,” Ganzer says, “I had an idea. ‘I don’t like the buttons on the front here. Couldn’t we do something where all this was over here on the side?’ I sort of designed this thing. We never made it, but I had always had that in my mind that that was a good idea.

  • Ganzer played baseball on a local league composed of Santa Monica artists, and was mid-game one evening when it hit him again. “I was playing baseball. I slid into third base headfirst, got up, dusted myself off. And I went, ‘F***, why didn't some surfer ever come up with an idea where the pants don't fall off like this?’”

    “And a voice said, ‘Some surfer did,’” Ganzer says in a slow Sesame Street Mr. Snuffleupagus voice, pausing for effect. “I went, ‘Really, what the f*** is that all about?’ You know, when you kind of hear a voice in your head?”

    He continues, “I went, ‘Well, what is it in this thing?’ … And inside of the [waistband] on these baseball pants was a woven nylon belting with a snap right there in the middle. That belting did not move. It didn't stretch out and [there] was a big heavy-duty snap that didn't come out. And I went, ‘Wow, what if I used that belting and Velcro on the side over here?’ And I stood there on third base for about that long. And I went, ‘That's a good idea.’”

    And so, Jimmy’Z was born.

  • Ganzer started making board shorts with locally sourced fabrics and selling them from a box in his Vista Cruiser on the beach. He made them for $10 and sold them for $20 to $25.

    “The only people that had them were the coolest people. But, that word of mouth, you and your word of mouth … it was an analog society at that time. All of a sudden, all these people have turned this into a cult. ‘Where can I find one of those [Jimmy’Z]?’” Ganzer says with a grin.

    This was the turning point in Ganzer’s life. He says, “Going to downtown LA every day, I went through an epiphany of not getting high and really staying focused and being on top of the business, on top of being [financially] successful, and making a good lifestyle out of it.”

    He brought on partner Sepp Donahower, the same guy who did Pinnacle Productions, to handle the promotion of Jimmy’Z. The brand took off. Jimmy’Z went from being a local brand driven by word of mouth to being amplified on a mass level at national trade shows and in magazines like the LA Weekly. Within the year, Jimmy’Z had gone from zero to a million dollars in business.

  • Jimmy’Z gathered many famous supporters. Even today, Ganzer speaks about it with a bit of awe. “It was such a fun time for everybody concerned,” he says, “We meant a lot of things to different people. For some retailers we were fashion, and for some we were geared for surfers and skateboarders.”

    Respected artists from all categories wore Jimmy’Z. Well-known actors like Jack Nicholson would wear one of Ganzer’s prints to an event and the phone would ring off the hook the next day. He mentions a certain large banana print Nicholson wore while sitting front row at a Lakers playoff game. It was all over TV and everyone wanted it. “It was [meant to be] a joke!” he exclaims, again dissolving into a fit of laughter.

    Literary giant Hunter S. Thompson was also a big fan. “I did one shirt that [was taken from an] old photo from National Geographic. It was this guy [who] had full handfuls of these night crawlers. I put a can below it. It said, ‘Can of Worms.’ That was [Thompson’s] favorite shirt. He wore that ’til the thing disintegrated,” Ganzer says while flipping through a stack of photographs, which also includes a flawless collage of the Woodie and a bomb blast, to show how the print was created.

    Jimmy’Z was heavily endorsed within the skate and surf community. Great athletes like Christian Hosoi did Jimmy’Z-sponsored tours and appeared in ad campaigns. Ganzer has no qualms mentioning that Hosoi’s father, Ivan Hosoi, was a college classmate, again making a reference to the “analog” roots of Jimmy’Z. Scott Oster, Eric Dressen and Dave Duncan also made appearances in Jimmy’Z campaigns throughout the late ’80s.

  • But as the brand grew, Ganzer felt the conflict between being a true artist and being a businessman. “You figure out how to make a profit on one item that you can then make over and over, whether it's a table, a painting … but then that becomes manufacturing. That's not necessarily art,” Ganzer states.

    Jimmy’Z grew rapidly into a $30-million company, ultimately hitting walls with supply and production. The demand for Jimmy’Z was through the roof. After being at the top of the game as a cult favorite, the only direction Ganzer could go to sustain his business was corporate and commercial. Though he still remained creative director, Ganzer sold his company to Ocean Pacific to keep up with market demands. Ironically, after moving in with the manufacturers of OP, the brand slowly lost market share within the community, and Jimmy’Z began to putter out.

    Even so, Ganzer does not discount that what he created with Jimmy’Z was significant for the surf and skate community. “We did something really simple and really nice. And it just struck a chord with people. You know, me being an artist and sort of like a ne’er-do-well from surfing roots and skateboarding roots. I had all these people that actually identified with that element of it. They’d say, ‘F***, if he can do it, I could do this.’” He says proudly, “It was a great inspiration for many people to take the creative angle on this passion that they had with surfing and skateboarding. It made many people’s lives.”

  • He continues, “Moreover, [Jimmy’Z] was the spark that has been carried over through all of this sub-cultural stuff going on, where if you're a skater and a surfer, you have to be an artist. You have to have the balls to put yourself out there. Put yourself and your passion out there. It wasn't just a clothing line. It was an art movement.”

    The creation of Jimmy’Z merged skate and surf with applied design, turning it into popular culture. And that, for Ganzer, is the real point, “The most important aspect to Jimmy’Z was that it was a movement that has carried [surf and skate] to a really fantastic [place]. It’s [now our] time to make an art statement, a lifestyle statement.”

  • The business of fashion is cyclical. After being purchased by OP, licensed repeatedly, and phased out, Jimmy’Z is now on the rise again. Ganzer has recently started working with Maui and Sons, an international holdings company, to slowly reawaken his brand from hibernation. Even if Aeropostale, the current license holder of the Jimmy’Z name in the United States and Canada, doesn’t know what to do with it, “the rest of the world is interested in Jimmy’Z,” Ganzer says with excitement.

    He goes on about traveling to places like Germany and seeing people who would say: “‘I wore that when I was a kid, you know.’ And, ‘I got goose bumps just seeing the old label.’ And, ‘I love this. Man, you guys, I love this.’"

    “To see that whole thing sort of revolve and cycle around is just unreal to me,” Ganzer says with a smile.