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Business Insight: The C-Skins New Zealand Story

Bringing a new wetsuit brand into New Zealand was never going to be easy, but that didn’t deter Simon Clowes and Cian Sullivan – the duo behind C-Skins here in New Zealand.

Simon jokes that he and Cian could be father and son. While there is a 25-year gap between them, it is their warm-hearted, fun-focused friendship that speaks more of kinship.

Their C-Skins New Zealand operation is run from Surf Supply’s HQ located on the Tutukaka Coast in Northland. It is here where Cian and Simon carve out an enviable surf lifestyle.

“If you’ve ever bought a suit from us online, then either Simon or I have packed it for you,” Cian smiles.

The Surf Supply and C-Skins team Simon (right) and Cian on the Tutukaka Coast.

Simon also runs the New Zealand Surf Academy. Back in 2014, he was recruiting surf coaches and Cian’s CV came through. Simon was impressed with the young Irish lad and offered him a job.

“He turned up with a surfboard and a guitar,” Simon recalls. “At the time we were building a house on our land, and I said, ‘Okay, your first job is to help paint and do stuff in the new house. And then we’ll get you into coaching.”

Cian grew up in Dublin and has a thick Irish accent, pronouncing things like “thumbs” as “tums”, much to Simon’s amusement.

“I was sanding the skirtings and architraves in that new house forever,” recalls Cian. “I did four or five rooms and told Simon, ‘Oh, I’ve done all those rooms in there’. And he is like, ‘Oh yeah, there’s upstairs as well’.”

Cian came to New Zealand via a surf coaching job on the Coffs Coast working for a company called Mojo Surf, where he coached for six to eight months.

“Then I surfed my whole way up the East Coast,” he explains. “I didn’t do any of the backpacker stuff. I just surfed the whole time. I surfed everywhere apart from Snapper Rocks – didn’t even go near it, just took a look. And then I went to Indonesia for a couple of months.”

When he arrived in Tutukaka he had a similar experience to the one Simon had had many years previous.

“I was like, ‘Oh, I’m having this’,” he laughs. “I remember going into the kitchen in the little house, and Simon was having breakfast. I said, ‘Look, I know you’ve only known me for two days, but I’m staying here. I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but it’s gonna happen and I’m just happy to do whatever it takes.”

“I remember going into the kitchen in the little house, and Simon was having breakfast. I said, ‘Look, I know you’ve only known me for two days, but I’m staying here. I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but it’s gonna happen and I’m just happy to do whatever it takes.”

Cian Sullivan
Cian fell in love with Northland’s lifestyle. He recently become a New Zealand citizen.

Cian became a New Zealand citizen at the end of 2023. But he still struggles to side with the All Blacks.

“It was a bit hit and miss during the World Cup, with the All Blacks against Ireland, wasn’t it Cian?” Simon pokes.

“I’m still a little bit sensitive, to be honest,” Cian shakes his head. “My partner Lizzie is a Kiwi and rugby’s pretty big in my family – they’re obsessed with it. I was getting heart palpitations and sweating during the match. And Lizzie, who is All Blacks through and through, whispered in my ear halfway through the second half, ‘I kind of want Ireland to win’. I was like, ‘I need to film you saying that’. She denied it afterwards.”

“The local sports complex at Ngunguru put on breakfast in the morning from seven o’clock for the big games,” Simon explains. “They had TV screens and there were families in there, old people, young people.”

“For each game you’d go in and you’d get a number and they’d do a merchandise draw. When the All Blacks won and Ireland lost, Cian just walked out. He just left and didn’t say anything. And then literally his number was called out and he won a little All Blacks black rubber ducky,” laughs Simon.

“Simon was texting me going ‘Cian, you left early mate, you won this thing’.”

“I couldn’t talk to anyone. I went to the gym for two hours and lifted the heaviest weights I could and ran on the treadmill. It was a rough week. Lizzie was working and she came home with a pack of beers and a bag of potatoes, and she said, ‘I’m gonna make potatoes for dinner and you can just sit down and have a beer’. Done. Happy man.”

“I couldn’t talk to anyone. I went to the gym for two hours and lifted the heaviest weights I could and ran on the treadmill. It was a rough week.”

Cian Sullivan
All Blacks v Ireland match-ups tend to strain the C-Skins HQ. Photo: Derek Morrison

Cian doesn’t like to talk himself up, but Simon reveals that Cian is also a very good musician and singer.

“When he first came over, we were having a big New Year’s Eve party at my place,” Simon recalls. “We maybe had 70 people and I said, ‘Mate, you’ve got to sing a couple of songs for New Year’s’. And he was so nervous.”

Cian said he liked being under the radar.

“I’d probably make a pretty good bassist,” he laughs. “Just chill and hide in the corner.”

Simon said that Cian’s New Year’s Eve performance blew everyone away.

“Jaws were dropping,” he offers giving Cian a pat on the shoulder. “He’s an amazing musician. He’s so humble. He’s got an amazing voice.”

Cian tells me about a time he stumbled across an open mic night on the Bukit Peninsula in Bali.

“I remember we got to The Cashew Tree and there was a blues band playing,” he recalls. “I happened to have my guitar there. I was with a couple of mates, and we jumped in, played and sang all night, drank beer, and then surfed Ulus with everyone the next day.”

Simon is quick to tell me that The Voice tried very hard to lure Cian in ­– even offering him guaranteed advancement through the rounds.

“I was working with an Indie label in Ireland, like a management label and they got approached by The Voice and they said, ‘he’ll go through, we’ll get him to whatever point’,” Cian recalls. “But I wanted to come to New Zealand and be a surf coach and surf most days.”

Simon jokes that he could be headlining a show right now – “he could have been the next Robbie Williams,” he laughs.

I jokingly tell him he probably should have thought about that fork in life a bit more carefully.

“Oh, we’ve got it pretty good here,” he smiles. “It’s too cold in Ireland.”

Cian and Simon with the brains of the Surf Supply operation, Olive.

When Cian first started to work for Simon’s surf school, they had no intention of selling wetsuits in New Zealand.

Cian soon became head coach and that’s when the idea to bring C-Skins, a well-established UK wetsuit brand, into New Zealand began to be mulled over.

Simon had a connection with the family back in the UK, in Cornwall, and he always liked their ethos.

“They won’t cut corners, they’re always into innovating and moving forward and seeing what they can do to stay ahead of the game,” Simon explains. “We brought in loads of samples and hit the road. We went to everybody and anybody talking about wetsuits.”

While predominantly a surf brand C-Skins in the UK does a few adventure suits for coasteering and specific rentals, so Simon and Cian even went to explore the cave tourism market. They were astonished to discover one rafting and caving business spent in the vicinity of $100,000 each year on wetsuits. They needed a specific hard-wearing design to handle abseiling into limestone caverns. Simon and Cian went as far as experimenting, through C-Skins in the UK, with a Teflon outer layer, but it proved too tricky to develop a whole new and very specific line.

“We were just talking to everybody and anybody having a great time meeting new people,” Simon grins.

“We surfed the whole way around, but just about everyone laughed us out of their shops – about 90% of the people,” reveals Cian, shaking his head.

“It was hard getting our first few clients,” admits Simon. “And then we had the idea to maybe hit board manufacturers to have a point of difference. Surfers are going in buying boards and a wetsuit goes hand-in-hand. We thought it would give those surfboard manufacturers a point of difference. That’s when we secured Primal, Pete Anderson and New Wave in Gisborne. They all love the suits themselves and happily recommend them. We’re growing it from there really.”

Simon said it helped that he was old and Cian was young – “it’s a good double act when you go chatting to people”.

“It’s like Laurel and Hardy,” Cian laughs.

I can instantly tell these guys are in it as much for the adventure and surf trips as they are for the business side of things. Their good-hearted humour and approach are infectious. That certainly helps when you’re trying to sow seeds of a new brand in a brimming New Zealand marketplace.

Luckily the surf school was thriving and C-Skins surf school only suits, which are reinforced in key areas, helped to keep them afloat in those first years.

Surfing New Zealand development manager, Lee Ryan, still reps the C-Skins brand from his pro career. He still rips, too, seen here surfing here with his 13-year-old son Joel.

“Lee Ryan [Surfing New Zealand development manager] used to be sponsored by C-Skins many moons ago back in the UK,” explains Simon. “That’s why we’ve got him as our ambassador and he’s quite good through the surf school industry when it comes to mentioning C-Skins.”

They’ve also created a strong relationship with Gisborne Board Riders where they’ve set up a couple of containers around the coast aimed at sharing surfing with the community.

“The goal is to build health and well-being – the community kind of feel,” Simon explains. “So, we’ve supplied 60 wetsuits and 20-plus boards for each location and that’s been quite good for us. We do quite a bit of business through the surf schools.”

“What was really cool was that the surf instructors needed suits as well, so then they’d get a ReWired from us and that kickstarted our organic growth,” Cian adds. “The phone would ring and it’d be one of the surf shops going, ‘Hey, I saw some instructor out in your suit, can we have a look at them?’ And it just rolled on from there.”

Simon and Cian have complete control of delivering the brand here in New Zealand.

“We’ve got some guidelines to meet with regards to the look of the brand and the advertising,” Simon adds. “But it’s pretty much an open book with how we see the market over here. So that’s why we went hard with the groms to start with.”

They also sponsored Jay Quinn, who had recently moved back from the UK, and Raiha Ensor along with a few others.

“We had a really interesting conversation with Luke Hughes, of Raglan Surf Co and Hughes Surfboards,” Cian reveals. “He told us to weigh up whether we sponsor the social media superstar, or do we look at someone like Jay Quinn who is ripping, but he’s a tradie and he’s a family man. If he’s choosing C-Skins then that implies that these suits are the best. Is that actually better? It’s not measurable marketing, but is that actually better for our brand?”

They took Luke’s advice and sponsored Jay and did the same with Felix Dickson when he returned from the UK to Dunedin. Their goal is to have representation in all the major surf towns throughout New Zealand but admit that has been tough.

C-Skins started life in the very early ’90s, inheriting a wealth of knowledge from Gul Wetsuits which had developed its first surf wetsuit, a two-piece, way back in the early ’60s. It’s very much a family business.

“You can still see C-Skins founder Carey Brown now and then in the warehouse, but his son runs it now,” Simon offers. “He’s super down to earth – a really nice guy and a family man – his kids surf.”

Cian said one of the biggest strengths of the brand was that it was coming from a cold water environment and had been developed and tested in cold conditions.

“I remember it was the end of winter and Raiha was surfing down in Raglan and she asked to get a 4:3,” recalls Cian. “I said, ‘I don’t have a 4:3 in your size, but this 3:2 will be fine’. And she was going, ‘Oh, I dunno. Like it’s really cold. She put it on and later told me, ‘Oh my God, you’re dead right’.”

Sandy Bay is the go-to local for the C-Skins lads.

Once they started to gain traction, the suits would regularly appear throughout lineups in New Zealand.

Simon said he initially couldn’t resist going up to people and asking where they got their C-Skins suit from.

“I did it to a girl at Sandy Bay the other day,” Cian laughs. “I said, ‘Where’d you get your suit?’ And she goes, ‘Oh, from Simon’. I was like, ‘Sweet, you happy with it?’ She’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I love it’. I’m paddling off with a big smile on my face. And she’s probably going, what a weirdo.”

Simon and Cian realised that the suits could sell themselves, so they started dropping suits into surf stores for the staff to use. Pretty soon they had Hydro Surf in Dunedin stocking them, then Real Surf in Wellington and Kaikoura Surf along with a heap more.

Every suit bought online is packed right here by Simon and Cian on the Tutukaka Coast.

But the business hasn’t been an easy rollout.

“We’ve questioned each other over the last kind of year or so with the business,” Simon admits. “As probably other people have, too. I think the beauty for us is that we don’t need to import anything at the moment because we’ve got sufficient stock to meet the market.”

“When we first set up the feedback from the UK was just to go flat out and sell all the cheaper flatlock suits first, but it’s actually the reverse here – people have fallen in love with the ReWireds and the Sessions. The lower end of the market is very competitive. We’ve decided to just go GBS and comp-level suits up. There are still loads of other lines we can bring in within the range.”

Simon said they had direct input into the design, too. They were encouraged to work with the designers to explore ideas. That led to a specifically designed high-cut women’s suit for New Zealand that C-Skins hasn’t got anywhere else in the world.

“It’s really cool because you pick up the phone with C-Skins and you’re talking to a family member who runs the business,” Cian explains. “’Can we do this?’ ‘Yeah, yeah that sounds like a good idea’. That’s how the conversation is, there’s no, ‘Oh, we have to go talk to corporate, or that’ll have to get cleared up with the board of directors and then we’ll have to have a marketing meeting …’”

“That’s kind of the conversation we try to have with our customers as well.”

The higher-end suits, like the ReWired have been a hit in New Zealand waters.

Simon said their goal was to grow the brand as much as they could to try to break into being one of the top four.

“We’d love to be in Backdoor,” Simon offers. “That’s 25 stores right there and all in the right places.”

“It would be great to become a household name in New Zealand,” adds Cian. “It’s not a brand that is coming over and being run out of Australia. We’re here living and working out of Tutukaka. We hand pack every order – the two of us. I think Kiwis appreciate that.”

“It would be great to become a household name in New Zealand. It’s not a brand that is coming over and being run out of Australia. We’re here living and working out of Tutukaka. We hand pack every order – the two of us. I think Kiwis appreciate that.”

Cian Sullivan

Part of that process is going to be in educating surf shop teams and New Zealand surfers as to why the suits perform so well. The ReWired 3:2 Chest Zip Steamer recently achieved a 9.5 in NZ Surf Journal. You can read that full review right here.

The only concern raised by the test team was that the red thermal lining stopped at the knees and didn’t run to the ankle cuff. Cian explained that the design had to do with durability.

“In testing, as guys were pulling it on or taking it off, they were putting their thumb through that thermal lining,” he shares. “That’s the cool thing about C-Skins – durability is the number one and everything else is second to that. But it’s cool they pick up on that and then they go, right, well we’re just going to run the lining up to here.”

Durability is where C-Skins suits make their mark.

Cian said education was super important.

“If I own a surf shop and I hang two wetsuits up side-by-side and this one’s got all these cool colours and the lining comes the whole way through then the consumer is probably gonna go for that one rather than the one that stops and has less colour in the leg,” Cian concedes. “So it’s about educating the shop team.”

Simon originally hails from Cornwall. He came to New Zealand in 1997 and lived at Piha for five years. He got married on Piha Beach and then had a daughter.

“I thought the West Coast is kind of rough beaches and so I took a road trip up here and fell in love with Ngunguru. I moved up in 2001.”

“I was working for Healtheries as their sales manager. And we bought a 100-acre block with another couple. I think we paid $270,000 between us. I’m not a builder, but I do like building things and decided to build a 400 square meter straw bale house. I literally took two years out. Part-time repping, selling Healtheries, part-time building, and part-time being a house dad. I’d bring the baby over and park her up in the middle of the room. And get stuck into the building.”

Simon was a terrible babysitter when Shippies was on.

It was a balancing act that he also used when Shippies had a groomed swell.

“Caja’s got a really good story about Simon bringing her up to Shipwreck Bay,” Cian laughs as Simon shakes his head. “Simon didn’t want to babysit, so he’d tell Caja, ‘See that thing sticking up in the sand there? It’s a shipwreck. Go over and see if you can dig it up. I’ll be back in a minute. See if you can dig the shipwreck out’.”

“Well, it was character-building, wasn’t it?” Simon replies.

These days Caja is a surf coach, does the social media, blogs and runs the NZ Surf Academy website.

It’s clear that Simon and Cian get on super well. But Cian admits there is a competitive element to their relationship.

“Simon will never tell me if I get a good wave,” Cian smiles. “But he’ll see me when I go over the falls and he’ll go, ‘I saw that one’. I do the same thing for him.”

“Road trips are hilarious,” Simon adds. “We’re in fits of laughter over nothing. And that’s what makes it so rewarding. It never feels like work if you’re laughing and surfing every day.”

“Road trips are hilarious. We’re in fits of laughter over nothing. And that’s what makes it so rewarding. It never feels like work if you’re laughing and surfing every day.”

Simon Clowes
A peak at Sandy Bay on the Tutukaka Coast – home of C-Skins in New Zealand.
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