Upon meeting Clinton Filen, Brand Manager and unofficial sensei of Airush Kiteboarding, one would never assume that his clean-cut, and proper South African demeanor reveals only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. One part indie musician, two parts old-school skate rebel, Clinton’s alternative tendencies are only the beginning. With deeps roots in the surf and windsports industry and a hidden layer of complete devotion to design and artistic expression, Clinton lives outside the normal confines of the average industry stalwart. Those close to him revel in his entrepreneurial instinct and fine-tuned business savvy. The driving force behind Airush Kiteboarding, Clinton pushes development and innovation in all the right ways; defining new niches, creating revolutionary products, while forging the path of the brand’s increasing prominence. At the centre of board design, Clinton embodies the drive, vision, and humble genius that emanates from the Airush collective.
You’ve been in design for a long time. How did you start and what else have you designed? How did it lead you to designing kite surfboards?
As a kid, I had a few smart, creative peers and we starting building surf and windsurf boards in a friend’s garage. My first job was with F2, a windsurf company where I tested product and helped to develop the early board design software. When I was done with that, I started helping a friend in his design company while I was studying. After a couple years, I set-up my own design company doing wetsuits, harnesses, and accessories for Pro Limit, along with lifestyle and fashion products for a few European customers. I had also worked with Dave Stubbs, a local shaper, on kiteboards as I was always interested to move forward with board designs.
I initially joined Airush as the Product Manager and worked closely with the primary board designer at the time, Colin McCulloch, doing the computer design work and product concepts. Around three years ago he was diagnosed with cancer and I found myself supporting him more and gradually taking on more of the board design. Sadly he passed away [in July, 2000], and I continued forward from there, designing the majority of the range in conjunction with my brand management duties.
As brand manager for a large brand such as Airush, do you find the rewards of designing are different than the rewards of your duties as brand manager?
Not really, great design is about relevance, and good brand management is the same. For example, some of the greatest brand architects like Steve Jobs and Jake Burton are primarily great product people.
Before I worked with Airush, I ran my own design company, fundamentally Airush is the same a group of passionate and talented people focused on design. I feel this is quite different to your traditional company, which is much more sales and marketing oriented.
You are credited with designing one of the first production kite surfboards in the industry. What was that board and when was that? How have the designs changed since that first design?
Well, there were a lot of people who made it happen, and that was some time ago, as we did the development in 2005. It started as an obvious concept of having a board you could travel with for surfing and kiting, so basically a surfboard that kited well. Colin (McCulloch) and I initially worked with a Western Australian surfer, James Catto, as he was pretty much the best surfer we knew who kited and he had some good ideas. Felix Pivec also jumped onto the program early and helped to drive it forward.
Of course the concept took some time because everybody claimed the board was way too big, riders were using 4’8-5’0 surfboards. So, we basically came to market with something at least a foot too long. Over time and I guess with more and more surfers getting into the sport, the trend became pretty clear.
If I am riding strapless, why should I buy a kite surfboard instead of just a regular surfboard?
Firstly, your average surfboard construction does not really deal with the much heavier riding involved with kiting.
Secondly, we have worked a lot with optimizing the design of the boards to work better at the speeds generated when kiting.
Where do you see surf shapes going?
That is very much a condition-dependent question, and [on] how riders will change the way they ride. I do feel that the classic surf-style boards will always have their place. However, as much as I am a proponent of bigger surf-style boards, the spot outside our office is onshore and 30 knots, so I end up riding a 5’3 x 19” Choptop as that works best in the conditions, especially strapless.
For down the line, there is a lot of interest in our more compact shapes, which are around six inches shorter than a traditional short board. This doesn’t really go against my surf philosophy as this is very much an emerging style in surfboards and actually even more relevant to surf kiteboards as the geometry gets you more over the board, which suits the average kiter.
Finally we have also worked a lot with widebody boards, where boards are actually wider than a traditional short board. This enables you to get planning quicker and ride in much lighter wind.
It’s also difficult to view in isolation without discussing kites. For example, by working with kites such as the ONE that are so much lighter, you actually move the whole lightwind threshold down a few knots.
With the surf lifestyle running so deep in popular culture, affecting music, language, art, and even spirituality, do you think that kitesurfing shares the same culture of passion and emotion enough on its own to spread influence to create its own unique culture?
That’s a very deep question (Spirituality?). Firstly I cannot define being a kiteboarder as my cultural identity. I am not even sure I like where surfing has gone over the last 10 years. When we were kids, surf and skate was a real “alternative culture,” we were often labeled as subversives and this contributed towards the strong subculture, which many of the surf brands have commercialized so effectively. I personally prefer the way skate has maintained its core values, and I think that is rooted in the way that it is an almost an anti-social sport. You pretty much have to love skateboarding to keep doing it, it’s too technical and difficult to do just because you want to be associated with the lifestyle.
I do feel that within all these sports the core exists of people who do have this deep “riding culture” and this forms a big part of their social identity. But I think we should be very open to creating a broader community and not get stuck in our little clique of windsports or kiting.
With all the variables that kitesurfing brings to the equation, are there certain challenges you face in designing a kite surfboard that you wouldn’t necessarily address with designing a surfboard?
Well generally, you are going faster and you have the kite to help you generate speed, whereas with a surfboard, a lot of the focus of the design, especially in smaller waves, is about making something that generates speed and drive.
So I would say stability at speed is a more important component than on most surfboards, and having onshore boards that still can snap is important. For example I don’t really think a true Fish is a very relevant shape to kiteboards, as the rocker is too flat and the board is mostly designed to get speed, which sacrifices a lot of turning characteristics.
How, as a designer, do you see the strapless movement playing into the designs of kite surfboards. Is there a difference between a good kite surfboard ridden strapless and a good board ridden with straps?
Yes, I feel that things such as stability and predictability are much more of a factor when you are riding strapless. I am not necessarily talking about the top five per cent of riders, I am more interested in making strapless designs for the average person to ride.
Are there any innovations in kite surfboard designs in the last five years that you think have progressed the sport of kitesurfing?
With twin-tips, the durability and level of refinement has basically tripled the lifespan of a board. Still, in twin-tips we developed a new ultralight freestyle board that is under 1.8 kilos but still at the stiffness required by a freestyle rider. Generally the challenge is getting the stiffness right on ultra-lightweight boards.
I feel the development of the widebody freeride, race and lightwind wave boards has opened the door to sub-planning kiteboarding (wave riding in six knots is now a reality), and made the development of short line kites (lines shorter than 12 m) much more user-friendly.
On the higher-end side, we have developed a patented, active construction in surfboards, which I feel is a massive leap. We can reduce the weight of the boards by around 20 per cent. This allows us to make a Kiteboard that is the same weight as a surfboard, but with much greater durability and still great flex. This has been the last limitation on the perfect crossover board.
Is there anything or anyone in particular where your draw inspiration from for your designs?
I met my wife Carol as I was starting my career, as an athlete and a designer she has always been a huge and constant inspiration in my life. I have also been extremely lucky to grow up with two friends, who went on to become brilliant creatives in other industries and remain a constant inspiration. That set the tone for my life I guess.
I look a lot at innovation and design outside of the industry as I am really interested in so many other things, but I am inspired by the vision of people like Philippe Starck in design, Rick Rubin in music and Jake Burton and Yvon Chouinard from a business perspective.
I know that you have been involved heavily on the development of the Monaro Race and Sector FreeRace boards. Does your kite surfboard design experience contribute to your race/free-race designs?
The design fundamentals are similar to a point. But you are dealing with a lot more upwind ability and control of the large fins, more than looking at the finer points of handling. In a way, racing products are a lot easier to test as you can simply go and benchmark against someone and decide which is the better board, instead of the nuances of what is smoother in a turn or snaps a little more.
As a windsports industry veteran, designer, brand manager, father and husband, you keep your plate very full but seem to balance it all with a great attitude and enthusiasm, while still executing on all levels. What is your secret?
The secret is to keep your meltdowns as private as possible [laughs]. More seriously, I really enjoy what I do, and there is a lot of variety in my life. I don’t just spend my whole life kiting. (Although I kite a lot). I play music, surf, skate, study and hang with my friends and family. So pretty much every day I wake up amped to build the brand and make great stuff.