“A good cheetah print is hard to find.”
Shane Jones delivered the pronouncement ruefully. So much could go wrong, he continued. The splotches might be too big or too small, the colors too bright or too dim, the spacing unnaturally symmetrical or too artistically wonky. This is especially true when it comes to specialty materials, like the 6 by 4½-foot sheets of neoprene from which Mr. Jones makes his couture-level surf suits.
It would not be unreasonable to call Mr. Jones, 42, the Willy Wonka of wetsuits. A self-taught designer and tailor, he has sewn wetsuits for surf legends like Gerry Lopez, Mickey Muñoz, Skip Frye and L.J. Richards, as well as customers from Japan, Brazil, Germany and beyond.
Under the label Jonesea, he crafts suits in colors like goldenrod and merlot, and in cheetah and tie-dye prints. He has sewn suits modeled after The Joker, Evel Knievel, Minnie Mouse and Beetlejuice, and one that replicates Freddy Krueger’s murdering outfit from “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” In 2016 the designer Thom Browne commissioned a trompe l’oeil-effect wetsuit and sent a model down the Paris runway wrapped in its stretchy embrace. The suit retailed for $3,900 — significantly costlier than the Jonesea label suits, which start around $300.
Mr. Jones, who grew up in Orange County, Calif., runs his one-man shop out of Costa Mesa, Calif. During a visit to Brooklyn in May, he stopped by the store Pilgrim Surf + Supply wearing cherry-red Vans, tube socks and shorts that conveyed an optimistic attitude about spring weather in New York. He was vibrating from a dawn surf session in New Jersey.
When asked how the waves were, he grinned. “Dude, I’m so stoked. Shoulder-high. Offshore winds.”
And the wetsuits?
“Everyone was in black.”
When it comes to wetsuits, especially on the East Coast, the landscape is funereal. Gaze upon any break with sub-60-degree temperatures and you will find surfers in two hues: regular black and sun-faded black — possibly charcoal. Occasionally an outlier will paddle out in turquoise or yellow; usually the outlier turns out to be Australian.
Mr. Jones has no problem with black, but he loves an expressive palette — as do many of his clients. “First he made me a cheetah longjohn wetsuit with a matching jacket,” said Tony Alva, a pioneering skateboarder and avid surfer. “The next was a purple fullsuit with a psychedelic mohawk stripe on it. His suits are excellent quality. I surf in them whenever I can.”
Hand-crafting specialty garments in America out of expensive materials is not a terrific way to get rich. In 2016 Mr. Jones was living out of his 1968 Chevy van making wetsuits from the humblest atelier that ever existed: a 10 by 30 storage unit. By working 100-hour weeks and supplementing his entrepreneurial efforts with day labor gigs, he was able to move into a proper workshop within nine months. His current space includes room for 12 sewing machines and the pallet racks required for storing sheets of neoprene. (If rolled up, the material can develop stubborn dents.)
During a typical seven-day workweek, Mr. Jones rises at 5 a.m. In an effort to minimize waste, all wetsuits are made to order, and it takes around eight hours to build one from start to finish. When Mr. Jones is not designing and sewing, he mops the floor, counts stock, writes product descriptions, handles social media, provides customer service and boxes orders. “People think I have a warehouse full of employees working for me,” he said. “They’ll email, “Hey you guys … ” and I’m like, “It’s just me! I am ‘you guys.’”
A handful of big companies — O’Neill, Billabong, Rip Curl, Quiksilver — dominate the wetsuit market, and it’s not hard to find instances where one of them has been noticeably “inspired” by his work. When asked about the reality of getting ripped off, he shrugged. “These brands are like big cruise ships that can’t turn around fast, whereas I’m a little Jet Ski. I’d rather change on a dime and do something new than complain,” he said.
The copycat problem is an incentive for Mr. Jones to get weirder with his designs, since a major company is less likely to ape a truly unorthodox suit.
“Surfing is conservative in its aesthetics and ethics,” said Dion Mattison, who runs the surf media and coaching company Conatus and is writing a book about the philosophy of surfing. “If you show up in a bright snazzy suit, you’re communicating audacity. You’re saying, ‘Hello, I surf extremely well and deserve to wear a suit that draws your attention.’ Or at least, ‘Hello, I think I surf extremely well.’”
Mr. Jones, who started surfing at age 5, comfortably slots into the group of people who are justified in their neoprene hotdoggery. To his mind, a maniacal wetsuit is not so much a provocation as an excuse to get people smiling in the lineup, even if the process can drive him to the brink of madness: “When I made my Evel Knievel wetsuit, I had to redo the stars 10 times to make it symmetrical.”
In this way Mr. Jones may be less Willy Wonka than Reynolds Woodcock, the dressmaker of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie “Phantom Thread.” There is, however, a key difference between the two perfectionists. In Mr. Anderson’s film, the character is shown taking 16 measurements from a woman’s body before beginning to prepare his pattern. Mr. Jones takes 22.