On Oahu’s North Shore in Hawaii, designer fashion isn’t really a topic of conversation. Fair enough. This is surf country. The Guccis and the Louis Vuittons are all comfortably nested down on Kalakaua Avenue or at Ala Moana Center, an hour’s drive south in Honolulu. Up here, all you need is a swimsuit, really. Shoes optional; sunscreen recommended.
So it’s borderline discordant—but excitingly so, for someone constantly seeking the sartorial—when Koa Smith, the striking 21-year-old professional surfer and model, says: “Yeah, I shot a campaign for Alexander Wang last year, and I became pretty good friends with Steven Klein, who photographed it.” Oh, okay. That’s very . . . well, not many people can say that. I don’t know Klein and I’ve spoken with Wang only a few times, and the fashion business is my day-to-day. The exchange is made all the more unexpected by the fact that Smith is sitting at the Sunrise Shack—a Crayola-yellow snack stand he opened recently with his two older brothers, Alex and Travis—wearing a Hurley T-shirt and hat and a wire-wrapped crystal necklace, clearly very much in his element, as mentally distanced from the fashion establishment as he is geographically. The wind is cutting and the waves, breaking barely 100 yards in front of us, rattle the picnic table.
Therein lies, like so many unlikely links these days, a social media–born connection: “They randomly hit me up,” says Smith. “I have no idea how they found me. . . . It was on Instagram, I think, and I was in Indo.” (That’s Indonesia.) “Afterward, Steven suggested entering the /Ford modeling competition.” (, the magazine, and Ford, the agency, host an annual search for new faces.) He ended up winning 2015’s contest and is now signed with Ford. That two fashion-world icons would take notice of Smith isn’t hugely surprising—the industry has long drawn inspiration from surf culture (see recent Saint Laurent and Thom Browne collections), and this particular surfer is very good-looking. What is a bit remarkable to consider, though, is that Smith is both the kind of multi-hyphenate professional that millennials are so damn good at being, and a product, really, of street casting (very much still the du jour thing for cool designers). Essentially, he is blessed on all fronts.
Smith is also: not insignificant on YouTube (a self-shot GoPro video shows the surfer slicing through a 27-second long barrel in Namibia’s Skeleton Bay), a reality TV show participant (, from Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, of all people, with brother Travis), and now a food vendor. Ford lets his surfing take the front seat over his modeling requirements. “They’ll call and say there’s something happening, but I’ll say I’m in France, or wherever,” he says. “They’re really free with me. I am more focused on the surfing side.” Though Kauai—the Hawaiian island north of Oahu—is home, he spends winters residing in and competing on the North Shore. Here, Smith sounds off on Oahu’s charms—from gasoline-strength mai tais to what he says is “the most nowhere-else-like-it beach in the world.”
On food . . .Pupukea Grill, right over by Shark’s Cove, is my favorite place to eat on the island. They have this coconut quinoa curry with spicy ahi poke in it . . . and acai bowls. It’s hard to drive past it without getting both.
On nightclubbing . . .I like to go to the Addiction at the Modern in Honolulu. That’s a once-a-month blowout, for sure. Living up here on the North Shore, there’s pretty much nothing to do but surf, and so once in a while it’s like, Okay, I need a break. So I head down to Waikiki and check out for a couple of days. I go into full tourist mode, even though I am from Hawaii.
On booze . . .My favorite Hawaiian cocktail has to be a mai tai. You’ll have one, your memory will get a little fuzzy, and then you’ll be hungover an hour later. Hard to resist! At Haleiwa Joe’s in Haleiwa, they have this drink called an Outside Double Up and it’s in a fishbowl. I think it’s four mai tais in one. It never ends well.
On athletics, other than surfing . . .There’s an old war bunker up in the hills above Sunset Beach Elementary School. It’s about a 10-minute hike, and it’s pretty vertical, but it’s incredible to watch the sunset from there. Also, I used to do more free diving and scuba—it’s good on the North Shore in the summer, when the waves have died down—but I kind of had a bunch of shark encounters in a row. One time, it was with a 15-foot tiger shark and her baby, and the water was murky. That freaked me out. But now sharks don’t bother me. I am on good terms with them.
On the best beach in Hawaii, if not the world . . . Pipeline, for sure. I’ve been coming to Oahu since I was 9, and for a while I think I took it for granted. When you see how big the waves are and how close they are to the beach, there’s else in the world like it. It’s insane. You can basically see people’s faces as they’re dropping into the waves. Also, when you get a good wave, the whole beach erupts. It’s like an arena.
On Chanel . . .They make surfboards! I don’t think anyone rides them, but they sure do hang them up.