By and  on June 4, 2008

COSTA MESA, Calif. — As the economy stumbles, budget-conscious items and screen-printed T-shirts topped retail buyers' lists at the holiday edition of the ASR trade show.

The event on May 28 and 29 at the Orange County Fair & Exposition Center, which specializes in the action sports apparel market, attracted a range of retailers: national chains such as Macy's; California specialty shops like Huntington Surf & Sport, Jack's Surfboards and Beach Bums Boardshops, and buyers who traveled from as far as Costa Rica and Venezuela.

Leading brands, including Volcom, O'Neill, Rvca, Matix, DC Shoes and Insight, did not exhibit because they already had shown their holiday collections, which begin shipping in August, to key retailers.

Billabong, however, did introduce its holiday lineup. A new trend that Billabong promoted was dip-dyeing, which yielded palettes fading from cantaloupe to burgundy and other dramatic combinations on everything from camisoles and cardigans to jeans and tube top maxidresses.

"It's not all doom and gloom out there," said Billabong sales manager Rana Townend. "Kids are still shopping. There's still business to be had."

Manufacturers were keen on a boost in business for the screen-printed T-shirt, spruced up in new bodies such as the V-neck at Billabong and with glitter washes at Aqua VI.

At Roxy, the T-shirt last made its mark as a big seller about three years ago, when the category contributed to about 40 percent of the business. Wholesaling for $11 to $12, Roxy's bestsellers included Ts featuring flowers that appeared drawn by hand or splotches of paint.

"Screen Ts are coming back for us," said Laura Thomsen, a Roxy sales representative.

Indeed, buyers grabbed the screen prints. "Anything big is anything that has a screen [print] on it," said Marilyn Schwartz, a buyer for National Stores Inc., the Gardena, Calif.-based retailer that runs discount units in California, Arizona, Texas and Mexico. In particular, Schwartz said she liked the edgier designs, such as skulls, Gothic motifs and tattoo-inspired art.

Sweaters also represent a growth category. Preferring to keep its production in the U.S., Lucy Love expanded its knitwear business after discovering a California factory that can produce new styles such as blousonlike sweaters. Rip Curl more than doubled the number of holiday sweater styles to eight. Aqua VI upped the ante with a cotton and cashmere sweater that combined a hood, foil print and white stripes running down the sleeves with a $60 wholesale price."It's fashion, but definitely with the surf industry" influence, said Aqua VI co-founder Lian Murray.

Moreover, hoodies fit the bill as easy-to-fit and moderately priced gift items. Fox offered one version that combined black jersey with metallic-coated fabric and hot pink banding for a wholesale price running less than $30.

Swimwear, typically a major category at the ASR spring-summer show in September, was sparse at the holiday expo. But Roxy, which views swimsuits as a yearlong business, offered an early spring 2009 selection that was marked by a sizable helping of reversible bikinis and a beefed-up assortment of cover-ups.

"Boardshorts and cover-ups are just trending right now," said Michelle LeBlanc, national sales manager for Roxy swim. "The buyers are putting additional dollars in them, and they are not taking away from the suits."

A crinkled gauze cotton dress wholesaling for $17 in black, brown and blue was among the brand's popular cover-up options.

Roxy's palette veered slightly from the ultrabright colors that were introduced for this year. The early spring lineup had an influx of what LeBlanc described as vintage-inspired deep browns and royal blue, a color, she said, from which swimwear stalwarts often have shied away.

"We are definitely known for great suits and great fit, but we want to be known for fashion, as well," said LeBlanc, speaking of the use of such hues and the direction of Roxy suits going forward.

Billabong was one of the only other brands showing new swim at the show with its debut collection of early cruise swimsuits. Tops and bottoms, which wholesale from about $17 to $22, were steeped in a vintage surf vibe with daisies, wallpaper prints and psychedelic flowers.

In a move to capture the contemporary swim customer, the brand also has collaborated with retailer Lisa Kline on a reversible one-piece, retailing for $98, and a reversible bikini, for $86. The collaboration is the second of late for Billabong, which did a suit with Los Angeles designer Jenny Han, as well.

In accessories, metallic shades remained strong in handbags, but brands evolved from mostly silver and gold to pewter and bronze."It is something different," said Sierra Fitch, a sales representative for Rip Curl, referring specifically to the brand's bronze-toned Kylie tote with braided straps, priced at $26 wholesale. "If you are going to have this color, holiday is the time to do it."

Roomy totes, hobos and satchels, including cross-body styles, in fake leather were key shapes in holiday handbag collections. Roxy, which mostly wholesales bags for $17 to $38, exhibited a nylon puffer bag with patent trim in a new spacious silhouette.

"We are really feeling certain [voluminous] bodies," said Roxy sales representative Erinn Leonhardt.

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