By  on September 24, 2008

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — How do surfers say “gnarly” in French?

Oxbow, the 23-year-old action sports brand owned by France’s Lafuma SA, wants to show Americans how to adapt the lingo as it launches Stateside stores, along with a wholesale apparel business for next spring.

The first location in the retail rollout is here at Second Avenue and Broadway — a few hundred feet from the beach and steps from shops operated by rival board sports brands such as Quiksilver and Rip Curl.

Oxbow intends to open at least a half-dozen U.S. shops, mostly in tourist destinations so that it won’t compete directly with retailers carrying its wholesale line. The company plans to raise its red and white crossbow logo above a storefront in Waikiki, Hawaii, as early as next spring. Another location in Miami Beach will follow.

Although Eric Bonnem, Oxbow’s general manager, said, “We think it’s the right time” to expand in the U.S., the company faces hurdles, not the least of which is the troubled economy.

“Whenever you’re trying to enter into a mature industry with well-established brands, it’s always difficult,” said Gary Hunt, chief executive officer of Oxbow’s U.S. unit. “When times are tough like this, retailers want something new. It’s not business as usual.”

To help generate interest, Oxbow called on Laird Hamilton, the respected big-wave rider who has been sponsored by the brand for the past 18 years. Hamilton will market his own subbrand of rashguards, wet suits and other sport-specific gear through Oxbow in the U.S.

Bonnem said he expects Oxbow’s U.S. operations to mirror the international sector, deriving 80 percent of sales from wholesale and the rest from retail. He anticipates that the Santa Monica store will generate volume of $1 million in the first year.

“Retail is the first major step,” he said.

Based near Bordeaux, France, Oxbow joins Italy’s Alpinestars, South Korea’s Who.A.U. and other foreign clothing labels eager to appeal to Americans who like to careen on surf, snow and asphalt. Oxbow was founded in 1985 as a ski company. In 1991, the brand dipped its toe into the waters by launching the Longboard World Championship. Surf and snow now make up equal parts of the $150 million company, which Lafuma acquired in 2005.

Bonnem said the goal is to double sales in the next five years. Operating 44 stores in Germany, France, Hong Kong and the U.S., Oxbow aims to have 50 by yearend. The firm is considering future units in Australia, South Africa and Eastern Europe. International sales are expected to make up half of Oxbow’s revenues in five years, Bonnem said.

The 1,500-square-foot shop in Santa Monica may be a test for how Oxbow will fare in the U.S. On a recent Saturday, tourists from as far away as England tread on floors of sand-colored concrete and dark wood evoking pier pilings. Videos of toned athletes shredding waves were shown on multiple screens amid the driftwood fixtures and plastic screens decorated with a surfer’s silhouette on an orange background. Though men’s contributes to 60 percent of the business, the women’s merchandise takes up half the store, displayed under a curving blue wall that mimics a tubular wave.

In addition to technical gear like $240 wet suits, Oxbow offers what the company dubs the Culture line of Southern California-influenced women’s sportswear, encompassing everything from $18 belts braided out of shoelaces and $38 leather sandals to $68 white jeans and $58 V-neck cotton pullovers tinted tangerine. For surfer girls who aspire to doll themselves up for an evening out, there are also cashmere dresses from the Signature line, retailing between $48 and $98.

The prices are 10 to 20 percent higher than Oxbow’s competitors. Hunt said design director Carsten Haase rose from the ranks at Lanvin, Lacoste and Puma. Reflecting a European point of view, Oxbow’s more sophisticated design is intended to appeal to customers between the ages of 25 and 35. “It’s not a teenybopper product,” Hunt said.

Still, Oxbow said it will target the 3,500 specialty surf shops in the U.S., which attract hordes of beach-loving teens. Hunt, who has logged almost two decades working in the action sports market as vice president of product development at Pacific Sunwear of California Inc. and later as president of Ocean Pacific and Globe, said Oxbow will skip department stores and specialty chains such as PacSun and Zumiez in the first year.

“It’s important for us to build a base of legitimacy on the grassroots level,” he said. “We want to be recognized as a legitimate surf brand in the U.S., which we are in the world.”

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