By and and  on January 30, 2008

SAN DIEGO — In a winter of discontent, retail buyers flocked to the ASR Trade Expo in search of sure back-to-school sellers like denim and fleece, as well as items such as sweaters that respond to the need for fashionable but functional dressing.

Action sports brands at the three-day show that ended here on Saturday at the San Diego Convention Center flaunted the influence of European ready-to- wear designers and California contemporary labels, while piling on stylistic details such as satin linings and magnet closures on cuffs. The goal: to compete more aggressively with trendy junior brands outside of the skate, surf and snowboard industry.

A year after Balenciaga unveiled its shrunken navy blazer accented with candy cane-colored piping on the Paris runway, Hurley introduced its own version for this fall that is crafted from fleece with a teen-friendly price of $30 at wholesale.

The success of cropped leather jackets at Mike & Chris inspired Lost, Insight, Matix, Fox and Roxy to cut real and fake skins into bombers, hooded jackets and moto-style zip-ups. Premium denim label GoldSign's pioneering metallic finishes on denim also made an imprint on Fox, which offered its own silver-coated jeans with a $44 wholesale price. Rvca combined the trends for leggings and skinny jeans with cotton spandex pants that squeezed gams into an 11-inch leg opening and 8.5-inch rise.

"The details are important to compete in the junior market," said Gayle Jarrett, division merchandise manager at Volcom.

Quiksilver upped the ante for fashion details and fabrications in the 91 styles it displayed for its new young contemporary line launching in the fall. Retailing from $34 for organic cotton Ts and $138 for 100 percent silk shirtdresses, the line is targeted at women between the ages of 18 and 24 who shop at surf shops as well as boutiques and department stores.

Rival Billabong unveiled 15 styles of apparel and accessories for the inaugural summer collection of a higher-end label called Designer's Closet. Designer's Closet, wholesaling from $11 for a ribbed tank and $14 for a sequined scarf to $26 for a tube minidress that flutters in viscose and tulle and $36 for a hoodie toughened up with antique nailhead trim, is aimed at an older customer who might be new to Billabong and the current fan who likes to go out at night.While several retailers noticed the more sophisticated details, they also detected another trend: fiscal instability. The state of the economy cast a shadow over the show, as worries about a recession mount and major action sports retailers like Pacific Sunwear of California Inc. close stores.

Some buyers took a careful approach to orders, scaling back inventory to cope with slower-than-usual retail traffic.

"A lot of us are looking and waiting to see what the next big thing is before buying," said Ethan Chin, a buyer for X4 Sporting Goods, which operates stores in Los Angeles and San Bernardino, Calif.

Deborah Hoyt, a buyer for Pacific Beach Surf Shop in San Diego, said she veered toward reliable items she knows will sell. "Nobody can afford to be impulsive and we're not planning for too much growth this spring," Hoyt said.

Vendors emphasized value and versatility with outfits that were reversible or had removable parts. For $24 at wholesale, Ezekiel introduced a reversible dress that was printed with stripes on one side and polkadots on the other. Reef allowed consumers to snap off the sleeves of a Members Only-style jacket that wholesales for less than $30.

Sweaters also offered hope as a key trend. "The sweater is the new fleece," said Kari Kramer, vice president of merchandising and design at Roxy, the $749 million junior brand owned by Quiksilver, which almost doubled the number of sweaters for the b-t-s season to 14 from eight a year ago. "It's just something new [teenage girls] haven't had in their closet and it's a layering piece."

Also relatively new to teenagers' closets — eco-friendly clothes. Matix integrated bamboo in its collection for the first time. Also for fall, Roxy will launch a label called Greenprint, which includes denim made with 25 percent organic cotton and about a dozen tops made of organic cotton. With a $39 wholesale price, the jeans are the most expensive offered by Roxy.

Denim made of conventional cotton with snazzy finishes also was in demand. Rip Curl launched a denim line for fall with 13 stockkeeping units, including pencil skirts and Bermuda shorts. As in the premium denim industry, action sports brands emphasized fashion denim over basic styles.Reef offered a straight leg featuring a contrasting fabric on the front coin pockets and zippers slicing the tops of the back pockets. Volcom dropped the yoke on a miniskirt made frilly with pleats. DC introduced a dark wide-leg trouser cinched at the waist with a sash.

Swimwear's march from a one-season to an annual business picked up the pace. Vendors exhibited sizable summer collections and several reported that, even if they are not introducing a pre-cruise collection as Billabong has opted to do, they are considering pre-cruise in the future. "Spring and summer business has been growing," said Michelle LeBlanc, national sales manager for Roxy's swim business. "We have been seeing a shift to year-round."

Billabong, which will be offering 45 swim looks for pre-cruise, also is shaking up the industry by converting to separates from sets. The shift pleases swim specialty and department stores already focused on sets, but worries surf retailers that don't want to get stuck with excess inventory, said Mandy Robinson, Billabong's senior design director.

"It is a harder business to manage within their stores, and we thought there would be resistance, but it has been accepted," Robinson said. The jump to separates, which Billabong had been making specifically for national retailers PacSun and Urban Outfitters Inc., coincides with the brand's strategy to further drive its swimwear beyond the surf retail category.

Swimwear designers had a flashback to the Eighties with a neon yellow hue that was splashed on suits from Hurley, Hot Tuna and Rusty. Body Glove introduced a new purple variety called Amethyst for summer, while Hot Tuna paired purple with neon yellow and b. Swim's selection was punctuated with a vibrant purple hue.

Accessories also didn't miss out on the Eighties craze. Freestyle updated its classic mid-Eighties Shark watches with a digital collection of watches, each retailing for $55, doused in neon colors.

— With contributions from Anne Riley-Katz

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