By  on August 17, 2011

LOS ANGELES — The crowded activewear market is gaining a new competitor: surf brand O’Neill.

The Irvine, Calif.-based company is teaming with Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin to venture outside of surf, snow and youth-oriented fashion for the first time and target an older female customer who lives an active lifestyle. Launching for spring, the activewear line, called O’Neill 365, encompasses 24 pieces, divided into three categories that cover basic items for layering, performance pieces made of the technical fabric 3XDRY, and fashion-forward looks that include asymmetric cuts. In addition to printing a Navajo-inspired pattern on running shorts and the waistband of a capri, the inaugural collection also uses a palette of coral, green, purple, black and gray. Retail prices run from $32 to $89.

To promote O’Neill 365, Coughlin will serve as the label’s face and well-toned body in ads that will start running in December in women’s fashion, lifestyle and fitness magazines and on Web sites. Coughlin, 28, represents O’Neill 365’s target customer, who is age 25 to 35. Albeit much more accomplished, with 19 world championship medals and 11 Olympic medals, Coughlin, who lives in Lafayette, Calif., and trains in the nearby town of Berkeley, can relate to an active woman who tries a variety of fitness programs.

“Even though I’m a swimmer, over half of my training is Pilates or running or lifting weights or hiking,” said Coughlin, who wore and gave feedback on key pieces in the first collection. “I have the legging and the capri and the sports bra and the wrap. I’ve been living in that wrap lately. It’s really, really cozy and perfect. I just had a long flight from New York and it was the perfect accessory.”

As part of her multiyear deal with O’Neill, Coughlin is co-designing a group in next fall’s collection. Some of the looks Coughlin has conjured are a drapy tank to wear over leggings and a textured jacket with an asymmetric zipper. The woman she is designing for is “someone who works out and wears this stuff, kind of all day,” she said.

O’Neill, which is produced under license by La Jolla Group, faces strong competition on a variety of fronts. Whereas technical powerhouse Under Armour is adding more flair to its women’s business with a new yoga line (think urban “Flashdance”), K-Swiss harnessed the celebrity power of trainer Jillian Michaels last spring to introduce a vintage-inspired collection of workout clothes that can also be worn to brunch.

“We felt there were some products on the market that were fashion-forward. There were obviously products on the market that were high performance,” said Cedar Carter, director of marketing at O’Neill. “We saw a space in the middle [where] there wasn’t anything we felt that did an amazing job to mix the fashion and performance aspect of it.”

Although Carter declined to disclose sales projections, she said O’Neill aims to sell the new activewear line in its current accounts including Sport Chalet and Dick’s Sporting Goods. It also wants to land new retailers such as yoga studios, activewear stores and upscale fitness clubs that sell clothes. She’s confident O’Neill can make the crossover.

“We have always, as a brand, been known for innovation, with the invention of the wet suit, the coining of the term surf shops and the invention of the surf leash,” she said. “It’s going to be a natural thing for [customers] to see us coming out with activewear.”

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