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LONG BEACH, Calif. — Is being too fashion-conscious a good thing?

This story first appeared in the January 29, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

That’s a question vendors and retailers in the action sports market, which convened at the convention center here Jan. 23-25 for the ASR Expo, are grappling with as the junior and women’s lines evolve from feminine translation of the men’s collections into full-fledged brands of their own.

“Girls as young as 13 are wearing $120 Seven jeans. Seventeen Magazine is featuring Marc Jacobs. That’s our girl they’re selling to,” said Shelby Harmon, sales rep for veteran surf brand O’Neil, which showed longer Hibiscus-printed board shorts — a staple, as well as sleeveless voile western shirts. “We have to stay true to our core market, but we also have to be tuned into what’s going on in fashion in general.”

While the market has always provided directional trends for the rest of fashion, it has largely skipped to its own beat. Brands such as Irvine, Calif.-based Stüssy, which has a cult fan base stretching to London and Tokyo, has long shaped the street and so-called DJ wardrobes. At the show, the line was among the freshest, tapping into an Eighties New Wave vibe, but in a more fashionable than kitschy way.

“The line is a toned-down version of what we’ve been doing in recent seasons,” said Stüssy sales manager Jessica Lomelli. “It’s still forward, but we also have to acknowledge this market.” Bestsellers included a thigh-skimming V-tunic dress with a gathered band at the hips; a pinpoint polkadot, blousy strapless top, and a rectangular, airline-style bag screened with “Je T’aime Stüssy.”

Triple 5 Soul, a New York line also with a street-skate-DJ appeal, embellished its linen cargo-style pants with flocking and crystals at the left hip. The style, with drawstrings at the ankle and waist, also comes in camouflage. Dickies Girl in Los Angeles channeled Kelly Osbourne for its twill tuxedo trousers, rip-stop, four-zipper pants and black trousers striped in red, pink or turquoise. But it was the cargo mini and flood pants — in white — that really moved.

White and turquoise, separately or paired, will be the summer’s hottest colors, if sportswear orders placed at the show are any indicator. Chocolate was not far behind. White jeans at Hurley and men’s wear-inspired slacks at Dickies Girl and Volcom, among others, were also booking well.

Turquoise denim HotPants — with a 2-inch inseam — sold briskly at Ezeikiel Girls, the new sister line to Ezeikiel. In its second season, the line added 30 accounts to its base of 300, and was among the junior lines creating the biggest buzz at the show, even among its competitors.

Designer Ryan Rush, who made a name with Dawls, which Ezeikiel is also producing in limited form, created an icon of back-to-back “e’s” as its cheeky nod to high-end logos. Peppered on coffee-colored tracksuits and subtly embroidered on shiny cut-and-sewn shirts, the logo is helping to brand the new line.

But the line that a number of competing vendors mentioned as one theirs could hang alongside was Split Girl. Shades of Marc Jacobs and old-school Stüssy flavored the A-line skirts, shaped army jackets and wide-band striped crew necks. But the overall vision of the two-year-old, young contemporary line is resonating with retailers and consumers, who increased the business by 30 percent last year.

“It’s tightly merchandised,” pointed out Split Girl brand manager Christine Smith. “We don’t jump on every trend — and we’re not a surfer girl line. We don’t do board shorts.”

That was almost a rallying cry among several vendors, who, like Smith, noted the sophistication level of young women and teens in the market.

Even Roxy, which continues to bank on its surfer girl identity, is also aware of the changing marketplace. “Suits are getting more fashiony, so girls are buying more than one,” said swim sales manager Maria Barnes, adding that Roxy doubled its swim sales in 2002. “The two-tone, Seventies screen-print look is what Roxy is all about this season, updated with color and placement.”

Roxy, Op Classics and Hobie towed the retro story in sportswear, with swimsuits featuring old-style stripes and palm tree graphics. Another key trend was the use of heavier fabrics, including sweater-like knits, terry, stretch corduroy and faux suede.

While vendors and retailers reported that chocolate brown suits — the big story at ASR’s September show — continued to dominate at retail, interest was building in such sorbet colors as pink and green.

The news, though, is the Eastern wind sweeping the category, with Japanese-inspired prints making waves for summer. “I think it’s going to be a strong season,” said Karen Wonser, owner of Fast Lane Board Shop in Burbank, Calif., who was shopping Roxy and L Space for new colors, halter tops and low-rise bottoms.

Still, for the most part, action at the show appeared slower than in seasons past, with fewer swim vendors in attendance. Notably absent were Raisins and Manhattan Beachwear, although the latter showed early cruise 2004 suits from its Hobie license in the Hobie men’s booth. “It’s a quiet show for swim. Most people finished their buying at ISAM,” said Manhattan Beachwear sales rep Lisa Keen.

At the Billabong booth, buyers crowded in for appointments. “Swim has been flat at retail for years, but we’re in an upswing,” observed sales manager Angi Broberg. She said the company doubled spring sales of its three-year-old swim line and planned to do so again for summer. “We’re positioning ourselves as a swim brand.”

To that end, Billabong hired its first swim designer, Mandy Robinson, a veteran from Quiksilver. “Placement prints, soft colors, particularly white, and textures are important and new,” Robinson said, “but we also added a commercial tropic print for the first time.”

The focus on fashion over more performance-based products for women does have some core retailers frustrated over the industry’s priorities. More than a few otherwise core brands were quick to point out they were not offering board shorts in their women’s lines. In the past, this would have been blasphemy in a culture that bases its credibility on living the life authentically, and not for fashion’s sake.

Robert Farmer, owner of Outerbanks Boarding Co. in Nags Head, N.C., walked the show with surfer Katie Coryell, searching for board shorts that don’t chafe and swimwear that stays put in the water. Noting the store has done well with Billabong, Rip Curl and O’Neil, Coryell said the market “shouldn’t sacrifice function for fashion. They need to realize who their real market is. They need to cater to women who love the sport. There’s more money to be made in the long run.”

But even authentic shops like Becker Surf & Sport dusts its five stores in Southern California with trends. Buyer Carol Neilsen had her eye out for tube tops, floods and longer board shorts, but did not plan to write deep into trend-oriented lines. “I stay committed to our industry,” she said, noting Roxy, Volcom and Paul Frank remain her bestsellers.

Women’s snow apparel retailers have been hit from an unusually warm winter on the West Coast and though most shops offer more than just snow-related gear, the blow has been hard enough to send some downhill.

“We were tapping the breaks before 9/11, but we found the bottom last year,” said Eric John, owner of Laguna Surf and Sport in Laguna Beach, Calif., noting he’s worked to keep sales even. “This has been the worst snow season ever. We’re down from a terrible year last year.”

Retailers report women’s skate-related sales have also leveled off, something observers speculate is a combination of a waning interest in the sport and the emergence of other extreme sports like BMX (bicycle motocross). Surf has stayed above water, buoyed by the warm weather and last summer’s film, “Blue Crush,” which brought an awareness of the sport and its lifestyle to girls.

The junior and women’s categories, which continue to gain muscle in this market, is increasingly catching the attention of men’s wear-only stores. “Women are not just waiting for the boys on the beach,” said Spence Boull, owner of men’s retailer Xotic Xtreme, who recently decided to carry women’s wear at his Santa Monica, Calif., store. “They’re out there stealing the waves.”

According to an informal poll, few retailers said they would take on new lines in this economy. A more common practice is eliminating brands, they said. But according to Laguna Sport and Surf’s John, that might not be the best strategy.

“You can’t let risk-aversion run your business in 2003. If you’re afraid to get inventory, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said. And, adding in the spirit of a true action sports enthusiast, “We’ll continue to take risks.”

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