By  on September 15, 2006

In surf swimwear, function has typically prevailed over form, but small and midtier brands fighting for a toehold in the industry are increasingly pushing the style quotient.

These emerging surf brands are trying to outflank larger competitors by bringing trends faster to a growing base of fashion-conscious consumers. They have loaded their arsenals with fresh looks, new lines and, on occasion, higher price points to distinguish themselves on swimwear shelves where Billabong, O'Neill and Roxy have ruled.

"When the surf business was traditionally men, it was a pair of flip-flops, a T-shirt and a board," said Thomas McNeel, owner of Love Surf Love in Costa Mesa, Calif., and a veteran of the swimwear scene who helped start the competing Orange County brand L Space in 1998. "Girls are demanding more fashion. A girl could walk into a surf shop carrying a Gucci purse."

For the company's third season, McNeel introduced what he dubbed a "bridge line" merging surf, contemporary apparel and Brazilian bikini influences. The line features low-rise banded bottoms, European fabrics, adjustable side keyholes and loftier prices. The suits retail for about $90, above the mid-$80 range where Love Surf Love hovered in previous seasons.

"We are addressing the surf industry, but we are addressing it more as a fashionable industry," McNeel said. He estimated that Love Surf Love suits would have 400 accounts this year, and the company might cross into the black for the first time since launching in 2004.

At Torrance, Calif.-based Sunsets Inc., owner Greg Stager has retooled the nine-year-old surf brand Blink. The swimwear has a new name, b. Swim, and a new designer, Nikol Roberts, who was hired for her sportswear knowledge and had no experience in swimsuits. Wholesale prices for b. Swim separates range from $21 to $29. Blink started at $18 wholesale.

"We wanted to come out with a line that is more lifestyle," he said. "We felt that there needed to be more fashion, needed to be more fun."

Stager is targeting distribution beyond surf shops into specialty stores where there is resistance to narrow surf brands. He predicted half of b. Swim's sales would be to surf stores and the other half to swim specialty. Blink had focused on surf shops, which generated 80 percent of sales.Marcia Oda, brand manager for Split at Cypress, Calif.-based Manhattan Beach­wear LLC, which picked up the Split license this year with the shutdown of swimwear maker Beach Patrol Inc., said there is room for spot-on surf swimwear products beyond niche surf retailers. Department stores and specialty stores have been boosting surf brands' presence.

"Maybe a few years ago, people carried Roxy, but they couldn't sell surf brands," she said. "[Retailers] have had enough growth and success to see they need to have more to offer."

Constantly searching for unique goods, department and specialty stores are willing to try out brands that could entice customers seeking to differentiate themselves.

"If it is the right look and print, it can grow in our store," said Marni Chomenko, a buyer for Diane's Inc., a 15-store specialty swim chain based in Torrance. "We test everything."

At surf stores, the opposite often is the case. Ellyce Zolt, a partner in the California Market Center showroom Ronnie & Ellyce Sales, said it is difficult for small and midtier surf brands to break into surf stores, where well-known names outmuscle newcomers. She represents Los Angeles-based Jennifer Kay Inc.'s junior surf swimwear brands Pink Sands and California Waves.

"Surf stores are really name-driven," Zolt said. "They sell their core brands — Roxy, Billabong — that is it."

For the few emerging brands, such as Local Motion, which have won floor space at core surf retailers, promoting edgy styles and reaching into department and swim specialty stores carries risks. Alienating tried-and-true surfer girls who breathe authenticity into a brand is chief among them.

"It is a whole subculture in surf; they don't like wannabes," said Howard Greller, president of Blue Water Design Group, a division of Gardena, Calif.-based Apparel Ventures Inc. Blue Water Design is in its second year of producing Hawaiian-bred brand Local Motion's swimsuits. "It is hard to launch anything new unless you have credibility."

Nonetheless, there are examples of brands that have effectively leveraged success at surf retailers to boost department and specialty store business. Pointing to Quiksilver, Greller said it would not have been possible to reach substantial sales volumes without department stores. "They have been creative enough to sell both sides of the table and walk that fine line," he said.Smaller labels have found that competing on price alone is not a sustainable formula. Price-sensitive shoppers are likely to skip specialty and better department stores anyway. So, raising swimsuit prices a few dollars for quality fabrics and fashionable designs, although a risk, is seen as necessary step to attracting snappy dressers accustomed to paying $150-plus for premium jeans.

"If you are small and you seek out a customer based on fashion and label consciousness, I believe you will be more solid," said Love Surf Love's McNeel. "If you deal with price, you will lose to some of the larger competitors. You have to deal with a consumer that wants individuality."

McNeel's former company, Santa Ana, Calif.-based L Space, demonstrates how a fledgling junior surf brand can grow by deftly making the transition into a contemporary fashion resource. Started in 1997, L Space rolled out initially into surf retailers, but sensed it was critical to adjust its business model as chains such as Gap Inc. and Target Corp. beefed up on affordable swim items.

L Space opted to kick up the fashion a notch and sought higher-priced fabrics, including a microfiber out of Italy that is used in the 2007 collection. Suits wholesale for $23 to $29, about $5 to $10 more than they were in seasons past.

Johanna Pate, a co-designer at L Space, said the company changed just at the right time. She said department and specialty stores, as well as surf boutiques infusing their merchandise with trendier looks, were calling for contemporary styles. L Space recently started selling to Nordstrom and Selfridges, and Pate estimated orders have gone up 30 percent compared with last year.

Pate indicated fashion-forward small and midtier brands should not get complacent. Citing a "really sexy monokini" by Billabong, she said, "Everybody is taking it up a bit."

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