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Fashion Goes on a Surfing Safari

NEW YORK — Polynesian goddesses first hit the white caps of Hawaii in the 1600s — long before Gidget leapt into the surf on the silver screen. But now the sport is having a second coming of another kind, thanks to some surf’s-up...

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NEW YORK — Polynesian goddesses first hit the white caps of Hawaii in the 1600s — long before Gidget leapt into the surf on the silver screen. But now the sport is having a second coming of another kind, thanks to some surf’s-up looks on European designers’ runways.

Nicolas Ghesquière showed rash-guard type tops at Balenciaga, Miucca Prada went with Hawaiian printed shorts, Louis Vuitton sent along neoprene tops and Chanel was more overt with a signature surfboard. Even artist Damien Hirst’s wife, Maia Norman, who is also an avid surfer, borrowed from Hawaiian tribal prints for her first collection under the Mother of Pearl label.

The splash made by “Blue Crush,” a summer flick about surfer girls that reeled in more than $40 million at the box office, helped heighten the image of the “hang-10″ crowd. But insiders insist the swell behind the sport was rising before the designer treatment.

The surf market’s strength helped Pacific Sunwear, a 480-unit Anaheim, Calif.-based chain, see a 13 percent comparable-store gain in August — its best monthly same-store sales performance in four years. This week, the company reported income of $15.9 million for the quarter ended Nov. 2.

Dick Baker, president and chief executive officer of OP, a $200 million label, said: “With a lot of these surf-related brands like Billabong, O’Neil, Volcum and Hurley, their personalities are what makes them special and has gotten them into fashion chains. I would argue the Roxy phenomenon is one of the driving factors. It’s really a global lifestyle brand that is California surf-inspired.”

In a move that surprised many, Nike stepped out of the traditional sports arena and acquired the surf brand Hurley International in February. Many took that move as evidence of the growth potential of the surf market.

Unlike a few years ago when designers dabbled in surfwear, this go-round is different. “The depth of visibility of the sport within high fashion has a much greater presence,” Baker said.

That only helps brands like OP, which expects women’s sales, which now account for about 18 percent of total sales, to be the “single biggest growth area” next year, he said.

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So, are designers borrowing from the beaches?

“For sure,” said pro surfer Rochelle Ballard. But sex appeal is the real draw, she said. “To me, the best part about being a surfer is being in a bikini all day,” Ballard said. “Girls are in bikinis and the guys are in trunks. The guys are so fit and tan.”

The O’Neil-sponsored athlete said: “To me, being a surfer is like being…a musician, a dancer. We live off the moment and the changes going on in the ocean, and that carries over to the way we dress.”

Surfers like Ballard, who surfs as much as 320 days out of the year, also see their share of fashion trends in their travels. Reached at home on the north shore of Hawaii, where triangle tops are often paired with jeans off the beach, she emphasized the whole surfer look is unrehearsed.

“It’s not something the wearer has to cross her legs, walk a certain way or be in a special environment to wear,” she said.

The general consensus among surf brands is designers are borrowing from them, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, according to Quiksilver senior vice president Randy Hild.

“If anything, the industry perceives it as a compliment, except for some who see it as ripping us off,” Hild said. “I think we will benefit from the ongoing increased awareness. But I can’t say sales will go up this year because surf was on the runways.”

All the hype seems a little unbalanced considering there were about 400,000 female surfers in the U.S. last year, according to Board-Trac, a market research firm based in Trabuco Canyon, Calif. But given the momentum behind surfing, that figure is expected to increase by 20 percent, said Sunshine Makarow, editor in chief for Surf Life for Women, the quarterly magazine she founded in June.

Designers and brands like Old Navy and Abercrombie & Fitch spotlighting surfing is good, she added. Surf Life for Women is sold at A&F’s Hollister stores.

Makarow said the runway attention “definitely brings surfing more to the mainstream eye, revitalizes the sport and gives it a new image away from the [drugged out] one Sean Penn had in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

Designers’ interest in surfing reflects the influence of sports on design, said Maria Stefan, executive director of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. The real test, however, will be whether they follow through with sponsorships as Prada and Louis Vuitton do with world-class yachting.

Next year, Roxy, Quiksilver’s 11-year-old women’s surf label, will double the surf camps it sponsors to 30. Roxy brings in more than 40 percent of the company’s $650 million annual sales, said Hild, during a phone interview from Hawaii, where the brand is sponsoring the Roxy Pro, one of the two pro women’s contests it sponsors.

Quiksilver will also open more freestanding Boardriders Club stores, including one in New York’s Times Square set to bow in April.

“Surfing has always had a cool factor that’s hard to put your finger on,” Hild said. “There’s also the easygoing, relaxed lifestyle that goes with it. If surf’s up, your whole day gets rearranged. That’s hard to grasp from a nonsurfer standpoint. That story is more compelling the further away you live from the ocean. Designer runways are pretty far away.”

In February and March, Saks Fifth Avenue won’t be airing Waikiki weather reports in its stores, but the surf theme will be present in its sportif-themed displays, store windows and catalogs. The fact that Balenciaga and Prada embraced surf will make it the premiere movement within the sportif category, said Jacqui Lividini, senior vice president of fashion merchandising and communications at Saks.

Anna Sui, Michael Kors, Bill Blass, Burberry and Louis Vuitton also showed their sportier sides, she added.

“The much bigger thing for us is this epitomizes the new designer sportswear,” Lividini said. “For the past 20 years, we thought of designer sportswear as one particular thing. This has opened our eyes. There’s a youthful energy to it — not an age, but a spirit.”

Paul West, president of the U.S. Surfing Federation, said last year’s sales of women’s surfwear — a $300 million-plus business — increased by 120 percent compared with 2000. Despite that growth rate, surfing has received “very little support” from Seventh Avenue, but a good deal of interest from automotive companies looking to sponsor surf events, he said.

“What’s amazing to me is that surfing is wide open,” West said. “Last year, Foster’s Lager bought the whole U.S. pro circuit for $300,000. You can get a huge bang for your buck in surfing, but that will change.”

When it does, the United States Surfing Federation will be true to its loyal supporters like Hanes, a sponsor of the sport for eight years. The allegiance is twofold in that surfwear manufacturers are more inclined to buy undecorated T-shirts from companies like Hanes that have rallied for surfing, West said. The USSF’s first Oceanfest, a weeklong festival showcasing surfing, lifesaving, skateboarding and music, is expected to reel in 500,000 fans in Oceanside, Calif., in June.

The swell behind surfing is a challenge for lesser-known executives like Lane Davey, founder of Us Girls, a Hawaiian label she claims is “the original women’s surf line and was the first to make board shorts.” As more players have come into the arena, she has had to scale back on sportswear to focus on bikinis and shorts.

“When we started in ‘93, it was a total niche market,” Davey said. “The suits out there fell off when you surfed or gave you bad rashes. The only thing you could buy to surf in was Speedo and that was total grandma style. It’s bad that all these companies are getting into surf because they have huge amounts of money to spend. I’ve had them steal your patterns and marketing campaigns.”

Nevertheless, she recognizes the upswing in women’s surfing.

“There are not a lot of hard-core women who surf,” Davey added. “They’re getting into it because of ‘Blue Crush’ or because the look is cool. Being a surfer girl, everyone turns and looks at you in the water.”

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