By  on May 30, 2007

COSTA MESA, Calif. — Novelty was the name of the game for action sports companies that unveiled holiday offerings at the ASR Trade Expo here.

The two-day event last Wednesday and Thursday at the Orange County Fair & Exposition Center drew mostly Southern California-based retailers from core board sport shops such as Tilly's, Becker and Jack's Surfboards. However, buyers from as far as Mexico, Puerto Rico and North Carolina also shopped for clothing, accessories and swimwear that will begin shipping in late August.

Marking its second year, the holiday show is far smaller than ASR's fall and spring events in terms of the number of buyers and exhibitors. But the holiday season is crucial for the multibillion-dollar action sports industry, which, like other apparel sectors, constantly needs to generate new collections to replenish stores and satisfy shoppers. ASR said the number of buyers increased 16 percent from 500 last year.

Consumers shop holiday collections for gifts as well as outfits for year-end festivities, and retailers scoured the show for fleece hoodies, jackets and dresses in jewel tones and eye-catching patterns like plaid and herringbone, vendors said.

"Fleece is still super-strong," said Lindsay Henkels, national women's sales manager at Ezekiel, explaining that the company increased the number of fleece styles to 16 from 11 a year ago.

Jane Campbell Young, owner of specialty shop Local Color in Balboa, Calif., shopped for sundresses, swimsuits and roll-up jean shorts from companies such as Roxy and Lucy Love. "The shorts have not been 'in' in a long time,'' she said.

Understanding that its customer is a budget-conscious teenager, Fox sought to provide more value, such as a hoodie with sleeves that can be zipped off or a shortsleeved version with smocking and green-striped lining in the hood. "The basic doesn't do it anymore," said sales representative Jodi Rea.

Some manufacturers said they need to offer holiday products to keep up with trends, especially as their junior divisions boost the fashion quotient to compete with mainstream brands. "If we don't have holiday, we're basically saying we're not fashion," said Cameron Martin, Southern California sales representative for Rusty, who said bestsellers were novel items such as a black crochet cardigan with forest green velvet trim, cropped sleeves and a $29 wholesale price.The emphasis on big, bright logos has also evolved. Roxy, Quiksilver's $647 million women's brand, opted for tonally embroidering its name with a gold heart in discreet places, as seen on the back of a black cotton-Modal tank dress with satin straps that wholesales for $18. "It's a little more subtle," said sales representative Laura Thomsen. "We're focusing on the older customer."

J.P. Crane, Volcom's national women's sales manager for core specialty shops, said "the buyer is demanding fashion." That's why popular items included a black-and-white swing jacket wholesaling for $47 and a sleeveless sweater minidress with an Empire waist and $22 wholesale price, she said.

Miho Yanagisawa from a boutique-cum-art gallery called Qio that is opening next month in Los Angeles was among the retailers in search of merchandise pushing the fashion envelope. "We're looking for something related to surf, but also on the edge of fashion," said Yanagisawa, who scouted Stussy and Rvca to complement streetwear looks from Hysteric Glamour, Diesel's 55DSL, Replay and other European and Japanese labels that she will carry. Among the must-have items were tops that were "not just basic [with] very unique prints," she said.

Though pants weren't in much demand, companies offered wide-leg trousers and unusual denim washes for holiday to counter soft jean sales. Roxy introduced a pinstripe denim. Updating the fall collection's cuffed wide-leg trouser with striped suspenders, Billabong switched to a faded blue from a dark indigo for the wash.

Nonetheless, Rana Townend, national sales coordinator for Billabong, said dresses continued to sell well. In addition to a fuchsia slip dress trimmed with floral lace cutout along the hem, Billabong launched a Sixties-styles scoopneck minidress featuring contrasting patterns on the neck and the body.

Surf manufacturers usually offer limited to no swimwear at the holiday expo and dive into the category at the Miami Swim Show in July. But Rip Curl beefed up its holiday assortment and began selling swimsuits throughout the year after a successful run in swim last fall, said sales representative Beth Engel.

"In men's, we are known for our wetsuits. In girls, swimsuits are what people know us for," Engel said. "We decided it would be beneficial for our swim accounts that carry swim all year round that we get into that market."Rip Curl has seven styles available for holiday and features its staple halters, tie sides, tri-tops and basic bottoms in gold and olive, in addition to black, white and brown. Sold as separates, the bottoms wholesale from $12 to $17 and tops cost $13 to $18.

Roxy increased its selection of cover-ups to pair with swim tops and bottoms, both of which wholesale from $17 to $20 and are often spiced up with logo charms. Dress cover-ups, averaging $17 at wholesale, are available in black, navy and brown for holiday. Roxy will come out with as many as nine styles for the cruise season, compared with six last year.

"We had really great success with [cover-ups] in '07, so we are expanding it this year," said Michelle LeBlanc, national sales manager for Roxy's swim business.

In accessories, Roxy offered a range of items, from a woven plaid bag that wholesales for $21 to large totes like a $20 laptop carrier. In Los Angeles, sales representative Eve Smalley said fashion-forward shoppers look for Roxy handbags that mirror products from designers, including plaids evoking Burberry and braided straps resembling Kooba's signature style.

"This is for someone who has $35 to spend and wants something for function that has a little fashion," said Smalley, noting that Roxy will lean more in the fashion direction next spring when it tests a higher-end line of bags retailing from $44 to $58.

Certainly, fashion was also on the minds of other vendors. Paralleling luxury designers' interest in exotic skins, many used faux snakeskin to add texture to bags. Billabong offered an oversized handbag for $20 at wholesale, a book bag for $16 and clutch wallet for $11 in faux snakeskin, as well as woven faux leather. Fox designed a faux snakeskin purse, with custom logo and hardware details, for a $44 wholesale price.

Still, themes from previous seasons, including skulls, polkadots, metallic accents and plaids, continued their strength in holiday accessories. O'Neill threw all those elements into one tote wholesaling for $17 in white, black and brown. "This one has every trend," said sales representative Abby Magill.

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