By  on January 19, 2007

ORLANDO, Fla. — Surf Expo is riding a big fashion wave with women's surf lines that are positioned as lifestyle brands and junior, contemporary and resort areas that are growing.

The four-day show, which ended Sunday at the Orange County Convention Center here, featured 2,474 booths where 1,000 companies displayed surfboards, equipment and everything related to the boardsports lifestyle. Buyer attendance at the event, which draws mostly East Coast boutiques and surf shops, increased 8 percent over last year.

Apparel is 80 percent of the show. Women's wear, not long ago mostly a spin-off of men's, now makes up almost half the apparel offerings.

Surf lines have evolved from their origins in board shorts and T-shirts into full lifestyle collections of dresses, jeans and accessories, and sometimes children's wear and home items. As surf's influence filtered into nonsurf fashion boutiques in recent years, the show established a new area, called She, of juniors and contemporary fashion.

Exhibitors showed summer lines and some fall collections. Trends were broad, ranging from breezy, feminine dresses, tunics, tanks and short-shorts for summer to preppy plaids and argyles mixed with homespun crochets and embroidery. Sportswear generally was less embellished and exotic than in recent seasons, aiming for a casual, California-girl vibe.

Deanna Jackson, senior vice president of sales for Roxy, said the company, which has five divisions and sales that exceeded 2006 expectations, had transcended surf to compete with Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister and major lifestyle brands.

"Our challenge is to tell our story in the Midwest and areas where we have less penetration," she said.

This year, more of the California company's marketing will be generated in New York as a gateway to untapped regions.

Many brands have launched product extensions, building brand identity beyond surf roots.

"This sector's been on a roll for six years," said Dick Baker, president of OP, a men's and women's brand bought by Iconix in November. "The core market is insular and not subject to peaks and valleys, as other apparel categories."

Baker said controlled distribution had protected the category from showing up in discounters or lower-end stores."Roxy is the dominant brand of choice," he said. "It's important that other brands not all try to be Roxy, but maintain their own persona."

While buyers praised Roxy and other women's surf lifestyle brands, a few noted some repetition of past trends and a lack of newness at the show.

"For the past two years, the industry has been trying to find itself, looking for the next big trend," said Allison Burns, manager and buyer of Atlantic Beach Surf Shop in Atlantic Beach, N.C. "With lots of dresses, skinny jeans, leggings and tunics, there's a lot going on."

Women's apparel has been so strong that the 43-year-old store is almost doubling its 5,500-square-foot space to include a dedicated area for expanding contemporary products. The store carries Nanette Lepore, Trina Turk, Ella Moss and Susana Monaco, and has added denim from Seven For All Mankind and Citizens of Humanity.

At Surf Expo, Burns bought for the summer season, when the local population triples with vacation-home residents. She concentrated on statement pieces, including dresses in polkadots, stripes, abstract or geometric prints, or mixed-media combinations. She bought swimwear and apparel from key lines, such as Roxy, Billabong and O'Neill, focusing on special pieces rather than basics. She picked up T-shirt line Bobi at a good price to yield high margins.

Burns said sales of swimwear, belts and hats had slowed last year, hurt by competition and price pressure from Target and Gap, but that apparel sell-throughs had been strong, along with specialty bags from Roxy and others.

Mynette Ecker, owner of Beach Scene, a 12,000-square-foot Panama City, Fla., store that bills itself as the home of 25,000 swimsuits, shopped Surf Expo for "the newest and best" swimwear looks.

"Our biggest challenge is competition from discounters and copycat importers," Ecker said. "When they get a trend, we know it's over and move on."

Buoyed by strong sales and a "storm free" year in Florida, Ecker shopped with a 20 percent budget increase, spending mostly on junior swimwear separates from Body Glove, Betsey Johnson, Point Conception, O'Neill and Guess. She also bought Brazilian lines Sofia by Vix and Aguaclara. Her store carries 200 swimwear lines.In juniors, she bought new shades of green, innovative graphic and tattoo-effect prints, and hints of Oriental influences, in blacks and reds. Bandeau tops continue to be important, sometimes in reversible colors. In juniors, Ecker bought fun summer dresses with halters, smocking and peasant sleeves, noting a cute cherry-print group from Lucy Love. She expected short-shorts to continue strong this summer. For older customers, she bought Capri pants, T-shirts and dresses.

In contemporary and misses' swim, Ecker ordered black, white, red and brown in tankinis, underwire bras and halters with wooden or hardware ring details from LaBlanca and Anne Klein.

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