By  on January 23, 2008

ORLANDO, Fla. — After a difficult holiday season, buyers were cautious at Surf Expo, hoping that bright color and prints would entice consumers this summer.

The show ran Jan. 11 to 13 at the Orange County Convention Center here, with 200 new exhibitors from a total of 1,200, and 10,000 preregistered buyers, officials said. Apparel was 70 percent of product, from core surf lines to swimwear and "Resort" and "Boutique" areas of sportswear and young contemporary lines.

Women's surf apparel brands have evolved from men's spin-offs into complex brands in their own right. The Surf Industry Manufacturers Association said women's apparel sales were $327 million — up 32 percent from $249 million in 2004 — of the $7.48 billion in surf industry sales for 2006, the most recent figures available.

The show reflected more current retail and economic trends. Merchants were careful in their purchases, and several exhibitors were in transition mode, with new designers, licensees or financial backers, adding to a sense of uncertainty.

Trends were more classic than cutting-edge. Bright colors, contrasting with last year's earth tones, pervaded the show, from citrus to jewel tones to neon shades. Prints and patterns were big, including mixed versions of florals, abstracts and graphics. Swimwear trends included skimpier triangle and bandeau tops paired with boy-leg and hipster bottoms, with more subtle embellishment than last season.

Some of those attending lamented the "mainstreaming" of surf apparel and the growth of big surf brands, which, they said, had homogenized the category.

"How can surf be about freedom and counterculture, and still be all over Macy's?" said Spencer Antle, chief executive officer of Island Company, a West Palm Beach, Fla., sportswear, swim and apparel exhibitor. "The industry needs to redefine itself, buyers need to be willing to take risks again."

At Surf World, an independent surf shop with locations in Pompano Beach and Dania, Fla., sales slowed this year, with women's apparel particularly soft during the holidays.

Owner Randy Skinner attributed the downturn to price pressure from bargain-hunting consumers and increased competition from department stores and mall chain stores, and more manufacturers, such as Roxy, which began selling on the Internet.Predicting a "tricky year," Skinner is tightening budgets and inventories, buying narrow and deep and focusing on proven styles from key resources, including Billabong, Volcom and Roxy. He's zeroing in on swimwear, which offers "more bang for the buck" than apparel, he said.

Skinner will also cast a wider net to add women to his mostly junior customer base. He bought more swimwear from Sunset Separates and Vix, along with T-shirts and dresses, a category that should continue to be strong for all ages, he said.

Increased competition from manufacturers' expanding retail distribution and forays into e-commerce had led Skinner to seek new lines at Surf Expo.

"We need new brands that we can count on for on time deliveries and shipping," he said.

Kathie Orrico, owner of C. Orrico, a Palm Beach specialty store with five South Florida units, reflected on the multifaceted direction of Surf Expo, with a store that combines swimwear, resort and beach lifestyle dressing.

"No matter what's going on in fashion, the beach is a lifestyle, with cute, easy dresses and sandals," she said. "It's a classic, 'Gidget'-meets-Audrey Hepburn, Palm Beach-Nantucket look."

With no traditional surf lines, and Lilly Pulitzer as a primary resource, Orrico bought bold colors, floral and geometric print caftans, miniskirts, T-shirts and camisoles by Island Company, Lacoste and Peppermint Bay. She scoured the show for new sportswear lines in breezy cotton, eyelet and gauze fabrics, and accessories of natural shells and tortoise materials.

Contemporary swimwear was the focus for Krista Landgraf, swimwear buyer for South Moon Under, a Berlin, Md.-based specialty chain with 11 Mid-Atlantic stores, from Philadelphia to Richmond, Va.

To distance the store from discounters and department stores, she moved from "commodity brands" to add more fashion swimwear lines that complement apparel. Landgraf bought bestseller Trina Turk's Mayan paisley print and solid colors embellished with gold hardware. She also bought Radio Fiji's stripes and sophisticated prints with leather treatments and a new line, b. swim, for younger customers.

"The East Coast is starting to respond to mixed media prints and patterns, and layering two tops and bottoms, a trend that's been selling on the West Coast for a while," she said, referring to the store's e-commerce business, which is 15 percent of total swimwear sales.Landgraf picked up opening price cover-ups for private label brands, along with fashion-forward beach-to-street looks, such as dresses by Betsey Johnson and Vix.

Travel Traders, a Miami-based hotel and resort chain with 200 properties in the U.S. and Caribbean, sent three buyers to Surf Expo.

"We're looking for special product, not carried in department stores, that guests will wear at the resort and at home that will remind them of their vacation," said buyer Christopher Askew.

For all-inclusive resorts with the goal of keeping guests on the property, Askew bought for a wide range of ages and sizes, concentrating on casual, tropical-inspired resort sportswear lines, including bestsellers Tommy Bahama, Peppermint Bay, Fresh Produce and Island Company.

"When the economy is scary as it is today, we're hoping that guests will have expendable income," he said. "We're looking at a wider range of price points, to offer something for everybody."

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