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’80s Action Reigns at the ASR Show

Make no mistake: For spring 2008, the ’80s are in full effect.

SAN DIEGO — For retailers navigating the colossal Action Sports Retailer (ASR) show in San Diego earlier this month, it was easy to forget that Miami Vice was cancelled 18 years ago and that Billy Idol is now old enough to qualify for an AARP membership.

Fuchsia and electric blue screamed from rack after rack. Geometric, allover prints zigged across tops and zagged over bottoms. Volcom employees donned bandanas and mullet wigs.

Make no mistake: For spring 2008, the ’80s are in full effect. Trends that have dominated the streetwear market in recent seasons have finally blipped on surf/skate’s radar.

Perhaps the show’s Me Decade extravagances were fitting, given a vigorous market that saw a surge in August same-store sales among surf/skate apparel retailers. “The market is doing very well,” said ASR show director Andy Tompkins, noting that attendance for the show, held Sept. 7 to 9 at the San Diego Convention Center, was up nearly 10 percent from the previous season. “The international dollar is strong and retailers had a great summer. The floor seemed really positive for both established vendors and emerging brands.”

New Wave patterns and bright colors were a nostalgia trip for some showgoers, and a fresh take on apparel for the throngs of teenage skate and surf enthusiasts who were born well after the end of the ’80s—a fact not lost on the 7,000 retail buyers frantically writing orders at more than 750 brands’ booths.

“This show was excellent for me, even better than MAGIC,” said Ron Abdel, owner of Jack’s Surfboards. “All of the big brands did a great job, and some of the small guys did a great job, too.”

Abdel called the selection of boardshorts “amazing,” pointing to bright graphics and men’s wear designs as bold swimwear enhancements from options in years past.

Leading styles in the strong and highly competitive boardshort category included Billabong’s Metallica, featuring the metal band’s jagged logo in an embroidered appliqué with graphics from the group’s 1986 classic album, “Master of Puppets.” Volcom’s standout retro shorts boasted bold, mosaic prints in cyan, magenta and yellow, while Quiksilver’s swimwear hues ranged from royal purple to apple green. Hurley was also on trend with a floral-print short in hot pink and neon green (retail is $54).

At O’Neill, men’s designer Shawn Peterson took inspiration from director Amy Heckerling in the $54 Fast Times boardshort, with black-and-white stripes, and neon yellow and pink accents. “For young kids, this is what’s trending,” Peterson said. “The market has been saturated with browns for so long, we wanted to add a bit more color.”

Analog, which descended onto the surf scene in 2004 and is known for its sushi-print boardshorts, upped the ante for spring ’08 with an arsenal of 21 boardshort styles. Themes range from Moroccan militia and low-tech electronics to the ubiquitous ’80s pop.

The Burton-owned label also amplified its photo-printed boardshorts, with images of astronauts and space shuttles. Zoo York gave the photo-printing technique an East Coast twist, touting boardshorts with scenes from Coney Island.

In tops, ’80s nostalgia managed to eclipse even the industry’s long-running skull motif. Though cranium illustrations were still widespread—from a David Bowie skull T-shirt by Hot Tuna to Atwater’s white tiger-and-crossbones insignia—fluorescent tones and mixed-pattern geometric designs were unstoppable. Insight’s “Can We Kick It?” T’s and Hurley’s logo-driven tops were saturated in highlighter shades. Ezekiel’s booth sported vector art and cube patterns reminiscent of the 1982 arcade hit Q*Bert on $24 graphic T’s.

Not all labels were in the mood for an old-school Atari vibe, however. DC Shoe’s Clash of Cultures collection took cues from progressive streetwear’s global influence and minimalist direction. Designs like a Middle Eastern–inspired Sudan print—harking to the suddenly trendy Arabic keffiyeh scarves—complemented clean, dark denim and denim hybrids, such as the Drayton walk shorts and pant, a combination of denim and chino. While Etnies had its share of neon pops, the brand’s more directional pieces featured primary and pastel color blocking reminiscent of ’90s titan brands Nautica and Tommy Hilfiger.

In its walk-shorts collection, Reef opted for a cool salmon and teal mixed with earth tones for its Crazy Madness short (retail $48) while avoiding a neon palette in boardshorts, save for the $46 Girls on Film style. “It’s really a retraction from the crazy-bright ’80s colors you see everywhere,” men’s designer Dan Marriner said of the spring line.

The allover print craze that ruled ASR in February remained strong, with lightning bolts, ninja stars and mash-up designs of several clashing patterns. (Think paisley, stripes, polka dots and warped lines all sharing fabric space.) For a fresh take on allover graphics, C1rca Select featured Dutch toile, which, upon close examination, featured tiny images of musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Ice Cube. Zoo York impressed with its subway mosaic and chain-link fence prints, and, always provocative, Insight’s summer collection featured a print of interlocking naked women, cheekily known as Lezbe Friends.

While still light years away from slouch-and-droop surliness, spring denim wasn’t quite as skintight. After slimming down to an ultra-narrow leg last season, Mada is turning to straight-slim denim as is Rvca, which offered $92 selvedge jeans and colored denim among its bottoms.

Volcom’s fall ’07 launch of Solver, a $58, modern straight fit, continued to move the market for spring ’08, said Volcom men’s design director Dan Geary. “Denim got super-tight, and now it’s coming back out,” he explained.

Thanks to its progressive Australian surf roots, Insight’s new Loose Joints denim style, with dropped back pockets, took the universal action-sports skinny silhouette a step further. The brand’s colored denim was also on point for spring, with a wide range of choices from bleached indigo to dark blue, as well as dip-dyed reds, blues and wasabi greens.

Fox Riders Co. continued to slim down, however, with its trend-right white and gray denim featuring 15-inch leg openings.

The moto-rooted brand also introduced some formal looks for spring ’08, including its first-ever vest and tie as well as a $45 cardigan (albeit in an accessible fleece version). Co-owner and creative director Pete Fox dubbed the pieces “sloppy sophistication. We think the market is starting to experiment with dressing up.”

Atwater seemed to agree, offering a $72 V-neck that could easily be mistaken for Ralph Lauren were it not for the chunky contrast stitching running along the arm seams.

Natty cardigans could also be found at Mada. Paired with $65 engineer-striped denim, the classic knit sweaters pushed the envelope for consumers, said Joseph Lombardo, Mada’s head of sales.

Organic apparel—an emerging market now doubling as an increasingly vital PR move for surf’s power brands—was on display in the inaugural Green Room, located upstairs from the main-show floor and sponsored by the Action Sports Environmental Coalition. Multiple panel discussions covered the how-to’s of sustainable threads, from sourcing organic textiles to adopting recycled packaging and green printing techniques. Eco-friendly wares from Volcom, Quiksilver Edition, Reef Redemption and other brands featured boardshorts made from recycled plastic, organic cotton walk shorts and hemp accessories.

The steady trickle of major brands into the green market was met with a mix of approval and skepticism by smaller, all-organic labels. “Organic obviously still represents a fraction of [major brands’] overall sales, but what little percentage of organic they’re doing at this point is certainly better than nothing at all,” said Gary Meikle of the Topanga Canyon, Calif.–based Livity Outernational, known for its raffia straw fedoras and sea grass–weave ball caps.

Surf/skate labels were equally eager to team up with artists—many who are also professional athletes—for unique hoodie and T designs. Body Glove tapped pro surfer Mike Losness to pen koi-inspired illustrations for a $70 water-resistant boardshort. Rvca’s Artist Network Program, the show’s most extensive artist collaboration, produced haunting portraits by pro skateboarder Ed Templeton, smoking zoo animal illustrations by Ben Horton and an allover graffiti print by L.A. artist Retna.

In accessories, retro was the word as Quiksilver showed off its newly inaugurated watch collection with seven styles, ranging from $95 to $180, in bright ’80s colors and geometric silhouettes. Nixon’s spring 80/20 collection also mined decades past, with bright blue and yellow hues perfectly complementing the direction of much of the industry’s apparel. Kitschy throwbacks weren’t the only theme, though, as Nixon experimented with half-exposed faces, rotating disks and floating crystal in styles like its $350 Murf.

Retailers were especially enthusiastic about the show’s loud-colored boardshorts and expanded fleece offerings, while show-floor buzz centered around several upstarts that have yet to gain extensive distribution. “Quiksilver’s boardshorts are really starting to gel,” said Pacific Sunwear president Tom Kennedy, who also gave a nod to Billabong, Hurley and Fox swimwear. “I thought the overall direction at DC was great, with color and prints all continuing to evolve. I also thought Zoo York did a great job with photo-realist [prints].”

Still, despite retailers’ obvious pleasure about a busier ASR show than the event had been in five years, ASR’s Tompkins plans to bring back the popular Thursday-to-Saturday format for 2008. “It’s a more business-conducive environment,” he explained, acknowledging a need to stay competitive as the crosstown Agenda Trade Show has grown significantly in recent years. “We think that’s what buyers prefer.”