Byline: Georgia Lee

ORLANDO, Fla. — The wave of surfing-oriented products for women is still swelling, as evidenced by the expanded collections, new divisions and buyer interest at the latest Surf Expo here.
Women’s merchandise, practically nonexistent in the surf world five years ago, is now offered by more than half the show’s exhibitors, officials estimated. Women’s vendors, many of them recent spinoffs of men’s companies, displayed bigger sportswear assortments, and some moved into additional categories such as swimwear, shoes and accessories.
The show, held Sept. 19-21 at the Orange County Convention Center, drew a total of 15,000 people, including registered buyers and exhibitors, up 1,500 from last year. Exhibiting companies numbered 720, filling 1,700 booths.
Retailers, mostly Southeast surf-and-swim specialty stores, came with expanded budgets to cover growing women’s areas that almost exclusively target juniors. Many reported a strong year, despite a cool spring, with strength in junior swimwear, sportswear and accessories.
Buoyed by strong sales and fresh offerings last year, retailers sought continued newness from junior swimwear companies, which make up approximately half of Surf Expo’s total women’s apparel.
The boy-leg silhouette that was a hit in the junior market last year is going forward, with more options in length, colors and trims. Unconstructed tops — triangles, halters and cropped lengths — complete the look. Fabrics such as Tactel, velvet, pleather and textures, and novelty details, such as strings, rings and charms, were well received by buyers.
The appeal of swimwear separates continues, with more firms launching or expanding separates collections this year.
“Separates have boosted summer sales and generated customer loyalty and a better partnership with retailers,” said Herman Roup, president of Bendigo, a Hayden Lake, Idaho, swimwear company with two-thirds of its sales in separates.
In sportswear, the hard-core retro looks of past seasons have given way to a more eclectic mix of Hawaiian influences, sports-inspired silhouettes and technical fabrics. Cargo shorts and skirts, little tanks, halters and surfing-motif silkscreen T-shirts are big silhouettes.
“There’s a refreshing appeal to innocence going on,” said Roy Turner, owner of Surf City, a Wrightsville Beach, N.C., shop. “Kids are fed up with extreme sexy looks, and they want more ‘fun at the beach’ looks. Girls are starting to want to look like cute girls again.”
Turner shopped with an increased budget, aiming to rebuild business after Hurricane Fran hit the Wrightsville Beach area in September 1996. With women’s at 20 percent of business and growing, he shopped for “functional, workable” clothing from Roxy, Rusty and Girl Star, and sandals from Sanuk. In swimwear, which accounts for half his women’s business, Turner bought functional bikinis, crop tops and boy-legs from Mossimo, Roxy, Raisins and De La Mer.
Color was a primary swimwear concern for Turner. “We learned our lesson on earth tones two years ago,” he said.
In sportswear, Turner said last year’s oversized, wide-leg pants trend was being replaced by more Hawaiian and Oriental influences in tops and bottoms.
Women’s sportswear has “exploded,” said Tom Brown, owner of 17th Street Surf Shop, a Virginia Beach-based surf/skate/snowboard store with nine locations in the Southeast. Women’s apparel has grown from 10 percent five years ago to 35 percent today. Brown buys 80 percent of inventory at Surf Expo, which he called “the most important show, the one that sets the direction for spring.”
“It’s a great time in the juniors market,” said Brown. “There are 20 new companies we’d like to carry.”
With a budget up 25 percent to add new vendors, Brown bought California lifestyle tanks, halters and screenprint and embroidery tops from 619, Roxy, Rusty, Greed Girl and Jnco.
In swimwear, Brown bought separates: boy-legs paired with padded triangle tops. In sportswear, he bought strappy dresses and drawstring-tie hip-hugger skirts.
“Juniors have taken the boy-leg look as their own, as well as the sportswear looks I’m buying,” he said. “It’s not particularly feminine, but it’s cute.”
Junior swimwear was the primary focus for Rick Cohen, owner of Alice’s Day Off, a Miami-based swimwear specialty chain with four south Florida locations. Cohen bought separates from Point Conception, Studio LaBlanca, California Waves and Sunset Separates.
“We’re looking to solidify our separates business, which has grown from 18 percent to 24 percent of business this year,” said Cohen.
With sales up 23 percent, this has been Cohen’s best year in his 11 years in business.
“Business was great all the way through the end of our season, around Labor Day,” he said, attributing strong sales to freshness in the junior market, a resurgence of color and a strong tourist and local economy in south Florida.
At the show, Cohen looked for new lines.
Two Irvine, Calif., sportswear lines, Rusty and Girl Star, launched swimwear collections this year.
“Swimwear was a natural extension, a way for us to build the label,” said Joel Cooper, president of the three-year-old Girl Star, a division of Gotcha men’s wear. With 50 percent separates, Girl Star swimwear takes cues from the sportswear line, with novelty details such as charms, sequins and belly chains.
The launch of swimwear is part of an overall expansion for Rusty, a two-year-old women’s surf sportswear division of Rusty men’s wear.
“We’ll always be a true surf company, with board shorts as the core, but we’re adding more categories, and swimwear made sense,” said Kamie Archinal, junior sales manager.
Archinal said the overall company direction was “young, wholesome, basic for the true beach girl, with no fluff and no hard edge.”
Quiksilver’s Roxy division launched accessories, including licensed watches, in-house leather goods, jewelry, eyewear and sandals.
“We want to extend the brand, and the market’s been asking for it,” said Randy Hild, president.
Hild said that longer board shorts, surfing motif silkscreen T-shirts, jelly watches, hats and sandals had been bestsellers.
“The big influences right now are activewear, with side stripes, retro looks and techno fabrics,” he said.
The company push toward juniors, which started with board shorts four years ago, is still building, Hild noted.
However, some exhibitors, such as Tom Ruiz, president of Yaga, a Huntington Beach, Calif., men’s and women’s sportswear and swimwear company, felt that women’s areas have reached a saturation point.
“The tree has become so full, it’s got to shake,” he said. “The really focused companies will survive.”
Surf Expo is Yaga’s number one show in sales, drawing mostly East Coast stores, he also noted.
“The perception has always been that the East Coast follows the West, but trends happen faster here now,” he said. “With MTV around, everybody’s cool.”