SURF EXPO: APPAREL WAVE SWELLS
Byline: Georgia Lee
ORLANDO, Fla. — It’s no longer just about surfing.
Surf Expo, which began 20 years ago with just a few aisles featuring surfboards, now draws over 15,000 buyers. Women’s apparel is its fastest-growing category.
While the weather hindered some Northeast retailers, buyer attendance at this year’s show increased 10 percent, compared with last year’s. The show, which was expanded from three days to four, closed Sunday at the Orange County Convention Center here. Of the 825 exhibitors, 35 were first-timers, said John Rosenberg, vice president of the Atlanta Market Center trade show, which manages Surf Expo.
This year’s show featured 400 women’s lines — a 30 percent increase over last year.
Some retailers and exhibitors called for a more manageable segregation of categories, with separate areas for apparel and swimwear. Women’s apparel is currently mixed in with sporting goods equipment and men’s apparel.
Those looking for apparel at Surf Expo found surfwear, swimwear and a growing selection of fashion-forward sportswear for junior customers. Retro looks — primarily Seventies-inspired — dominated the women’s sportswear market here, with hip-hugger shorts and pants, vinyl jackets, bright disco prints and ringer T-shirts being among the biggest trends. While women’s styles have become more body-conscious, traditional resort looks such as oversized, casual cotton T-shirts and sweatshirts have remained consistent.
Key junior swimwear looks included print bikinis with underwire bras or with removable push-up pads, and boy-leg bottoms with piping. Surfing wasn’t the only sport to influence the show. Styles also reflected in-line skating, skateboarding and snowboarding. Racing stripes; the colors red, white and blue, and performance fabrics were indications of the show’s strong athletic direction.
As surfing — a male-dominated sport until recent years — reaches new waves of popularity among women, manufacturers are riding its crest by launching new women’s lines and divisions.
“Ten years ago, girls didn’t dare get in the water, they just stayed on the beach and looked cute,” said Randy Hild, vice president of Roxy Quicksilver, a Costa Mesa, Calif., junior swim and sportswear line introduced two years ago by Quicksilver, formerly a men’s sportswear company. “Until recently, girls that did surf had to wear small-sized boy’s board shorts.”
Roxy’s Quicksilver’s business has quadrupled in the past year, said Hild, adding that the women’s line has the potential to equal the Quicksilver men’s line, which has annual sales of $100 million.
Roxy introduced girls’ board shorts last year and has since extended the category with fashion touches such as piping, color blocking and Hawaiian and Seventies disco prints. Fashion-forward sportswear separates now comprise half the line.
Hild said he expected the women’s line to double sales of last year’s Surf Expo, while men’s business should remain flat.
“There are no new trends in men’s,” he said. “All the news is for women.”
In September, Gotcha, an Irvine, Calif., men’s sportswear line, launched Girl Star, a women’s division. Designed by Holly Sharp, the line contains no swimwear, but targets a cutting-edge junior market with retro-inspired dresses, scooter skirts and rompers.
Jennifer Gill, owner of 8.5 Quake, a San Diego junior sportswear and swimwear line, said Surf Expo generates 20 percent of the company’s annual business.
Surf shops have been receptive to more forward looks, such as Fifties-inspired looks and dalmatian prints.
“Smaller stores and young consumers respond well, while bigger store buyers are more hesitant and afraid to take risks,” Gill said.
Some buyers from surf shops and specialty stores said women’s apparel has seen explosive growth in the past few years. Buyers bought board shorts and other hard-core surfing apparel, as well as fashion sportswear and streetwear looks for summer, generally their biggest season.
Women’s apparel has grown from a struggling, insignificant segment five years ago to 25 percent of total business at the 30,000-square-foot Aqua East Surf Shop in Jacksonville Beach, Fla., according to buyer Susan Wallace.
She said she bought board shorts and retro-inspired summer sportswear for a young junior customer. With a budget up 25 percent over last year’s, she focused mostly on California and Florida lines.
“We shy away from New York manufacturers,” she said. “New York is more of a club scene that’s not really in tune with our customers.”
Wallace bought board shorts, skirts and dresses from Roxy, Rusty, Shok and Spot Girls. “All men’s lines are coming out with women’s divisions,” she said. “There’s a lot more to choose from now.”
Wet suits, board shorts and retro fashion looks were big choices for Cheryl Rowars, buyer for X-Isle Surf Shop in Miami Beach. “There’s more excitement in the women’s market now than ever,” she said, adding that women’s sales doubled in recent years to account for 20 percent of the company’s total business.
“More choices are here for women, in all categories, including sunglasses, shoes and even a surfboard line marketed toward women,” she said.
With a flexible budget, Rowars said she was shopping for unusual looks and sharp prices, in order to compete with big chain stores and discounters. Neutral colored sportswear from Limited Space; brightly colored swimwear by Why Things Burn; Lycra spandex tops and board shorts from Bad Girls, and the entire junior collection from Hazel, which she described as “right on target,” were on her checklist. Price was also an issue for Diane Young, owner of The Groove Tube, a specialty shop in Indialantic, Fla., who shopped with a show budget 10 percent smaller than last year’s.
“Although women’s categories have grown, retail has been difficult, because women are such bargain-shoppers,” she said. “We look for smaller lines that aren’t carried by the bigger stores.”
Young bought multiuse shorts in novelty fabrics such as patent leather and snakeskin, halter tops, and hip-hugger shorts from 8.5 Quake, Hazel, Blue Tatoo and Spot. “This show is hard-core surf, but it is evolving, with many crossover businesses, such as skating and snowboarding,” she said. “Surf shops like us are trying to get away from a traditional beachy, gifty image and into more cutting edge fashion.”