Byline: Katherine Bowers

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — Action sports apparel buyers and vendors hungry for a back-to-school trade show have gone from famine to “pass the Alka- Seltzer.”
In fact, the debut of two rival b-t-s shows in as many weeks left calendars crammed and attendees convinced two shows are redundant and costly.
ASR, the sole West Coast producer for 21 years, closes its two-day Back2Skool show today at the Waterfront Hilton Beach Resort here. Surf Expo wrapped its inaugural BTS West edition last week at the Anaheim Convention Center, marking the East Coast producer’s debut in the heart of surf industry territory.
Although top industry executives debated endlessly where to place their loyalties and spokesmen for both shows put fine points on subtle differences, the shows turned out to be remarkably similar: small, low-key venues attended primarily by regional reps working from pipe-and-drape booths.
Surfwear leaders Quiksilver and Billabong cast their lot with Surf Expo, while cross-category leaders like Volcom and Hurley opted for ASR. But both Bob Hurley and Quiksilver’s senior vice president, Randy Hild, walked the show they hadn’t chosen.
Next year’s plans are up in the air, Hild said, but resolving the conflict should be the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association’s top priority.
“It’s splitting the industry and the resources,” Hild said. “We cannot do two shows next year.”
Dick Baker, Ocean Pacific Apparel Corp. chief executive officer and SIMA president agreed. “It’s SIMA’s responsibility to figure this out and help create a game plan.”
A SIMA-sponsored questionnaire will go out to retailers soliciting feedback on both shows. Results will be shared widely, and, “by the middle of the year, most of the major players will be taking a specific position,” Baker speculated.
Tactfully, OP lugged its classics line to both shows.
Using its hometown advantage, ASR appeared to do a better job of attracting small boutiques and diverse fashion lines, including 55-DSL, Diesel’s secondary collection; Ecko Red, Mark Ecko’s junior line, and Nikita, a girls’ snowboard line from Iceland.
Several reps who worked both shows said the bulk of their accounts made appointments at ASR.
According to Darin Denee, publisher of ASR trade shows, the event sold 112 booths and had a waiting list. At press time, 695 buyers had preregistered.
“I walked in and thought, ‘this is just what the doctor ordered,”‘ said Raili Walton, director of sales for Paul Frank Industries. The whimsical, character-driven brand had 30 appointments over two days.
Although Surf Expo foot traffic was lighter, vendors gave the show kudos for drawing the retail big guns, such as Ron Jon’s Surf Shop, Tilly’s, Becker Surfboards and Nordstrom. One vendor characterized the retail presence as “the 20 percent that do 80 percent of the volume.” Carol Nielson, buyer for Becker Surfboards in Torrance, Calif., said she’d left orders at almost every booth.
A Surf Expo spokesman said the show sold 104,000 square feet of space and had 160 stores attend.
A few smaller companies missed the frenzy of a typical ASR show. Jedidiah sales rep Brett Thornton, rolled bandanna pushing a blonde mop into his eyes, lamenting the lack of the massive sticker blizzard that gets little brands noticed.
Organizers from both shows acknowledged the awkward situation, but said they’re not retrenching.
“We have a long-term plan in place for producing an ASR back-to-school event that meets manufacturers’ and retailers’ needs,” said Denee. “We will be listening to buyer and manufacturer feedback on how to proceed.”
ASR will move Back2Skool to the Hyatt Regency Conference Center here next year, March 11-12. In addition, it has pushed its February ASR show back to January to better serve buying schedules. In 2004, the Long Beach show relocates to San Diego.
A Surf Expo spokesman said BTS West is also here to stay. “We’re not testing the waters. We were doing that three years ago,” he said. “Thirty percent of the market is back-to-school. Providing a show at this time of year is critical.”
The BTS West show is just one element in Surf Expo’s push to own the b-t-s business nationwide. A year ago, the organizers acquired b-t-s trade shows in Ocean City, Md., and Wilmington, N.C. The spokesman said BTS West will return to the Anaheim Convention Center in March 2003 and 2004. A convention center staffer said the dates are held, but not confirmed. Surf Expo cancelled its Melbourne, Fla., b-t-s show this year.
While the b-t-s market remains divided, vendors presented a unified vision of fall. Departing from the bucolic sexiness of summer’s peasant looks, fall will be mellow and boyishly sexy.
Worn, low-slung cords, skinny striped pants and bulky sherpa-lined jackets were done in a color palette of gray-blue, tan, brown and burgundy. Think “Love Story” with a twist — what Ryan O’Neal wore, but cut to fit Ali MacGraw’s petite frame.
School gym sweatshirts inspired a variety of looks, from Rusty’s heathered sweater with hand-pouch to Roxy’s khaki bomber jacket with stretchy knit cuffs and waistband.
Several retailers cited fur or sherpa-lined jackets as important. Linda Stegman, buyer for Rip Curl Surf Center in San Clemente, Calif., described Rusty’s $56 wholesale suede-and-sherpa coat as the “number one jacket on our floor. We usually sell out the same day it gets in.”
Carol Maradian, owner of World Core Surf with units in La Jolla and San Clemente, praised Paul Frank for kicking its brand into high gear.
“All of a sudden, they have a new following. I can’t keep it in stock,” she said, adding that surf-themed accessories like bedding, lamps and candles are doing well.
Ezekiel and Element, dabbling in juniors for a couple of years, offered a more cohesive vision for girls this time around.
Ezekiel hired Dawls designer Ryan Rush to relaunch its junior line, Ezekiel Girls. Rush, who split from his backer, Brand Lab, continues to design Dawls as well. He said Ezekiel Girls targets an “older teen with cleaner, more sophisticated colors.”
Ezekiel Girls included velour hoodies with western yoke seaming, slim-cut bomber jackets and ruffled denim pouch bags. Ezekiel cofounder Royce Cansler projected the line will do $2 million in its first year.
Acquired by Billabong last July, skateboard company Element showed tiny thermal tops and low-slung stretch denim. The combination of guys’ graphics on girls’ fashion silhouettes has been a powerful combination, said executive vice president Mark Tinkess.
“Several of our major accounts have gone right to a guy’s T and specifically requested us to size the graphic down and put it on a girl’s body,” Tinkess said. “It has happened on a half-dozen occasions in the last six weeks.” Several vendors said ultra-girly graphics like butterflies and rainbows have started to wane.
The Irvine, Calif.-based company has a “real opportunity to create the urban side of skate,” Tinkess continued. “She doesn’t want flowers, because it’s not sunny all the time. At the same time, we’re not flames and skulls and all dark.”

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