Byline: Georgia Lee

ORLANDO — After the big wave of surf apparel that infiltrated junior sportswear, vendors at Surf Expo were refining their merchandise scheme strategies to put junior’s first, surf second.
In the past decade, surf fashion has gone from cult phenomenon to star status, showing up on designer runways and in distribution channels like Macy’s, Old Navy and Target. As surf merchandise flooded the market, retailers complained that the category had become too mainstream and had lost its edge.
In its 25th year, Surf Expo ran Jan. 12-14 at Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center, showcasing 750 exhibitors. What’s left after the flood of surfwear is a core group of sizable authentic lines, along with a handful of fashion-oriented ones with surf roots, and other urban, skate or streetwear hybrids.
Manufacturers at Surf Expo spoke of specific strategies to continue to grow and compete. Bigger brands are expanding into new categories, reaching out to both older and younger consumers, and focusing on building specific categories.
With sales up by 15 percent, Deanna Jackson, vice president of sales for Roxy, said, “The market is requiring us to be more competitive, to design for juniors. We’re lowering prices in key items and aggressively going after areas such as denim.”
Another key surf line, Rusty, is offering more fashion, although they still have roots in surf, and sponsor women surfers or team riders.
“We discovered that the majority of our consumers aren’t hard-core,” said Carrie Ortiz, sales manager. “We’re incorporating more sportswear influences, interpreted with a surf lifestyle.”
Rusty’s summer line includes metallic and rhinestone details, dresses, denim and swimwear in reversible styles or animal prints, with details such as rings. Despite a fourth-quarter slowdown, women’s sales increased 45 percent for 2000, due to more advertising and more focused products, said Ortiz.
More fashion-oriented players are departing from surf roots, with fashion falling into three categories — wholesome athletic looks, a hard-edged urban-street-skate look, and cute, feminine styles.
Departing from the Bohemian, hippie looks of recent seasons, fashion took an Eighties’ turn, serving up preppy, punk and rhinestone cowboy-inspired looks. T-shirts, jeans, halters and dresses had rhinestone and stud details. Camouflage, gold metallic looks and big belts with crystal buckles were other key looks.
Surf Expo featured several new lines, including Rubi Supply Co., part of Redsand; Volcom’s new girls’ division; Lost, a girls’ division of O’Neill, and Rip Curl’s new women’s line.
Retailers gave mixed reviews to the show’s new direction. Buyers, particularly Florida retailers set back by cold weather over the holidays, bought cautiously. Items that were new or special appealed to stores, who searched for smaller resources that haven’t been overexposed.
Gadzooks, a Dallas-based chain with 393 stores, shopped Surf Expo for 14- to 18-year-old men’s and women’s apparel. Paula Masters, vice president and general merchandise manager, shopped for the store’s surf-swim display that runs through June.
While Masters said surf apparel, particularly branded, is still much in demand, she balances it with sharper-priced labels such as Miken and Pac Sun.
“Vendors are going for a broader appeal,” Masters said. “They don’t want to be pigeon-holed as just surf.”
For example, she pointed to Hurley, a line that takes cues from the music industry, with streetwear looks.
“Everything is more cleaned up, with less crazy florals and more solids and fashion touches,” Masters said.
She also liked the looks of Billabong and Fox Racing, and bought board shorts in technical fabrics, with color blocking, shiny treatments and trims, for sportswear instead of swimwear. Gadzooks is adding more fashion to its surfwear mix, Masters said.
Cheryl Hoffmeister, owner of X-Isle Surf Shop in Miami’s South Beach, shopped with a slightly decreased budget for true surf looks, such as sundresses, Bali-inspired prints and accessories.
Women’s business slightly increased this year, but total sales are down, due to poor performance in men’s, said Hoffmeister. She attributed this fall’s sluggish business to economic uncertainty and the election upheaval, as well as surf’s saturation in mainstream retail.
Hoffmeister shopped Surf Expo cautiously for true surf looks.
“Surf is not surf anymore,” she said. “There’s so much crossover, with so many players, like Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren doing surf-inspired looks. For true surf shops like mine, we have to stick to our roots and not be everything to everybody.”
She also searched for smaller, more exclusive lines like Nusa Dua, a maker of Bali-inspired printed dresses. She touched on the Eighties’ trend, buying Lucy Love’s rhinestone-trimmed halters and T-shirts, and Hurley’s Rockabilly and punk-inspired items.
Hoffmeister bought Billabong girls’ board shorts and swimwear, and pareos and bags by Sunny Hawaii. She said many of the fashion looks were better for California than the East Coast. Hoffmeister noted that some new looks had little hanger appeal and lacked quality fabrics.
Stephanie Williams, owner of Wahini Blue, a one-year-old women’s surf shop in Miami, scouted the show for feminine, surf-inspired fashion. Around 45 percent of her customers are real surfers, while the rest just want the look, said Williams. Wahini Blue’s second-year sales are expected to double to $280,000, she said.
Williams said the sparkly, glitzy trend helps make athletic surf apparel more feminine. She bought Billabong sportswear, Hurley’s edgy looks, Rusty’s retro T-shirts with foil and rhinestone detail, and Girl Star’s feminine dresses.
She also picked up Elleven, a lesser-known women’s surf line, Tabu watches, and Sanook sandals. Other accessories, such as rhinestone tattoos and beaded straw bracelets — called “magic bracelets” have also been in demand, Williams said.
“The last Surf Expo was all hippie-inspired and now everything is more ‘Charlie’s Angels,”‘ she said. “There’s a definite trend toward fashion and femininity that customers will appreciate.”
Private label has been the salvation for crossover companies, such as Miami-based Fifth and Ocean. The company’s programs for theme parks, restaurants and airports account for 50 percent of sales, and its branded line, Fifth and Ocean, comprises the rest.
“The junior line allows us to expand and do corporate bookings early to aggressively get the business,” said Alex A. Leiter, president. “Companies are price-conscious and looking for big margins, so we can offer deals and turn on a dime.”

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