Byline: Georgia Lee

ORLANDO, Fla. — Is surf headed for a wipeout?
It was a legitimate question on the minds of many at the Surf Expo, the market’s biggest trade gathering here. Having swelled over the last several years beyond its core into many other distribution channels, the surf business to some seems in danger of “mainstreaming” itself out of existence. Will it be absorbed into the larger junior market? And if surf does hang 10, then what’s the next big thing, the next great line?
These are crucial questions facing a category at a crossroads, but buyers at this show, which ran Sept. 15-17 at the Orange County Convention Center, did not find many answers. While most applauded the presence of color, prints and any newn trends they could find in trends, many also said the show lacked the direction and energy that has characterized previous editions.
Trends this time around were divided into several camps. In addition to more typical looks — Hawaiian prints, board shorts, etc. — retro Seventies styles continue to be strong, also working their way into the mix are Eighties-inspired touches. Gold, glitter and geometric prints lent a glam feeling to the sportswear; and punk influences, including leather and safety pins, are starting to surface.
In contrast to these more urban looks, there were all-American trends including paisley and vintage-inspired prints, and dresses with feminine ruffles, gathering and ruching. Sportswear-inspired apron and handkerchief tops with cropped pants were everywhere. T-shirts with repeated logos and reversible swimwear generated interest. And accessories, particularly shoes and bags, are still hot at retail, said buyers.
Exhibitors said the industry has been suffering growing pains as everyone from department stores to discounters to specialty chains is crowding into the surf wave.
“It’s been saturated and overdone, but consumer interest is still there, and the surf cycle hasn’t peaked,” insisted Dick Baker, chief executive officer, Ocean Pacific Apparel Corp. “Core brands will continue to grow and get a bigger piece of a smaller pie,” he predicted. He added that big stores are backing off surf already, focusing on core brands rather than smaller lines or private label.
“We had gone to sleep as a brand before,” said Baker of his own company. “Now we’re trying to create excitement, and make it relevant.”
Relevant or not, Ocean Pacific’s new exhibit booth, a futuristic/retro fantasy, attracted the show’s biggest crowd. At the entrance to an interior reminiscent of “A Clockwork Orange,” go-go girls with neon-bright wigs and platinum platform knee boots danced around, surrounded by smoke emanating from piles of dry ice.
For Roxy, a pioneer line of the women’s surf industry, the show was busy, with 25 appointments scheduled per hour. Officials said business in general is good, although Roxy faces the balancing act of fostering rapid growth and mass appeal with the desire to stay true to its surf roots.
“We’re trying to define our age groups and keep appealing to 18-year-olds,” said Heidi Tucker, vice president, sales, accessories and swimwear. “We have to stay fresh, knowing we’re not the new flavor. “
Growth opportunities for Roxy include fleece and swimwear, which is no longer an afterthought, said Tucker. Accessories are going strong, with fragrance and footwear now constituting 35 percent of total women’s business.
East Coast surf and specialty store buyers were scanning the horizon for signs of newness from the tried-and-true companies. At the same time, they scouted for new lines with fresh direction.
Janeen Mayers, a buyer at South Moon Under, an Ocean City, Md., surf shop with six stores in Delaware and Maryland, said the big players at the show were “good, not great.” She shopped with an budget up between 8 and 10 percent.
“The energy, which used to be great here, is flat,” she said. “The market is trying to identify itself [again], after the big boom when everybody jumped on surf.”
Mayers admitted that some things she saw did get her blood going: the new Becca swimwear line, under former Mossimo designer Rebecca Virtue. The buyer said she snatched up fresh color, treatments and fabrics in swimwear, along with bags, eyewear and flip-flops.
She also bought Girl Star’s polkadot Hawaiian print groups.
With junior swimwear representing 70 percent of her business, Mayers made sure to buy bandeaus, triangles and handkerchief tops, fuller-cut surfer bottoms and gold metallic suits. She also bought vintage-inspired paisleys and florals. Rainy weather on the East Coast dampened spring and summer sales, but business has picked up for back-to-school, and should be even with last year, she said.
Lisa Bell, buyer for Jim Ball Inc., a Destin, Fla.-based parent company with seven specialty stores in Fla., shopped Surf Expo for the first time. “We’re looking for things that aren’t everywhere else,” she said. “With lines so saturated, we have to be more careful.”
Bell said customers are polarizing more — in one direction into surf, in the other toward dressy, clubwear-style clothes.
“It’s no longer all mixed together. Now customers know their image,” she said. She concentrated on young casual and surf-inspired sportswear, rather than urban streetwear looks.
Bell bought fewer board shorts in general, including updated versions from Girl Star. She bought shoes, her hottest category; bracelets, gold jewelry and bowling bag handbags.
Roy Turner, owner of Surf City, a Wrightsville Beach, N.C., surf shop, said the industry had become too conservative for many of its core consumers, who live to be trendy.
“People are playing it safe,” Turner said. “We have to stay edgy.” Turner said the edgiest trend at the show was punk-inspired.
He said he liked Hurley and Vulcom’s skate, punk and surf crossover looks. He said Roxy, which is 30 to 40 percent of his women’s business, was right on target. He bought shoes and sandals, an explosive category for him, by Rocket Dog, Reef and Sinook. In swimwear, Turner bought Aaron Chang’s novelty photo prints, Raisins and 8.5 Quake. For the girl who isn’t into clubwear, he bought more all-American dresses and sportswear from resources such as Water Girl.
Sabrina Edelman, women’s buyer at 17th Street Surf Shop, a Virginia Beach, Va.-based surf specialty store with nine stores in Virginia and North Carolina, was pleased with the lines and direction at Surf Expo. She bought new color palettes, floral and Pucci-inspired prints and shiny retro looks from Billabong USA, O’Neill, Ripcurl, Rusty and Volcom. In swimwear, she bought bandeau and triangle tops and reversible print and solid styles. Women’s, at 25 percent of total sales, is still a growing category, she said.

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