LONG BEACH, Calif. — With the sun setting on summer goods, buyers at the ASR Trade Expo last weekend at the Long Beach Convention Center placed their final orders for crocheted halters and began planning for fall.

The once boys’-club industry is flaunting its softer — and more profitable — side with junior apparel segments as deep and wide as young men’s presentations. The emphasis on the women’s and girls’ arena is also a response to faltering men’s wear sales. (In a wink to its masculine roots, Hurley Girlie presented boys’ underwear dyed pink and trimmed in ruffled lace.)

“Juniors used to be such a stepchild of men’s,” said Chelsea Burggren, designer for Santa Ana, Calif.-based Split. “Now it’s picking up so much business, retailers are allocating more floor space and hiring female buyers to focus on girls.”

Excel, a men’s wear shop in Claremont, Calif., is for the first time dedicating 25 percent of its floor space to young women. Store buyer Lanette Kary called the decision a no-brainer.

“Who spends the money? Women,” she remarked.

Yet the industry faces a more serious threat than slow men’s wear sales, said Quiksilver senior vice president Randy Hild. Hollister, a burgeoning retail chain owned by Abercrombie & Fitch, is aiming to become a giant player, according to Hild.

The chain, expected to reach 100 units by yearend and with an ultimate target of 800 doors, serves up the sort of beachy floods and sparkle muscle T-shirts that have been the industry’s mainstay in recent seasons. When a Hollister shop opened in New Jersey, Quiksilver executives went en masse to check out the competition.

“They’re knocking off the surf industry and the industry doesn’t even know about it yet,” Hild continued. “This should be a wake-up call. This industry is still recovering from when Gap did board shorts and Hawaiian prints.”

For its part, Quiksilver was laid back at the show, hosting a “vibe room” replete with Red Bull and big screen TVs — instead of its customary megabooth on the floor. A kind of gallery exhibiting few clothes and an abundance of surf ephemera was near the press and retailer lounges.

The company planned to pull out of the show altogether because of awkward timing between summer and fall markets.

“Post 9/11, we had to make a hard decision, and it was either save 10 people’s jobs or do the show,” Hild said. “Graciously, ASR came up with this alternative to do a marketing room.”

The decision was significant, however. Where Quik goes, so goes the industry. Few if any orders were written, according to several sources working the gallery. And several key brands were obviously missing or holding out seasonal and new line launches until the WWDMAGIC trade show in Las Vegas, Feb. 19-22.

An ASR spokesman said the group is pushing up show dates to Jan. 23-25 in 2003 “in an effort to be more in line with the buying season.” In 2004, the January show will move to the San Diego Convention Center, site of ASR’s August edition. Although final data wasn’t available, organizers expected about 8,000 buyers and 500 exhibitors.

In the meantime, surf brands are exploring avenues beyond the trade show circuit to market brands.

Billabong USA touted its Universal Pictures deal to supply apparel for the upcoming surf film “Blue Crush.” This week, the Irvine, Calif., firm is opening its first flagship: a 5,600-square-foot unit in nearby Costa Mesa.

Still, Billabong USA chief executive officer Paul Naude called small specialty retailers “the unsung heroes of this industry.”

“The reason they are doing well is they stay close to the youth market,” Naude said, noting the brand’s junior business is on track for 50 percent growth this year.

“We’ve just had the best Christmas in our history, dollars-and-cents-wise,” said Bob Mitchell, president of Surf and Skate, with three locations in the Sacramento suburb of Fair Oaks, Calif. Mitchell attributed the stores’ success to having fine-tuned his formula over the past 20 years. “No matter what, we will be off the hook because our clientele still wants new stuff,” he said.

The industry, which generally catches its trend waves slightly behind the rest of the junior market, showed military styles and colors for fall, as well as pieces with collegiate and prairie influences. A palette of camel, chocolate, drab, red and ice blue prevailed in all looks.

In swim, fixed and slider halter tops and hipster side-tie bottoms lead.

“Bandeaus are over,” said Angi Broberg, national sales manager for Billabong. “Board shorts are still a strong category for our customers who surf, but they’re being replaced by boy-cut swim bottoms. And rash guards are being replaced by muscle Ts, which don’t give you strange tan lines.”

At Costa Mesa-based swim manufacturer L*Space, floral prints incorporated last year’s camouflage trend. The brand also offered preppy stripes and piping, and solids in shades of green and brown. The brand’s suits were a bit skimpier than those of some fellow exhibitors.

“We’re trying to appeal to a more cutting-edge boutique like Urban Outfitters,” said sales rep Monica McNeel. “You’d never find us in May Co.”

As always, buyers were searching for new looks, though they lamented they were tough to come by. “Embellishments are still happening, as are low retro bottoms and cherry prints,” said Patricia Illing, a buyer for Beverly Hills Bikini Shop.

“We’re trying to stay away from brands you’d see in department stores,” said Steve Tuor, buyer for North Coast Boardshop in Healdsburg, Calif., north of San Francisco. “It’s too hard for us to compete with bigger stores.”

Along with swim shops and action-sports-oriented stores, designer boutiques with a penchant for youthful lines turned up at the show.

“We’re definitely seeing the blending that’s going on at retail,” said Shaheen Sadeghi, ceo of The Lab and The Camp, two specialty retail projects in Costa Mesa. “Our customers wear Volcom T-shirts with Diesel jeans and Prada shoes. It’s about blending and how that look is put together.”

Wendy Aguera, buyer for Neil Pryde Maui in Kahului, Hawaii, cherry-picked activewear lines for her designer stores. Concerned by a local economy hit hard by the dropoff in tourism, Aguera said she was placing orders carefully and requesting 60-to-90-day payment terms. “I’m only buying from people I know,” she said.

Many retailers postponed fall buys in favor of filling in items such as T-shirts, jeans and accessories. They had plenty to chose from, as more vendors jumped into the crowded T-shirt and jeans market.

Hang Ten’s junior denim licensee, Knight Apparel Corp., introduced flocked, eyelet-embroidered, crumple-blasted and fringed denim, wholesale priced at $19 to $30. Standouts included stencil-blasted jeans with prints of feet, argyles and other motifs on light washes.

Lifestyle brand Sugar will launch Extra Fine Sugar, a contemporary denim and T-shirt line, at WWDMAGIC.

Irvine-based Counter Culture generated 45 percent of its $6.5 million in sales from T-shirts. The company stocks 10,000 to 15,000 blank Ts to be able to fill orders quickly, said sales director Chris Raya.

Many attendees of all stripes, however, visited the lobby booth dedicated to late show organizer Court Overin. The industry veteran died in November at age 43 of respiratory failure due to pulmonary fibrosis. Friends and associates were asked to submit personal notes for a memorial book ASR is assembling for his three young children.

Hit List

Denim and corduroy jackets lined with fleece.

Collegiate stripes.

Prairie florals.

Men’s wear-style striped shirts with feminine touches, like ruching.

Light wash jeans with coin pockets.

Tank and panty sets with cute sayings or retro heat transfers.

– Katherine Bowers, Marcy Medina and Kristin Young.

load comments
blog comments powered by Disqus