Stalking Beaches for Clothing Trends : Researcher Helps Clients Get Jump on New Sportswear Fads

June 15, 1986|JEFF ROWE | Jeff Rowe is a free-lance writer. and

Armed with a thick clipboard of forms and a backpack full of trinkets, Steve Sakamoto prepares for yet another tough day on the job. Dressed in a T-shirt, baggy shorts and thongs, Sakamoto sets out across the hot sands at Huntington Beach in search of--information.

As the president, chief executive, owner and chief worker of Market Research Active Sports, which specializes in clothing trends research, Sakamoto spends most working days stalking subjects on the beaches for his extensive questionnaire on clothing preferences.

Beside revolutionizing the clothing industry, Sakamoto's work has helped fashion Orange County as one of the premier clothing-trend-setting areas of the world.

"In the last 10 years, virtually everything in beach clothing-active sportswear has started in Orange County," said Paul Huessenstamm, owner of Newport Surf & Sport shop in Newport Beach. "What's selling in Newport Beach will sell in Ohio."

For example, the longer shorts and woven, button-down shirts that were stylish in recent years were trends first accepted in Orange County. In 1981, Sakamoto found that "hard-core beach youths" in the county were wearing above-the-knee, 1960s-style madras shorts that they were purchasing in thrift shops.

Trends Begin on the Coast

Orange County is "at least" one-third to one-half of any youth beach study, Sakamoto said, because of its profusion of beaches. Trends begin on the coast, Sakamoto said, because active beachgoers "are always striving to be different."

Orange County youths also tend to be more affluent than their counterparts in other coastal areas of Southern California, and thus they have money to purchase the latest haberdashery.

Working from his Volkswagen Scirocco, Sakamoto, 33, hikes the beaches from Ventura to San Diego, gathering research for his core group of clothing manufacturers and retailers, information that they use to determine how long this year's shorts should be, what colors and styles of shirts will sell and what kind of swimsuits will draw buyers.

Since the sandy shore is his office, Sakamoto has an entirely different view of the beach from the majority of humanity. "The beach is hot, the sun is unbearable, it's like the Sahara Desert," he said.

And his busiest research season has just begun. "Things really break open after Memorial Day," he said. Before Memorial Day, only a scattering of people populate the beaches, thus making data collection more time-consuming, he said.

The sociology of beach research gathering is an art and science in itself, Sakamoto has found.

Patrolling the beach looking for subjects, Sakamoto instantly dismisses a man clad in a flashy flowered shirt as a tourist and therefore an unsuitable subject for his survey.

Identifying Social Leader

In approaching a group on the beach, Sakamoto strives to get the first interview with the leader of the group, who is easy to identify, he explains. "He's the loudest, usually stands out, is the biggest (and) his followers are usually grouped around him. If you start (the interviews) with a follower, the (major-)domo might interfere with the data collection because he feels threatened."

Essentially the same tactics are used with groups of women.

Sakamoto normally uses two to four other researchers, mostly college students who are "surfer men and jock women. Those who live the beach life style will have better success as interviewers," he said. "An egghead . . . would get ripped apart. This is hard; it's no fun job."

In approaching a group, he instructs his workers to "get the first interview with the domo. Then the others are easy."

Sakamoto often directs his researchers to take a zigzag course along the beach, thus ensuring a good sampling by getting those beachgoers who like to deposit themselves at water's edge and also those who prefer the drier climes 50 yards back.

Employing flash cards, charts and swatches of material, respondents are asked to select fabric favorites, style preferences and brand-name choices for shorts, swimsuits, shirts, sweat shirts and other items.

Other Favorites Named

They also identify their favorite magazines, radio stations and television programs, and thus Sakamoto can link clothing trends with other cultural happenings. For example, he was able to correlate the growth of New Wave music with preferences for longer shorts and shorter hair.

After the interview is complete, subjects are given magazines, combs and other small gifts, tokens of gratitude for enduring 20 minutes of questioning.

His finished research, which is the result of about 650 interviews, and can run to several hundred pages, is then delivered to clients in binders.

Manufacturers and retailers describe Sakamoto's research as "extremely interesting," "really good stuff" and "very useful."

Gil Gass, marketing director at the El Segundo-based sunglass and T-shirt concern, Vuarnet-France, said Sakamoto's findings "are on the mark, no doubt about that."

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