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Fashion 86 : Surf's Up All Over the World in Wave of California Beachwear

November 21, 1986|ROSE-MARIE TURK

If it looks familiar, that's because it was here before--back in the '60s when the Beach Boys crooned "Surfin' U.S.A." and movie houses played "Gidget" and "The Endless Summer." Suddenly surfing, aloha shirts, Bermuda shorts and "baggies" were in.

But the old days were a drop in the bucket. Now the scene, in surf vernacular, is "un-REAL." Just about anybody with an ocean affiliation--and that includes the Beach Boys--has jumped into the fray, producing surf-related threads coveted from Malibu to Michigan, from Kansas to Kyoto.

What was once considered a kinky California fad has become a spirit and an attitude embraced around the world. Surf clothes, surf colors, surf logos, surf labels, surf paraphernalia and surf spinoffs (all sold in top department stores and beach-gear shops) are symbolic of a life that is freer, more daring than the norm. For the price of anything from a wild pair of trunks and a logo-laden T-shirt to a funky jacket and pair of baggy pants, the door to the sun culture opens.

From their offices situated primarily in Orange County, the young, entrepreneurial types of the beachwear business watch the shores that have spawned a $2-billion industry. They're looking for the trends, they say, because once something gets too popular, the surfer drops it and moves on.

Surfers aren't so sure that's how it works. Many believe it's clothing manufacturers like Quiksilver, Gotcha, Catchit, Billabong and Jimmy'z who set the trends by promoting with a vengeance.

Ken Seino, a surfer and part-time manager of the Natural Progression surf shop in Malibu, recalls that when one company was shooting for stardom a couple of years ago: "It started giving clothes to the coolest kids in school. It's all in the promotion and marketing. It doesn't even have to be functional."

Reese Patterson, a semiprofessional surfer who works for Competition Surf and Sport in Redondo Beach adds: "The companies are really pushing the surfers and the industry. They're having an influence on fashion. A lot of kids want to emulate the guys at the top, so if they see Shaun Tomson get out of the water and throw on a pair of Style Eyes (sunglasses), they want to throw on a pair of Style Eyes."

Tomson, one of the world's top professionals, is involved with more than just sunglasses. He appears in ads for his own clothing line, Instinct, and helps run the family store, Surfbeat, in Santa Monica.

Said by many to be on the cutting edge of surfing, the shop caters to the hard-core and those who just like the look. "Highway surfers," brother Paul Tomson calls them. What they all buy, he says, "comes down to what the top 16 are wearing."

Eddie Talbot, owner of E.T. Surfboards in Hermosa Beach, believes that ideally "surfing belongs in the water and fashion belongs in the street." But he adds that the trendy, glossy side of surf wear has its advantages:

"Without these companies doing what they're doing, there wouldn't be enough money to support pro surfers. Before it would have been the board manufacturers; now, new doors have opened up. That means more exposure, which in the long run is better for the sport."

Gotcha, a Coast Mesa-based firm run by Joel Cooper and former professional Michael Tomson (cousin to Saun and Paul Tomson), is typical of what's happening in a young, hard-hitting industry. Starting off with little more than a yen to create better surf trunks, the pair went from zero in 1978 to a predicted $45-million gross in 1986.

Catering to the hard-core and hoping to attract the "urban surfer" with trunks, walking shorts, jackets, pants and T-shirts, the company makes sure its image is seen through high-powered advertising, rock concerts and sports involvements, such as the recent first-annual Gotcha Pro surf competition in Hawaii.

Ten years ago, surfer and USC graduate Bob McKnight started Quiksilver.

"I thought it would be a good way to make a buck and surf," he jokes. Actually, he wanted to make better board shorts and went from that to action sportswear for toddlers to adults

Remaining faithful to the hard-core elite, the main thrust of the Tustin-based business is directed at 16-to-20 year olds. For that group, who are into the "cult trip," the company makes "stickers, outrageous ads and videos," McKnight says. "Our whole attack is outrageous, aggressive."

That includes Quiksilver's sponsorship of athletes, including "more than 500 surfers internationally at all different levels" and last year's top three: surfer Tom Carroll, windsurfer Robby Naish and volleyball hero Karch Kiraly.

Catchit, which also makes clothing for women under the Haute Rush label, sponsors "a large number of sports people, including Glen Winton, the No. 3 rider in the world," company president Ian Forman comments.

"It lends authenticity to your line. We believe we need to show the top professional is wearing our product. He gives us his opinion. If it can stand up to the rigorous workouts he puts it through, it can stand up to other people."

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