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SURFWEAR: On Mighty Sales Wave, Companies Run Risk of Wipeout : On Mighty Sales Wave, Firms Run Risk of Wipeout

March 08, 1987|MARY ANN GALANTE | Times Staff Writer

Catch a wave and you're sittin' on top of the world. --Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys

Remember all those laid-back loafers who used to hang out constantly at the beach and lived to surf?

Well, some of them didn't turn out so bad.

A growing group of surfers are running their own surfwear companies. Though most started on a shoestring, they now collectively generate sales estimated at more than $1 billion per year by plastering windsurfing lizards and sharks with shades onto skate- and boogie-boarding kids.

Nearly one-third of the estimated 300 to 400 intensely competitive surfwear companies nationwide are based in Orange County's beach towns--creating a Silicon Valley of rad threads.

But the sales boom has happened so fast that the companies are afraid of losing touch with their original beach following, even as they are gaining the serious attention of the fashion world.

The industry leader in sales is 15-year-old Ocean Pacific Sunwear Ltd., but OP's popularity and influence among Southern California's trend-setting teens seems to have been dwarfed by a half dozen smaller competitors. On the beach, surfers are buying names such as Gotcha Sportswear, Quiksilver USA, Catchit and Maui & Sons.

The increasingly crowded field, not surprisingly, also has spawned some intense rivalry among surfing entrepreneurs who started out struggling together on the beach but now are intent on maintaining their market shares.

"It's become very competitive," noted Nat Norfleet of Norfleet Hawaii, an Irvine-based surfwear company that began in Hawaii. "We used to say, 'Hey, let's all go surfing together.' Now we all go surfing alone."

According to industry estimates, surfwear sales have been increasing nationally at the same time that swimwear sales have steadily declined for several years.

Surfwear--as opposed to swimwear--generally means sturdier trunks designed for surfing, as well as the clothes that go with the beachy, surfer look. A real surfer--or at least a kid who looks like a surfer is supposed to look--has to have his or her well-fitted surf trunks, warpaint-printed baggies and geometric T-shirts in blinding, off-primary colors.

The $1-billion specialized surfwear market is a growing part of the $15.9 billion spent annually for casual apparel, according to Monica Montavan, international trade specialist with the Commerce Department's office of textiles and apparel. But surfwear dollars have become so enticing that major mainstream sportswear manufacturers such as Generra, Union Bay and Catalina have ventured into the market.

Bill Blass has introduced a surfwear line, and even such high-fashion designers as Armani and Donna Karan have recently designed bathing suits that, according to Interview magazine fashion editor Wilfredo Rogado, "were definitely influenced by the beachwear look."

"It's no longer just a fad," noted Peter Townend, 1976 world surfing champion and advertising director of Surfing magazine, a publication that expects to book about $2.5 million in advertising revenue from surfwear companies this year. "There's been a dramatic increase because of the explosion of beach fashion as a legitimate resource."

Frank Podbelsek, an analyst with Wedbush Securities in Los Angeles, said surfwear fits in with the trend to more casual clothing. "The surfer conveys a sense of escapism. . . . That's where the whole look gets its popularity."

Another indication of the industry's rapid growth was reflected last month at the Action Sports Retailer Trade Show in Long Beach, where more than 700 makers of surfwear and beach accessories showed off their wares, compared to just 185 partcipants six years ago when the show started.

The commercial activity is there now because even a kid in snowbound Pennsylvania these days wants to look like a surfer just as much as someone who lives next to a sunny beach.

Rick Kaufman of Sharon, Pa., for example, bought a surfer shirt for his son back home the other day in Costa Mesa's Newport Surf Co. during a break in a business trip. The reason was simple: "The one thing he wanted from California was a surfboard to use in the (neighborhood) park pool," said Kaufman. A surfboard was out of the question for the 10-year-old, so a shirt by Quiksilver USA was the next best thing, Kaufman said.

But surfwear's new national popularity and commercial success isn't necessarily viewed as all good by industry insiders.

The problem is that the surfer look has become so successful that surfer entrepreneurs are worried just as much about overexposure as they are about sales.

It's cool to be different. It's not cool to be wearing the same thing as any geek kid who shovels snow back East, industry executives explained.

So while most of the surfwear companies, in fact, get at least half their business from the Eastern seaboard, Florida and Texas, the veteran surfers who run many of the surfwear companies see the problem that it causes.

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