It may not be high season in the surfer fashion business, but that's not to say nothing is new. Especially if you happen to be in the neighborhood of Paul Heussenstamm's Newport Surf & Sport. Earlier this year, the 11-year-old Newport Beach shop was named best West Coast specialty store, winning the California Mart's annual Marty Award. It was the first Marty ever given a surf retailer. And Heussenstamm didn't win it by going dead in the water from Labor Day on.
One recent afternoon at the shop, a huddle of pre-adolescent boys gawked at the boxes of new fall surf wear in the back room. They were supposed to be working. The afternoon help. But Heussenstamm joked about the less-than-ambitious employees: "Typical Newport kids--they do what they need to get by."
These "surf kids," as he calls them, should look familiar to Heussenstamm. At 37, he's still obsessed with surf clothes, boards and getting back to the waves.
But he also knows how to tend the store. He's turned what began as summer-based business into a year-round store that makes 35% of its sales in the fall/winter season, up from about 20% just three years ago.
Inside the 5,000-square-foot space on a busy Newport Beach street, teen-age boys rifle doggedly through the T-shirt racks. Heussenstamm says he sold 12,000 T-shirts last summer. He carries all manner of surf clothes, boards and gear, resulting in annual gross sales he puts at $1.8 million.
Heussenstamm claims to run Surf & Sport "by my gut," with a surfer's eye for what will be hot.
"I'm out in the water a lot," he said. "Orange County beaches are the trend-setters for the world in beachwear."
Other retailers, in turn, stalk ideas at Surf & Sport. Heussenstamm noted that a buyer from a major department store recently flew in for the day, "bought $500 worth of stuff," then flew out.
This fall, Heussenstamm's intuition puts less trust in prints, more trust in acid- or stone-washed solids in white, gray, blue, green and yellow.
"If you're cool right now, you're wearing volleys at the beach," he said, referring to the simple, elastic-top shorts. Most of the 10 or so labels he carries are Southern California based, with his hottest lines for fall including Quiksilver, Sideout Sport, Stussy and Gotcha. He credits Gotcha, more than any other line, with strengthening the winter surf market and creating the aura of surfing as a life style.
He also relies on jackets and wet suits to perk up his autumn sales.
Heussenstamm grew up "inland"--in Whittier--a surfer nonetheless. He says he was the envy of his friends when he went to work at a surf shop during high school. He kept that line of work in mind while studying art and architecture at UC Irvine, where he discovered he wasn't desk material.
In 1976, he opened an 800-square-foot Surf & Sport on a $13,500 investment. His idea was to support his surf habit and travels and to "better the image" of surfing.
Yet the store carried no boards, and it dabbled in clothes so diverse that at one time he was pushing the preppy look.
"When it went out, it went out instantly ," he recalled.
With success, Heussenstamm and investors expanded to six stores.
"When I had all those stores, it was a never-ending work ethic. I guess most people do that. But why have a surf shop if you're not going to surf?"
By 1983, he sold off all but one store. "Great for peace of mind," he says.
Now Heussenstamm, who is married and has two sons, 7 and 11, sees his future as a surf-trend consultant, as well as in retail. He'll also be listening more to his sons, who seem to share their father's trend-citing knack--especially in skateboards and stickers.
"The kids in Newport Beach are the most logo-oriented people I know," said Heussenstamm. And his sons? "Spoiled, terribly," he said.
"They only wear what's cool."