As a surfboard dealer in the early 1970s, Jim Jenks could plainly see how the fashion market had failed to cater to his clientele.
Swim trunks did not fit surfers right. They crimped around their legs when they paddled out to catch a wave. The back seam was vulnerable to ripping out.
Jenks' response was to design his own line of trunks specifically designed for surfing. The venture he co-founded would become known as Ocean Pacific Sunwear Ltd.
The company went on to become the international giant in the surf-wear industry. About a third of all "California lifestyle apparel"--as clothes for surfing, volleyball and skateboarding are known--carry the label of OP or one of its subsidiaries.
The company, with sales of about $300 million a year, has broadened its product offerings to include lines ranging from children's wear to winter jackets.
The company established itself in its first few years in business. It was such a success that Jenks retired after eight years to cruise the world on a huge motor yacht. And he might have stayed at sea had it not been for the sudden death of OP President Larry Ornitz in 1988. Jenks decided to come back to personally steer the company.
An affable man who was wearing a baggy tropical-print shirt during a recent interview, Jenks said he has no regrets about his return. "I love it. It's great. It's like coming home," he says.
Today, Ocean Pacific, headquartered in Tustin, manufactures its own swimwear and walking shorts in a product line for the youth market. In addition, its Newport Blue subsidiary specializes in sportswear aimed at men in their 20s and 30s. The company also makes surfing wet suits through another subsidiary, Hydro Light. The remainder of its OP clothing is manufactured by various companies that license the OP label.
Jenks talked with Times staff writer Chris Woodyard about trends in the Southland surf-wear industry.
Q. Where does the surf-wear industry stand right now? What's hot and what's not?
A. Southern California, with so much surfing here and the active lifestyle, kind of generates active companies. And surfing, like skateboarding or anything else, is very cyclical. It goes up; it goes down. Right now, you are seeing a very strong comeback of surf-wear. It got diluted the last couple years by the real active looks of volleyball and the tail end of skateboarding. If you take all of the other fringe sports and watch them go up and down, surfing will always kind of flow through the middle. It remains very constant. You can see that in the very rapid rise of some companies like Quiksilver or Billabong that bank their whole look on surfing. Our core is surfing, but we will have fringe areas. We happen to believe very strongly in snow boarding, and we are moving into that area. This not only gives us a year-round business, but snow boarding has really caught on. It's incredible.
Q. What are the differences among the surfing, volleyball and skateboarding looks?
A. The surfing look, the actual in-the-water look, has gone to more of a fitted look with Lycra, with combinations of rubber and Lycra, more of a wet-suit type of look. And as far as casual wear, it's more of a fitted waistband instead of an elastic waistband, whereas if you take volleyball, it's strictly an elastic waistband kind of look.
Q. What's behind the recent move back to surf wear?
AI think that there are so many items out there to choose from that your basic surf look is something that the customer understands. It's not as confusing.
Q. Do you expect a shakeout in this industry? And, if so, which firms do you expect to survive?
A. I do feel there will be some sort of shakeout because there is just too much going on now. And I think retail will dictate that. We have noticed lately that the stronger retailers are taking more of a stand with one or two brands, instead of three or four brands. That will clean that part of it up. The companies out there that have the best distribution are the ones that are going to make it. And those are going to be your larger ones, such as Gotcha and Quiksilver.
Q. In essence, would consolidation tend to make consumers more brand-conscious?
A. I think that one of OP's biggest assets is that it is now a mature brand with brand recognition. And Quiksilver is now becoming a mature brand. They've been around long enough to where their name is recognized. We are a safe business for a buyer. They are going to go with people like us who they know will perform for them, who are not a flash in the pan and who will be there for the long haul.
Q. Is the average customer getting older or are you still trying to appeal to the younger customer?
A. Hey, the whole world is getting older. The demographics show now that there are more older people than younger people. We still cater towards our age group. We find a lot of older people are dressing down, trying to look younger.
Q. And that helps the surf-wear industry?
Q. Are you having to cut clothes differently or go about it in a different way?