James Jebbia's trendy Union clothing store in New York's SoHo district made its name in the '80s by selling fashions imported from England.
But in 1991, Jebbia added more apparel from the colonies after customers began clamoring for surf wear made by Stussy Inc. in Irvine. "I saw tons of potential for Stussy in New York, but Union just wasn't big enough" to display it, Jebbia said.
At the same time, Shawn Stussy was trying to raise the visibility of his small company in the competitive New York market. He and Jebbia eventually opened a small SoHo shop called Stussy, and it caught New Yorkers' attention by showcasing the company's entire collection.
"This was a good way to go," Jebbia said--good enough to prompt the opening of two more stores: The Stussy Union on La Brea Boulevard in Los Angeles and Stussy, a tiny storefront on North Coast Highway in Laguna Beach.
Stussy isn't the only surf- and active-wear maker that has decided to sell directly to the public. Mossimo and Gotcha, both based in Irvine, and Quiksilver in Costa Mesa are also setting up shop. Others, including Club Sportswear in Irvine, are spending more money to ensure that their wares are properly displayed in retail stores.
What's driving active-wear manufacturers into the risky world of retailing?
"Something called survival," said Alan G. Millstein, editor of the trade journal Fashion Network Report in New York. "They have to grow in order to survive. And what alternatives do they have? They either sell to the discount marketers or sell on their own."
Selling more clothes is the obvious goal, but manufacturers also view company stores as an effective way to let consumers know that they offer more than ball caps, T-shirts and swim trunks.
That message is increasingly important, industry observers say, because few department and specialty stores will give manufacturers the space for an entire line of clothing and accessories.
Mossimo, one of Southern California's hottest apparel companies at the moment, has opened stylish department-store boutiques to showcase a collection that now includes caps, shirts, pants, sunglasses and swimwear. Founder Mossimo Giannulli now wants to open about 10 free-standing retail stores.
"We aren't just about shirts anymore," Giannulli said. "We do many wonderful things . . . and we want to isolate our customer with our look and feeling."
Marketing wasn't as important during the 1980s because the nation's major department-store chains couldn't stock enough goods from California's beach-apparel makers.
"Kids who were mall rats, mall babies, became enamored of that (surfing) lifestyle," Millstein said. "Even if they never got to an ocean, they fantasized a lot, and it became weekend wear in Indiana, Iowa or Idaho."
That sales boom went bust in the early 1990s when beach fashions were eclipsed by darker, baggier urban designs. Many apparel buyers, deciding that the surfer look was dead, cut back dramatically on orders, said Shaheen Sadeghi, a former executive at both Quiksilver and Gotcha.
Before the boom ended, surf wear sales zoomed higher than $1 billion annually. But analysts now suggest that sales have fallen to about $750 million.
Adding insult to injury, the nation's financially ailing department stores are doing a poor job of selling the California look, Sadeghi said. "It gets lost on the rack, and the surf companies can't give a clear message to consumers on what they have to offer.
"Stussy, Quiksilver and the others all have their own personalities. . . . It's just bad business to let a retailer select a few pieces out of your entire line and shove it in a rack with 15 other brands."
That kind of retailing led apparel manufacturers to believe that "they need to display product better, and who knows how to display better than the manufacturers?" said Tony Cherbak, a retail industry consultant in the Costa Mesa office of accounting firm Deloitte & Touche.
The apparel makers aren't all following the same game plan. While some are opening free-standing retail stores, others are setting up boutiques--small shops inside existing department and specialty stores. The rest are strengthening ties with the retailers who already market their wares.
Quiksilver is banking on a small chain of Boardriders Club stores to show off its growing product line. The company will open a 3,100-square-foot shop this summer in a strip mall in Santa Cruz and plans to add stores across the nation, particularly in areas where it doesn't have a cadre of loyal customers.
Boardrider Clubs will feature not only surf wear, but also Quiksilver's children's line, snowboarding apparel, junior sportswear for girls, a growing assortment of accessories, a new line of "street" clothing and a menswear line aimed at older shoppers.