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Surf 'n' Turf : In Trade Shows, Surfwear Still Has the Numbers,

September 15, 1993|GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — It seemed like an unfair fight.

Over in the far corner, wearing the aloha shirt and jams, was the surfwear industry's annual fall fashion show, weighing in with nearly 550 exhibitors, a surfboard-shaping room, runway fashion shows and a pro beach volleyball exhibition.

In the near corner, wearing oversize pants, a graffiti-tagged T-shirt and Doc Martens, was the first-ever street-wear industry show, where about 40 clothiers delivered their vision of what's happening in the 1990s.

By the numbers--attendance, display booths and sales--the Action Sports Retailer Expo here last weekend scored a knockout, but the alternative 432 F Clothingshow promises to be a scrappy contender.

The surf-street clash first erupted in the late 1980s when neon-bright colors, which had boosted annual surf industry sales to an estimated $2 billion, unexpectedly lost their glow. Meanwhile, baggier, darker street-influenced designs became the favored look of youths, and surfwear designers tried to shore up their sagging sales by embracing the look.

But at previous recent trade shows sponsored by South Laguna-based Action Sports Retailer magazine, the forced pairing of surf and street looked shaky. At the expo in January, exhibitors had split into three distinct camps.

Traditional clothing companies, with bikini-clad models and glitzy booths, gathered on one end. At the other, street-wear companies used boomboxes to turn the trade show into a celebration of youth culture. In the middle were companies incorporating both street and surf into their designs.

ASR shows had alienated many retail buyers because "we had too many (exhibitors) that had nothing to do with the beach," said Tom Knapp,president of Club Sportswear, an Irvine-based volleyball-wear company, and president of the Surf Industry Manufacturers Assn. "Even some people in the beach lifestyle industry got confused."

Some street-wear industry manufacturers complained that they were "disinvited" from last weekend's ASR show because they were attracting sales that might have gone to surf companies, an allegation that surf industry executives dismiss.

"If we try to play the fashion game, we'll get killed because those are unfriendly, uncharted waters," said Robert B. McKnight Jr., chairman and chief executive of Quiksilver Inc. in Costa Mesa. "Quiksilver is surf, skate, ski, and our flag is anchored to the beach. We can't follow trends because they're like helium balloons that dance all over the place."

Street-wear industry leaders scoff at suggestions that their look is simply a fad. And they say they doubt youths will follow surf executives back to the beach.

"The bottom line is, and always was, that the kids who buy the stuff are the ultimate (arbiters)," said street-wear retailer and wholesaler Michael Pringle,one of four clothiers who produced the alternative-clothing show. "We've had some very, very big orders placed here this weekend. We're giving street (clothing) companies a way to cater to their market, and that really hasn't happened before."

Pringle's 432 F Clothingshow--held in an aging but graceful seven-story office building on F Street in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter downtown--was true to the clothes' funky heritage. Exhibitors doubled up in a few small converted offices, and the deal-making often spilled out into the crowded hallways.

Still, most exhibitors agreed that "we're better off here," said Julian Barrios,owner of Van Nuys-based Street Smart, whose designs incorporate work by taggers. "We don't have to conform to someone else's rules, and this building is more of what we're in tune with. We're from the street, not a big, stuffy convention center thing."

The alternative show provided an outlet for companies such as Los Angeles-based Conart, whose line includes a T-shirt that features a hooded Ku Klux Klan member holding a baby, with the caption: "Future Police Officer."

For some store buyers, the new show simply underscored the splintered nature of youth-oriented fashions.

"When neon was around (during the late 1980s), cross-generational marketing worked because everyone was wearing the same stuff," said Ron Jones, who owns B.Jammin', a Winter Park, Colo.-based string of active-wear stores. "Well, we (40-year-olds are) the parents now, we're what kids are rebelling against. Kids aren't going to wear what I want to wear."

The existence of a street show should benefit consumers, industry observers say.

The spring, 1994, surf lines are "probably the best in years," said Aaron Pai, owner of Huntington Surf and Sport. Surfwear "looks more mainstream, but it looks really good. The quality is definitely up."

"I think the surf industry will be stronger because of this," Barrios said of the split. "We're not going to try and do surfboards because they'd laugh at us. And they shouldn't be trying to do hip-hop or graffiti."

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