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Caution Is Watchword for Makers of Surfwear : Fashion: Firms such as O.C.-based Quiksilver and Mossimo are expanding their lines, but they're aware of potential problems.

August 03, 1994|GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tom Campion had a simple concept when he opened the first of his Above The Belt apparel stores in 1978. True to its name, the retail chain sold little more than surfer shirts and caps.

In the '80s, when other surf apparel manufacturers began expanding into shorts, shoes, wristwatches and accessories, Campion did the same--and also changed the name of his Everett, Wash.-based company to Zumiez. Today, though, with Quiksilver, Mossimo and a handful of other surf apparel manufacturers branching out even further into women's clothing and bathing suits, Campion is cautious. "You start trying to be all things to all people," he said, "and pretty soon nobody knows what you are."

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Retail experts agree. Success in the surfwear industry, they say, which has historically marketed itself to teen-age boys, doesn't necessarily ensure acceptance on the distaff side of the aisle.

"Very few menswear companies have been able to make it in the women's biz," said Alan G. Millstein, editor of the New York-based Fashion Network Report.

Michael W. Marsak, president of Effective Marketing Strategies Inc. in Marina del Rey, said companies that "carefully take the time to understand the wants and needs of their new target audience" are the most likely to succeed. "They don't take it for granted that the line has equity with the new segment. The new customer might say, 'It's a brand I know nothing about and care nothing about.' "

During the late 1980s, many surf apparel companies learned the painful lesson that unrestrained growth can be deadly. Despite its OP label being one of the nation's best-known, Ocean Pacific Sunwear filed for bankruptcy court protection in May, 1992. The company cited $11 million in debt, most of that related to its ill-fated 1985 effort to start its own manufacturing plant. The company, based in Irvine, subsequently sold most of its assets.

Quiksilver, then, was "very cautious, very careful and very scared at first about expanding" into women's lines, said Robert B. McKnight Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of the publicly traded Costa Mesa company. "We didn't want to hurt our existing business."

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Quiksilver is confident, though, that its venture into women's fashions will succeed, for 20% of its clothing sales are already being made to girls and young women who like the fit and feel of the company's menswear. Quiksilver is building on that momentum with Roxy, a junior line it created a year ago. It also added $11 million in annual revenue in 1993 when it purchased Raisins Inc., a Laguna Beach bikini maker, from founders Pat and Tom Lingo.

McKnight plans to leverage Raisins' design capabilities as Quiksilver expands into the women's swimwear business. "To do women's clothing correctly, you have to employ a small army," McKnight said. "You merchandise differently, you cut, produce and market differently."

Companies typically venture beyond their core business only after exhausting growth potential, said Kurt Barnard, publisher of Barnard's Weekly Retail Marketing Report in New York. "They have to find a way to broaden their consumer base to continue to do well."

A well-known brand name such as Quiksilver that has appealed primarily to young men isn't necessarily going to be a hit with women, Barnard said. "You really have to do your market research."

Some of the biggest names in menswear have done well with diversity. Levi's jeans for men, for example, are a staple among female shoppers, and menswear giants Fruit of the Loom and Jockey International both have thriving lines of woman's underwear. And surfwear pioneer Hang 10 licensed its logo successfully to women's-wear manufacturers.

Those in the industry say that, when companies opt to license their names for new lines, they have to select the right licensee.

O'Neill Inc., for example, is a leading wet-suit manufacturer. But the company, based in Santa Cruz, failed in past attempts to develop a successful apparel line. O'Neill hasn't given up, though. It recently announced a new licensing agreement to produce a clothing line for the domestic market.

The key to success is to proceed cautiously, said Howie Greller, executive vice president of Beach Patrol Swimwear in Carson. The company, which has designed women's swimwear since 1987, recently introduced a new line called Baja Men's.

"Everything's evolutionary," Greller said. "You've got to walk before you can run. We were asked to do men's suits three years ago, but our plan calls for controlled but healthy growth."

Mossimo Inc., which has its roots in the surf industry, has also expanded its popular collection to include menswear, footwear, sunglasses and women's swimwear, watches and accessories. On tap for next year: a fragrance line and women's sportswear.

Mossimo Giannulli, founder of the Irvine-based company, said he always viewed surf and volleyball apparel as a springboard to a broader market, but he is not forgetting his roots. Buyers of surf

apparel, he said, are "not a group I want to alienate."

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