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Riding the Surfwear Wave : In the '60's, O.C. got on the surfing map. These days, it's where the dudes get their duds

August 03, 1995|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Although it's had more ups and downs than a killer set of waves, the surfwear industry in Orange County still rules.

No other place in the world has such a high concentration of surf apparel companies. Almost all of the big names are here -- Quiksilver, Ocean Pacific, Billabong, Rusty Apparel and Gotcha -- as well as dozens of smaller companies such as Counter Culture and World Jungle.

Add to the list manufacturers of any products related to the beach life style, like sunglass giant Oakley, and the number of local companies with ties to surfing swells into the hundreds.

"I know of no other industry other than the computer techies in Silicon Valley that is as concentrated in one area," says Bonnie Crail, executive vice president of marketing for Ocean Pacific in Irvine.

Orange County is also home to the world's two largest surf publications, Surfing magazine in San Clemente and Surfer magazine in San Juan Capistrano, as well as the industry's leading trade publication and trade show producer, Action Sports Retailer in Laguna Beach, and SIMA, the Surf Industry Manufacturers Assn. in Corona del Mar.

With the U.S. Open of Surfing underway in Huntington Beach through Sunday, the county is virtually hogging the surfing spotlight.

All of these factors help make Orange County a magnet for surfwear companies and a launching pad for many hot beach apparel trends, including the ubiquitous O.P. corduroy shorts of the '70s and Mossimo's neon volley shorts of the '80s.

"We all joke that if you drop a bomb at rush hour where the 405 and 5 meet, you'll wipe out 80% of the surfwear industry," said Randy Hild, vice president of Costa Mesa-based Roxy, Quiksilver's junior women's sportswear division. "The industry is very compact. We tend to be people who live here and love the beach. Most of us surf. We enjoy the lifestyle."

One obvious reason the surfwear industry settled here is that the waves are here. Orange County's 42 miles of coastline boasts some of the world's best surfing spots, from the Seal Beach Pier to Trestles on the San Diego County border.

When surf's up, a surfwear company's staffers sometimes desert the office to ride the waves; it's not uncommon to see wet suits drying outside of company headquarters.

"Your day-to-day routine is dictated by what's going on in the ocean," said Mark Price, vice president of SIMA and president of Tavarua Island Surf Co. in Laguna Beach. "It's not that you cancel all of your appointments, but if you know a serious swell is on the way, you keep things a little loose. You can play tennis or golf any time, but the ocean isn't like that."

That passion for surfing, combined with an entrepreneurial spirit, is what turned the county into a boom town for surfwear companies.

"The quality of surf lured a lot of people here who later turned the surf lifestyle into an industry. Orange County became the center of commerce for the world of surfing," said Dave Gilovich, vice president of marketing for Gotcha Sportswear in Irvine and former editor of Surfing magazine.

Hobie Alter is widely regarded as the godfather of the industry. In 1958, while living in Dana Point, Alter devised a method for mass-producing surfboards using foam cores instead of carved balsa wood. The cheaper boards made surfing more accessible.

"There was a core group in the '60s who put Orange County on the map in the world of surfing," Gilovich said.

Alter was one member; Walter Hoffman was another.

The owner of Hoffman California Fabrics in Mission Viejo, Hoffman supplied Hawaiian-print fabrics to the industry and helped many companies get their start.

Soon surf shops began popping up all over the county, and a slew of surfwear companies followed. Along came people like Duke Boyd of San Clemente with his Hang Ten T-shirts. They proved that even people who'd never seen the ocean wanted to dress like surfers.

In the '80s, the industry exploded with the sweeping popularity of neon surfwear. Suddenly guys in Ohio were walking around in electric-green volley shorts, often with a large M--the Mossimo logo--stamped on their seats.

"The first time I saw them, I thought the M was the size, but then I never saw any Ls," said surf historian Allan Seymour of Capistrano Beach.

Thanks in part to its cord shorts, Ocean Pacific saw its fortunes rise to $300 million in annual sales. Imitators or so-called "poser" companies, seeing the wild ride Ocean Pacific, Quiksilver and others were enjoying, tried to harness surfwear's roaring popularity.

"The surf industry was absorbed by the fashion industry for a while," said Tom Holbrook, senior vice president of sales for Costa Mesa-based Quiksilver, ranked by SIMA as the largest surf apparel company in the world. "Companies not related to the beach tried to make a move, and there was an over-saturation of inauthentic products."

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