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The Incredible Brightness of Being

Drab Is No Longer Fab as Board Shorts Emerge From Their Summers of Darkness

June 20, 1996|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Allan Seymour, a self-described "surfing impresario" from Capistrano Beach and a virtual professor of surf history, remembers the days when he and other local surfers wore colorful trunks made by somebody's mom or wife.

"They made them out of boat canvas in bodacious colors," Seymour says. "Mine were purple and chartreuse."

This was in the late '50s and early '60s, long before surf-wear giants such as Ocean Pacific and Hang Ten crashed on the scene.

Since then the work of local seamstresses has been replaced by surf-wear companies both large and small, including Quiksilver, Billabong, Counter Culture and Rusty. Each company vies to rule the surf by coming up with the hottest board shorts on the beach.

While board shorts have become big business, the free spirit of Seymour and other long boarders who wanted to make a splash with colorful, bodacious trunks has resurfaced.

After several years of giving into grunge, surfers have ditched black and baggy boardshorts and returned to their brighter Beach Boys roots.

"We had a long, dark cycle," says Lian Murray, who designs board shorts for men at Billabong in Costa Mesa. "People felt kind of mean, and they wore a lot of black."

Billabong's latest collection features board shorts of orange, lime and other citrus-colored fabrics.

Some trunks are made of iridescent nylons or Hawaiian prints with shiny sateen finishes. One pair comes in orange satin nylon with blue vertical stripes and white ribbon trim. Another comes in olive with a sateen finish and hot lime striping.

The board shorts sell for $36 to $45 at Nordstrom, Huntington Surf & Sport in Huntington Beach, Surfside Sports in Newport Beach, Beach Access in South Coast Plaza and other surf and specialty stores.

"There's a lot of reflective piping and luminescent striping. Each one is an art piece," Murray says.

Counter Culture in Huntington Beach has also found color is coming back. The sportswear company introduced a board short with an eye-popping flame print that would have been unthinkable five years ago.

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Surfers have taken to the fiery shorts like moths to the flame.

"We knew flames were cool," says Mike Schillmoeller, co-owner of Counter Culture. "They're our No. 1 seller" for summer '96.

The trunks come in bright yellow with cobalt blue and green flames or black with yellow and red flames (about $40 at Surfside Sports and Laguna Surf & Sport and other surf shops).

"Everybody's testing the waters with brighter colors," says Schillmoeller, although no surf-wear company has brought back the full-blown neon looks of the '80s.

Hawaiian surfers of the '60s have been the inspiration for board shorts designed by Toes on the Nose in Irvine.

"Five years ago, board shorts were very hard core, tattoo-oriented," says Corin Lopez, designer-merchandiser for Toes. "The board shorts were tough looking, with triple-needle seams."

Tattoo logos have given way to hibiscus and other classic California and Hawaiian surf motifs.

Lopez has revived and revamped old-school surf looks, such as trunks with floral prints, contrasting stripes or bands containing Hawaiian scenes.

One popular style features sheer white nylon over a navy Hawaiian print so the material shows through when the trunks get wet. The board shorts sell for $40 to $48 at Gary's Island in Fashion Island Newport Beach, Toes on the Nose in Laguna Beach and surf shops.

"I get ideas from old surf magazines and vintage clothing stores," Lopez says.

In the '60s, girls didn't wear swim trunks. Now, surf-wear companies are making board shorts for them too.

Lopez designed "girlie" board shorts out of nylon with satin or shimmery finishes and hibiscus prints dyed pale red, yellow or powder blue. She even designed a see-through board short out of sheer white nylon, meant to be worn over bikini bottoms.

Rusty's summer collection features girls board shorts of metallic nylons, flocked velvet and tropical prints that would have wowed long boarders of the past. They are available for about $38 to $48 at Huntington Surf & Sport, Second Reef in Laguna Beach, Nordstrom and various surf shops.

"They're a fresh alternative to wearing shorts," says Cathy Paik, designer of girls board shorts for Rusty in Irvine.

Though the board shorts have to be functional, designers know that they're worn to make waves in fashion too. Dressing like a surfer, even when you don't surf, is cool again.

"The skate look is still happening, but a lot of the newest clothing is coming from surfers," Murray says. "They're showing pictures of surfers in J. Crew and Vogue."

The proof of surf's influence is in the sales of the board shorts to kids who don't live anywhere near the ocean.

"Some of our biggest stores are in Nebraska," Murray says.

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