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Action Unlimited

Alternative Media Go in Search of What's New in Surf and Street Culture


SAN DIEGO — The location is identical, but any similarity between this convention and the Republican one a few weeks ago ends on that note.

Instead of delegates clothed in red, white and blue finery, there are humans sporting tattooed craniums, gas masks and 87-pound suits made from pennies.

In place of helium balloons, there are silicone-inflated babes in bikinis.

And instead of CNN and the Washington Post, there are journalists from WIG, Hot Lava and Tongue magazines.

It's Day One of the infamous Action Sports Retailer Trade Expo, a twice-a-year orgy of parties, music and business deals that showcases new products and fashions for surfers, skateboarders and snowboarders.

The three-day event draws about 19,000 people, including one of the weirdest press corps on the planet.

Among the anti-Establishment Fourth Estate represented here are Daily Bread, which bills itself as "an aggressive inline skating magazine" (as opposed to, say, a passive-aggressive skating publication?) and Electric Ink, a Huntington Beach-based snowboarding magazine that is no bigger than a cocktail napkin.

Also prowling the aisles is Susan Carpenter, 30, the black-leather-jacketed, motorcycle-riding nuclear physicist's daughter who once remade Cindy Crawford's image using statistics compiled by calling other Cindy Crawfords found in phone books around the country.

The computer-altered supermodel "ended up shorter, fatter and mulatto," Carpenter says.

But we digress.

As editor of Santa Monica-based UHF, an anti-fashion magazine, Carpenter's goal here is to scope out the future in street and surf culture.

But first, she has to navigate past a guy dressed as a mummy and a darkened room full of beanbag chairs for watching videos of breast enlargement surgery.

(Good thing the bosom flick didn't get mixed up with the Bob Dole video a few weeks earlier. San Diego would have had to import paramedics to handle the resulting coronary overload.)

From there, Carpenter moves on to booths selling colored wigs, furniture made from hemp, and sandboards.

Sandboarding is like snowboarding, but on sand dunes--usually with the board waxed for maximum speed and maneuverability.

"That's what I was looking for," she says. "It's like a parallel to snowboarding, but everybody isn't writing about it."

If there is an underlying theme here, it is the desperate--sometimes pathetic--quest to be different and avant-garde. Clothing designers assembled for a seminar on trends speak at length about doing the opposite of whatever they think everyone else is doing.

Hair on the Convention Center floor comes in every texture, shape and unnatural color imaginable. And companies sell under such names Obnoxious Youth, Anarchy, Crap Culture and Rebellious Bitches.

The irony is that the attempts at nonconformity are so pervasive that they've become, well, predictable. How predictable? Well, PepsiCo sent a video crew to search for ideas, and MTV's "Singled Out" was hunting for contestants.

"It's the commercialization of the avant-garde," Carpenter says, sounding a complaint that was also heard when 1960s counterculture went mainstream.

Maybe so, but few would accuse the Action Sports Retailer crowd of going totally corporate. Although surf-and-skatewear accounts for a reported $1.2 billion in annual sales--and although a few guys with cellular phones and turbans could be seen working deals behind the scenes--the trade show and its spinoff party scene still are renowned for hipness.

So much so that some folks will go to unusual lengths to get in.

Because the expo is closed to the public, people constantly try to pass themselves off as members of the alternative press, says Rose Apodaca Jones, a freelance fashion writer who has attended the trade show for a decade.

They print up business cards for publications that don't exist or send in faxes with phony letterhead asking for press credentials, she says. And because small, often unknown publications help promote the industry, it becomes a nightmare for expo officials trying to figure out whom to admit.

Thus, when five people from Vertigo--a 2-week-old online magazine for snowboarders--show up at the press office, they almost are turned away, says photo editor Jasen Bowes.

Expo officials wanted to see a copy of the publication, Bowes says, but "we have nothing in print" because the magazine exists entirely on the Internet.

Eventually, Vertigo's staff gets in, armed with a digital camera to transmit photos from the show into the computer labyrinth.

A short time later, Vertigo reporters fan out onto the convention center floor, asking visitors to describe the most outrageous thing they've seen at a trade show known for excess.

It isn't an easy assignment.

The first interviewee, for example, seems to have a vocabulary limited largely to the word "rad."

"Obviously he was a bad choice," concedes Vertigo reporter Holly Betts, 22, of San Diego. "Fortunately, we can erase pictures on a digital camera. He's gone."

Next comes a group interview. The most amazing thing here?

"That guy on the roller-blades was ruling it," says one dude.

"Ripping it," chimes in another.

Well, if single-sentence answers are the order of the day, let's leave it to an Australian visitor to truly sum up the essence of the scene.

Her impression of the Action Sports expo? "Silicone," she says. "Lots of silicone."

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