SAN DIEGO — For many years, the Action Sports Retailer Trade Expo here was where boutiques and surf shops came to shop for bikinis. While adolescents in T-strings handed out company stickers to gawking businessmen, swimwear makers staged elaborate fashion shows featuring the itsiest, bitsiest bikinis imaginable.
Sex appeal, as usual, was dictating fashion, even though the expo's deepest roots are in beach lifestyle sports.
This year was different. There wasn't so much skin. Gone was the thong. Bikini models turned up in surf trunks or boy-leg bottoms. And the controversial, porn-themed marketing campaigns of some manufacturers were history. (Freshjive dropped its ad campaign featuring female porn stars while the Porn Star streetwear label recently started a new women's line called Starlette to seduce more suburban retailers. Ditto for Los Angeles-based Label Whore, which now has a softer, more conservative line called Foxx.)
Younger, progressive apparel makers are standing up for women as athletes, not fashion victims. Companies are realizing that sports--surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding--are the foundation beneath their bottom line. The expo's own spin machinery was pushing "girl power" as the theme of the convention.
The women's beach lifestyle market has grown from $25 million in 1992 to a projected $300 million this year, according to the Deloitte & Touche accounting firm. And the root of the growth, experts say, is found in the growth of board sports.
Quicksilver, surfing's largest corporation, was one of the first to mine this new wave of female board-riding by introducing a women's line of apparel called Roxy in 1992. Roxy's success, with its staple surf trunk (or "boardshort"), has helped the division make one-fifth of the company's revenue. Other big companies have stepped in, including Gotcha, which introduced a line called Girl Star last year (projected '97 sales: $10 million).
Looks on the sales floor this year ranged from the typically revealing swimsuit to the highly technical surf trunk. The boardshort of this summer, in fact, is bold and tough, often sold in the same color and trim of the guys' trunks but with a shorter inseam for women.
For next season, many of the companies are pushing a more innocent look, with flower prints, soft hues of pink and blue--without the body-conscious, sexualized looks of the past.
San Diego's Six One Nine label celebrates this style, featuring functional yet girlish trunks and tops with floral prints and muted plaids. "It's for the real girl," says owner and designer Christina Sasteque, who surfs. "I don't make stuff for models."
Some of the bigger companies see women's board-sport enthusiasm as a launch pad for an international foray into sports-conscious juniors lines. "We don't just do it for the coast," says Michael Sharp, Girl Star's vice president of sales and marketing. "Our influence was Betsey Johnson as much as it was the ocean. Our biggest thing for fall is jackets and boot-leg pants."
But female leaders in the beach lifestyle industry decry companies that claim beach roots but peddle what the leaders call "nonfunctional" fashion. They criticize surf trunks that aren't really made for surfing. They criticize ad campaigns that feature nonsurfing models. And they criticize companies that sell surf-inspired apparel but don't sponsor female surfers.
"We know that we can make money from young women," says Ilona Wood-Rerucha, owner of Water Girl, a surf shop considered to be the first to focus on women. "We have to give back to them through sponsorships."