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FASHION TRENDS / Today's Topic: Brand Positioning

Wheel Power

Forget malls and runways. Clothing and shoe manufacturers looking to beef up their cool images and appeal to youths are going skating.

November 27, 1998|ROSE APODACA JONES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The hottest trend in fashion isn't a color or silhouette, but playgrounds.

Youth- and active-oriented brands--from Vans to Levi's--are strengthening their hold on pop culture by boosting their role in sports. These alliances can ensure a brand's relevance and even survival in an increasingly saturated marketplace.

Beyond simply sponsoring uniforms or posting banners at events, apparel and shoemakers are becoming sports facilities' developers.

In Orange on Saturday and Sunday, more than 1,000 inquiring minds, many covered in helmets, came to gawk at--and ride--the 46,000 square feet of wooden ramps and concrete bowls at Vans Skatepark.

The sneaker maker plunked down $5 million to construct its Taj Mahal to skateboarding, touting it as a training camp for competitors and a place for enthusiasts to ride hassle-free.

After first walking through a shop hawking Vans-branded merchandise, customers pay $7 to $14 (depending on the time of day) to enter the skate park, where the company's logo is splattered from the vertical ramps up to the wall.

This is a place where skateboarding is not a crime, as a bumper-sticker mantra goes. It's king.

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Who knows if it will work. At the park opening, many applauded Vans for building the ramps, but, like seventh-grader Brian McHugh of Orange, they may not feel compelled to buy its active-casual footwear, clothing and accessories. More than two dozen skate-specific shoe brands compete for skateboarders' feet while also trying to attract the greater number of nonskaters who just like the look.

"Brands are taking a different role in positioning themselves in their customers' lifestyles. It's not just what you should wear, but what you should do, how you should live," says Jane Rinzler Buckingham, founder of Youth Intelligence, a New York trend forecasting group that counts MTV and Clairol among its clients. "Customers expect added value for their loyalty."

In Santa Barbara, several manufacturers of skateboards and related apparel banded together to persuade a reluctant City Council that the area needed a skate park. When the city found usage of a temporary skate park at a junior high school exceeded interest in local baseball diamonds and other sports areas, it gave its blessing and partial funding to build a $400,000 concrete skate park across from the pier. Donations have covered most of the costs, including fund-raisers hosted by Powell Skateboards.

"The kids want to skate, they don't want to play baseball," says longtime skater Sean Murphy, who, along with his twin brother and father, owns a skate brand called Porn Star.

"A couple years ago it seemed so unreal that this could even happen," the 30-year-old says. "Now companies around the country are finding ways of getting parks in their cities. When sponsors come in, so do the people, because it's an added attraction when we bring in the pros, the free stickers and other giveaways."

In October, Levi's sponsored the Aggressive Skaters Assn. Pro Tour World Championships in Las Vegas. The San Francisco-based jeans maker also entered a team made up of top international skaters, outfitted in Levi's gear. And it provided a super ramp--fully branded with illustrations from the company's Silver Tab campaign. A contest on the ramp yielded the largest purse awarded at an in-line skate event--$10,000.

"We're just trying to reach our target consumers, who are 15 to 19 years old, in new and innovative ways and reach them in places where they spend their time," company spokeswoman Kim Sobel says. "Our involvement in extreme sports is one way to speak to them directly."

It's no coincidence that Irvine-based Gotcha makes surf and snowboard gear and is co-owner in the $40-million, four-story Gotcha Glacier set to open in Anaheim in spring 2000. The snowboarding facility is designed to meet the competitive requirements of the International Snowboarding Federation and the Olympics. The complex will also feature a surf park with 12-foot waves, a skyboarding chamber, a roller hockey rink and a gallery of shops and restaurants.

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Gotcha CEO Marvin Winkler returned from Hawaii Monday, where he scoped out sites for a second Gotcha Glacier. The brand owns a minority stake in the venture but will reap extensively from its affiliation, particularly in the coveted area of credibility.

"As we move forward, the credibility factor is becoming more important," says Robin Austin, whose Connecticut-based trend forecaster Fusion 5 works with Sprite and Nike. "It takes more than a cool product. It's about what a company stands for and how it connects emotionally with consumers. A company doesn't own cool, the consumer does. It's up to the consumer to determine who is and isn't. When kids start talking about it, then it's cool, then it's got credibility."

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