By his third birthday, Chase Mendoza was globbing gel in his hair and demanding matching outfits. Now, as a seasoned 8-year-old, he has fully defined his style.
"I like Hawaiian shirts, camouflage shorts, skateboard shorts, sweatshirts and cargo pants," said the Lake Forest boy, darting from rack to rack at the Ron Jon Surf Shop in Orange one recent afternoon.
Leticia Mendoza watched her son admiringly. "He dresses better than I do," she said.
Egged on by label-savvy youngsters and their style-conscious parents, surf and skate apparel companies are targeting ever younger customers with pint-sized lines bearing catchy names such as Rusty Runts and Teeny Wahine.
They join an array of consumer products companies that are rolling out what could be called bait products, which attempt to hook customers at the earliest possible age.
"It's called growing customers," said James U. McNeal, marketing professor at Texas A&M and author of "Customers for Life: Myths and Realities of the Kids Market." "Every company is scaling down and funning up their products."
Indeed, as Gen-Xers have children, many of them want their offspring to look as cool as they did--or think they did--growing up. By dressing youngsters in surf and skate-inspired apparel, these parents are making a statement about their lifestyles, similar to a baby boomer wearing a Rolex or driving a Mercedes-Benz, said Mike Kamins, a USC advertising professor.
The goal for businesses: get a piece of the increasing amount of money spent by children--and their parents and grandparents--on products for children, estimated last year at $500 billion in the United States alone.
Among those looking to cash in on the trend:
* Costa Mesa-based Quiksilver Inc., whose new line for future surfers ages 18 months through 3 years includes board shorts that fit over diapers. The line has pushed Speedo swim suits and Tommy Hilfiger clothing off a rack in the baby section at Nordstrom's South Coast Plaza store. "We completely sold out of the spring line," said Vicki Redding, Quiksilver's director of boys' design and merchandising. "We couldn't even cover all the orders we had."
* Hawk Clothing Co. of San Clemente, owned by skateboard champ Tony Hawk and his family, expects to top the $1-million sales mark in its first year of operation in selling "flight tested" clothing, such as loose shorts and knit beanies, for boys ages 5 through 13.
* Metropolitan Prairie, a Costa Mesa company that makes "upscale grunge" clothes for boys and toddlers, is now producing miniature Hawaiian shirts with tiny coconut buttons that retail for about $30. Combined with a new girls' line, the company expects its sales to jump 70% this year, said owner Stephanie Bernardy.
* Gotcha International's toddlers and young boys' line--which comes in sizes 4 through 7--hit stores last year. Made by R & K Imports in El Monte, the apparel is expected to generate about $2 million in sales this year, said Pauline Kao, R & K's head of merchandising.
Besides increasing revenues, selling to a new age group allows surf and skate companies to grow without being tempted to sell to mass-market retail chains, which erodes their brands' authenticity among the core faithful.
That strategy is not without risk.
That same core faithful--ultra-cool teens who'd sooner drop dead than look lame--would doubtless prefer not to bump into a 2-year-old wearing a matching outfit.
But young consumers are picking up on companies' messages at earlier ages, thanks to more aggressive promotional campaigns by surf and skate companies and pressure from peers and parents.
More television channels now show "extreme" sports events such as surfing, skateboarding and snowboarding. And video games feature characters wearing branded clothing, shoes and accessories.
"These companies are getting into multi-promotional avenues to reach a real cross section of kids in different age categories," said Angelo Ponzi, president of Board-Trac, a Trabuco Canyon research firm.
Having caught children's attention, surf wear companies have had to face new challenges in manufacturing the clothes.
The smaller sizes are designed with the same attention to detail as the larger versions. In this niche, "authenticity" outweighs the cute factor, at least as a design goal.
For example--in a nod to real surfers--toddler board shorts are free of the netting found in ordinary swim trunks. But in a nod to practicality, a strip of elastic is sewn into the back of the board shorts, to accommodate bulging tummies.
The challenge is to add all the details without pricing the garments beyond what parents are willing to pay.
Indeed, the prices of the toddlers surf and skate apparel don't follow the same scale as the sizes. At Nordstrom, little Hawaiian shirts carry $28 price tags, while men's sizes cost about $46. Size 2 volley shorts are $24, compared with about $38 for the men's version.