The officials who control Los Angeles County beaches thought that lifeguards should make a bolder fashion statement, the popularity of "Baywatch" notwithstanding.
But a resulting deal with Izod has many lifeguards fuming this week over their new red, black and white togs, complete with the prominent logo of the clothing manufacturer.
They say that the new uniforms are unprofessional and downright ugly, with their bold stripes and baggier fits.
The lifeguards are particularly irked to be walking advertisements for Izod, whose name appears on the shirts, shorts, jackets and hats, minus the traditional alligator. The previous uniforms, sponsored by Speedo, had more subtle logos and were much easier for the public to recognize as lifeguard clothes, guards contend.
"People in the public are coming up and saying: 'What are you wearing?"' Los Angeles County lifeguard union President Capt. Steve Moseley said Thursday. "It makes us look like a soccer team. . . . And that's not a real good morale thing."
County officials say that the seven-year deal for Izod's parent company, clothing giant Phillips-Van Heusen Corp., to provide $3.2 million in free clothes was too good to turn down.
Besides, county officials say, it was time to replace the bland white shirts and plain red shorts that have been lifeguards' wardrobe staples for three decades, regardless of changes in corporate sponsorship.
Assistant Chief Russ Walker of the Los Angeles County Fire Department's lifeguard division said he likes the new uniforms, which include baggy red swim trunks with wide black stripes on the side, topped with white golf-style shirts with wide red panels on the side.
"It really represents more of how we are now. It's a bolder look. It's a clearer, crisper look," he said.
The Izod contract represents the largest corporate sponsorship ever for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, which manages lifeguards. It is worth more than twice the current six-year contract with Nissan Corp. for 60 beach vehicles and other items.
"There wasn't any real need [to change]," Walker said. "But we felt the opportunity presented itself and we said let's try."
Although Izod has agreed to adjust the uniform designs annually, that pledge didn't quell concerns when lifeguards got their first look at the beachwear last month.
They complained that a small group of managers were led by marketing concerns and did not consult the 700 lifeguards posted on 72 miles of Los Angeles County coast.
"It's so much tradition thrown out the window," said one Santa Monica lifeguard who, like others, asked to not be identified for fear of disciplinary action. "I put it on every day and I'm just sick. We're the jokes of the beach."
A Zuma Beach lifeguard agreed, saying: "They're less visible and people think they just look a little too recreational."
Union members complained to county Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman and he immediately established a special uniform committee to hear complaints. If enough lifeguards dispute the designs, Walker said, next year's uniforms will be different.
Walker stressed that he and five division chiefs spent several months late last year considering clothing samples and designs before selecting the red, black and white style.
"It wasn't something that we came up with out of the blue," Walker said. "There was a lot of thought put it into it."
Speedo's contract was expiring and that firm wanted to keep its lifeguard uniform connection. But officials said Izod provided a better deal with more additional free items, such as jackets and pants, for which taxpayers no longer have to foot the bill.
Izod officials were unavailable for comment.
Besides the clothes, the Izod contract also includes $70,000 cash payment over seven years to the county Department of Beaches and Harbors and 100 free volleyball nets.
In exchange, Izod will receive free permits for 10 marketing events on the beach and can promote itself as the "Official Swimwear Sponsor of the Los Angeles County Beach Lifeguards." County pool and lake lifeguards aren't included in the contract.
Ultimately, the marketing deal could elevate a few beach lifeguards to celebrity status. Next month, Izod will audition beach lifeguards in their new uniforms for the company's upcoming national advertising campaign, county officials said.
On Santa Monica State Beach on Wednesday afternoon, most beachgoers near Tower 22 paid no attention to the lifeguard attire.
New Jersey visitor Charles Goulet nodded toward a 27-year-old lifeguard, Wonmeen Jun, and compared the guard's new image with those on a hit television show.
"It looks like 'Baywatch' to me," Goulet, 63, said.
But a Los Angeles couple stretched out on a blanket at Jun's lifeguard tower weren't impressed.
"It doesn't grab me," Joseph Fulton, 65, said. "But it's different than what anyone else is wearing on the beach."