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Apparel Retailers Catch New Girls' Surfing Wave

Sales may beat men's, and a new film could help


Male surfers may still rule at the beach, but females are hijacking the surf wear industry, driving sales and influencing marketing at Southern California's largest surf apparel firms.

Quiksilver Inc. in Huntington Beach recently predicted that revenue from girls' products will eclipse sales to men and boys within two years, an amazing acknowledgment from the sales leader of an industry that once existed solely for males.

Irvine-based Billabong USA, which launched its girls' line three years ago, says sales of those products have swelled more than 50% annually. That growth could explode after Aug. 16, when Universal Pictures releases "Blue Crush," a movie about female surfers who will be outfitted in Billabong clothes.

Despite some skepticism about whether the movie accurately depicts the lives of surfers, many insiders predict it will pump sales for surf wear manufacturers and retailers, increase female attendance at surfing schools and boost circulation for girls' surfing magazines. Surf Diva surf school in La Jolla said its attendance jumped as soon as the film's trailers started showing a few weeks ago.

But it is Billabong that stands to be the big winner, insiders say, because its logos will be stretched across big screens from New York to California.

"It's going to be huge for them," said Sean Smith, a spokesman for the Surf Industry Manufacturing Assn. in San Clemente. "A pretty young girl runs on the screen and her rash guard (wetsuit-type shirt) has 'Billabong' on it. That product placement is worth a fortune in advertising dollars."

"Blue Crush" is a testament to change taking place in the surf world, because its budget was the largest ever for a surf movie, and it's about females.

"There's never been a film that cost as much or one that's been promoted as heavily, not even close," said Matt Warshaw, a surf book author in San Francisco.

The $2.4-billion surf wear industry welcomes the movie's opening, just as fall products start hitting stores. There have been signs that business is picking up this year after a rocky 2001. An upturn in this industry is particularly important to Southern California, where most of these companies are based.

Anaheim-based Pacific Sunwear of California Inc., which sells clothes and other products for surfers and skateboarders, predicts that women's products will account for 45% of its sales this year. To push its juniors business, PacSun will spend a record $10 million on marketing, which will include placing ads in mainstream magazines such as Seventeen, Teen People and YM, said Carol Apkarian, the company's marketing director. Other than in-store advertising, virtually all of the company's marketing this year will target females, she said.

"It needs to be a larger portion of our business since, let's face it, girls are the shoppers," Apkarian said.

Because Billabong is one of the three top-selling brands at PacSun stores--along with Quiksilver and Hurley--the retailer is helping with "Blue Crush" promotions. "It's an action sports movie that appeals to teens, starring women, so it does just about everything we want it to do," Apkarian said.

Although most girls who buy surf wear will never ride a wave, the number of female surfers is increasing. Of the 2.4 million people age 9 and older who surfed last year, 16% to 22% were female, said Angelo Ponzi, owner of Board-Trac, a market research firm in Trabuco Canyon. The number of females who surf every day jumped 120% from 1999 to 2001, he said.

The growth in women's surfing prompted O'Neill Inc. to produce a line of wetsuits that will make it easier for females to bear cold waters, said Tom Brady, marketing director for the Santa Cruz firm.

"We're doing more technical products for women because they're demanding it," he said.

In the women's market, technology and frivolity meet. Surf Diva, for example, sells floral rash guards in pink and purple and "Daisy Mae" surfboards emblazoned with a hand-drawn daisy.

Making products for females gives companies much more latitude, because girls generally aren't hung up on so-called "core" issues, such as whether a brand is rooted in surfing, or where it's sold.

"With girls, there's not so much worry about 'selling out,' " said Kai Stearns, editor of Surfing Girl magazine in San Clemente. That probably made it easier for Billabong to tie its juniors brand to a movie about girls, she said.

"If that was the guys, they wouldn't have done it because it's like 'Oh, we're too cool for that,' " she said.

Surf wear companies have been forced to step up their marketing to keep pace with the growth of the girls' market. That growth has increased the interest of so-called outsiders who now also sell surf apparel, including Abercrombie & Fitch Co. and Gap Inc.

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