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Chanel catches the wave

The surfwear industry is being buoyed by the newfound respect high-end designers are showing their once-casual items.

October 20, 2002|Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer

The surfing community and the fashion community are miles apart across the ocean of popular culture. So, when the two tribes -- one reliant on dogged individuality, the other on slavish conformism -- collided on a catwalk in Paris recently, it made for a good show.

Sure, there had been signs throughout the spring 2003 collections. Neoprene mini-dresses by Nicolas Ghesquiere for Balenciaga; hibiscus print board shorts at Miu Miu; black-and-yellow color-blocked "wet suits" at Luella Bartley. But nothing as brazen as a model tottering in three-inch heels down a runway carrying a beige surfboard with Chanel's interlocking C logo under her arm.

"She could have used some lessons on how to hold it," sniffed Sam George, the editor of Surfer magazine in San Juan Capistrano, who has been surfing for 37 years. Still, he said, it's understandable that designers want to tap into the lifestyle. "The surfboard is the perfect prop because there is no symbol or American icon that better represents freedom and romance and adventure."

But could any self-respecting surfer picture riding it? Not likely.

"The sport has a Pandora's box of image issues," said Matt Walker, a senior editor at Surfing magazine in San Clemente. "The more popular something is, and the more the mainstream market picks up on it, the more you lose your core image."

"In the hard-core surfing community, people look at these elegant brands and say that they are just using surfing and scamming," said Bill Sharpe, editor of Surf News, a tabloid based in Newport Beach. "Last year it was hip-hop, this year we all want to dress up like surfers. But it's dishonest. To say you are something that you aren't, that's tacky." (Surf culture may offer high-end designers the same sought-after quality they found so appealing in the hip-hop culture: authenticity.)

Chanel has produced snowboards, motorcycle helmets and other sports equipment, but spokeswoman Anne Fahey said the surfboard was just a runway prop. Still, she insisted that it was real. (And why wouldn't it be? Burberry and Gucci have sold surfboards in extremely limited quantities for the past year. "They probably sold a couple, but chances are they are hanging on someone's mantel," said Walker.)

But even if the waves will not soon be studded with surfers riding little "C's," the Chanel board stands for something.

"That board is a real statement about the time we are in," said Randy Hild, senior vice president of marketing for Quiksilver Inc. in Huntington Beach. "Not in the literal sense that a surfer would ride it, because that's not going to happen ... but in the sense that our world is influencing the runways."

In some ways, the Chanel surfboard is the symbol of a long-standing fashion practice -- the regular recycling of favorite themes. "It's like El Nino," said L.A.-based swimwear designer Robin Piccone, who can claim to be the first to craft neoprene into sexy swimsuits for Body Glove in the 1980s. But some industry watchers say the surf trend is different than in the past, and potentially more important.

"The last few cycles, it was just a trend," said Dick Baker, president of the Surf Industry Manufacturing Assn. in San Clemente. "This time, it's referencing a lifestyle that's here to stay."

Surfing, of course, has permeated pop culture from the "Gidget" era forward. It got another high-profile boost this summer, when Universal Pictures released "Blue Crush," a movie about female surfers, who were outfitted in clothes from Irvine-based Billabong Inc.

"Now that surfing is on the big screen, it's a pervasive influence no matter what continent you are on," said Marie Case, partner and managing director for Board-Trac, an Orange County-based research firm that specializes in the action sports industry. "And it isn't just youth who are ... surfing either."

If designers are targeting the surf community, the move makes sense because the demographic is ever-expanding, said Marshal Cohen, co-president of NPD FashionWorld, a division of market research firm NPD Group. "One of the funny things about surf culture is that it evolves at a very young age, but those people don't disappear. It's a culture that grows in size and age."

A newfound respect

Indeed, it's been years since the "surfwear" category transcended the sport. The $2.4-billion industry, mostly headquartered in Orange County, produces casual apparel, plus stylish sundresses and jeans. Roxy, which makes girls and women's surfwear, even sells luggage and bed linens.

Quiksilver recently predicted that revenue from girls' products could exceed that from men's and boys' within the next few years. "More women are participating than ever before ... and high-fashion folks are selling to this market," Case said.

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