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Short Shorts May Be Longshot

Ocean Pacific bets on its '70s cord hit and increases production

September 13, 2002|LESLIE EARNEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A local surf wear company is about to find out just how far guys will go to indulge their passion for vintage retro-wear.

Ocean Pacific Apparel Corp., the Irvine company that caught fire 30 years ago with its corduroy shorts for young men, is increasing production and distribution of the shorts for a new generation.

Even company executives concede it's a longshot. At a time when shorts have grown longer and baggier, the 1970s-style Op shorts are short and snug.

"The essence of cool in the surf industry has been the length of the shorts," Ocean Pacific Chief Executive Dick Baker said. "The antichrist of that has been the Op cord short."

Although Op has kept the shorts in production--selling, for example, at Robinsons-May department stores and at least one gun store in Orange County--many of the hipper retailers weren't interested. Now, however, Op says the shorts will be shipping to more core surf shops--such as Jack's Surfboards and Huntington Surf & Sport in Huntington Beach--the hip Urban Outfitters chain and trendy specialty stores, such as Fred Segal and Ron Herman.

At an industry trade show in San Diego last week, Baker showed off a pair in the classic powder blue color with a 4-inch inseam.

"It's so geeky, it's so short, that only a hip 14-or 15-year-old could bring it back," Baker said.

That won't be Christian Rodriguez, a 14-year-old Corona del Mar resident who was shopping Wednesday at Becker Surf & Sport near his home.

"My uncle wears shorts like that," Rodriguez said, and he's "like 52."

Op, a surf wear pioneer that along with Hang Ten helped propel the laid-back Southern California look nationwide three decades ago, is just one of many companies trying to catch the retro wave.

Soft bohemian-style clothing for women came roaring back last year, as did hip-huggers. Now, trendy youth apparel companies are offering up cowboy shirts with scalloped yokes and pearl snap buttons and attempting to pass off velour warmup suits as a hot new fashion statement.

In the spring, Op launched its Op Classics line, which uses patterns and prints from the 1970s. Hang Ten last month introduced a vintage line of its own, including a replica of its signature striped shirt with two tiny feet on the chest.

"Our vintage pieces were selling in resale stores for $50 apiece," said Milissa Sweet, vice president of marketing for the brand, now owned by International Licensing Corp. in Poway, Calif. "We thought, it's time we brought this back."

The shirts, which surfers once paired with Op shorts, will come in the traditional "ugly, funky colors," such as rusty brown and powder blue, Sweet said. "People want to go back to that moment, that time, and those colors will have to stay true to that," she said.

Still, young men undoubtedly will find it less of a fashion risk to wear a weird-colored T-shirt than snug, short shorts. Op executives acknowledge that it will take a gutsy person to wear their retro cords.

Or at least somebody with good-looking legs, said Trent Armstrong, manager of Becker Surf & Sport, where the shorts are supposed to arrive any day.

"I wouldn't wear them," Armstrong said. "I'm too scared."

But Randy Brewer is more enthusiastic. The general manager of Villains youth apparel store in San Francisco calls the shorts "awesome" and says he expects to sell every pair his store has ordered.

"I guarantee you we'll sell them through, 100%," Brewer said. "Anybody over 30 had a pair and will remember them.... I'll buy a pair. I won't wear them out of my house, but I have to get them."

Indeed, when it comes to fashion trends, "anything is possible," said Marshal Cohen, co-president of NPD FashionWorld, a unit of market research firm NPD Group.

"Marketing to the younger generation is all about extremism and individuality," he said. "If everyone is used to seeing long and baggy, there are those kids out there who say, 'I've got to go the other way. I've got to go short and tight.' That's how trends emerge."

Die-hard fans of Op's retro-cords haven't been deterred by the fact that fashionable shorts now have a 10- inch inseam. They just kept buying the abbreviated cords over the last couple of decades at the rate of about 100,000 a year, company executives say.

"This is one of those things that, try as you may to kill the item, it just wouldn't die," said Andrew Lelchuk, a senior vice president at Op.

To introduce the shorts to more prospective buyers, Op will make 20% more of them this year and is planning to double production next year, spokesman Alain Mazer said. The shorts are made by Rays Apparel in Costa Mesa, licensee for Op's young men's and juniors lines.

Val Surf in North Hollywood, one store that kept carrying the shorts, typically sells them to middle-aged men, buyer Marisa Leonard said.

"The person who buys them buys five pair," she said. "They buy every color we have." Lately, Leonard said, young women have started trying on the shorts, slinging them low on the hip.

In one sign that the shorts might be developing a wider appeal, Mazer said 40 pair recently shipped inadvertently to a surf shop that had ordered a longer version of the cord. But before Op could retrieve the shorts from South Coast Surf Shop in San Diego County, customers started buying them, he said.

"They called back and said, 'Whoa, whoa, we sold 20 pair of the things,' " he said.

Granted, Mazer said, they might have been hoarded by "a guy wearing a tool belt with hair growing out of his ears," but Op prefers to imagine that bold young visionaries were snapping them up.

In any case, Op now must wrestle with another pesky problem.

Originally, the back pocket was on the left side of the cord, because founder Jim Jenks was left-handed. But because most people are right-handed, Op shifted the pocket to the right side, annoying purists.

"We get six calls a month about the pocket," said Nat Norfleet, Op's design director.

"These guys are 55 years old, and they're totally upset."

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