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Riding a French New Wave

With so many U.S. surf-wear firms in southwest France, it's la petite Californie

May 11, 2003|Leslie Earnest | Times Staff Writer

HOSSEGOR, France — Take a walk through the picture-postcard heart of this coastal town, past diners lingering over lunch at La Crepe Bretonne, and you might think you were in Laguna Beach.

The surf-wear shops are lined up like boards on the beach: Roxy, Rip Curl Girl, Billabong and Quiksilver Boardriders Club. In the village of St. Jean de Luz, teenagers strolling the cobblestone streets are decked out in Volcom sweatshirts and sneakers from Vans. Kids in au courant Biarritz are wearing California-style T-shirts and jeans.

"It's sort of like the Orange County of Europe," said Bob Hurley, chief executive of Hurley, a Costa Mesa-based brand owned by Nike Inc. "It's all happening there."

The $4.5-billion surf-wear industry, rooted in Orange County, has made a second home in southwestern France. So many U.S. surf-wear companies have European headquarters, subsidiaries and stores in Pays Basque that it has a new nickname: la petite Californie.

And increasingly, France's little California is setting the agenda for the entire industry.

"This is the best place to observe the market," said Petra Holtschneider, who is organizing the first Action Sports Retailer trade show in Anglet this summer. "So if you're not here, you're not getting it."

To disciples of the sport, it makes perfect sense. The best waves in Europe are in this part of France -- some say. Surfers never stop arguing about the most excellent swells, but the waves that break in the Atlantic here can rival those in Sydney, Santa Cruz or Lower Trestles, near San Clemente.

"It's the most consistent surf in the world," said Steve Veytia, who opened an Anglet office 18 months ago for Ocean Pacific Apparel Corp., headquartered in Irvine.

More important, Europe's third-most populous country is the fashion pacesetter for the Continent.

"If you can make it in France, that's a very strong stamp of approval for the rest of Europe," said Dominique Hanssens, professor of marketing at UCLA.

The California contingent knows it. Pays Basque will take center stage next week when the industry converges on Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, for its annual surf summit. The theme will be "Going Global," with the focus on Europe, where the revenue is piling up.

At Santa Fe Springs-based Vans Inc., European sales jumped 20% in the most recent fiscal quarter, while U.S. sales fell 5%.

Veytia predicts that Ocean Pacific's sales across the Pond -- currently less than $10 million annually -- will triple next year, as the company opens four licensing offices that will have their own designers to interpret styles for specific markets in the 15-member European Union and beyond.

European sales for Santa Cruz-based O'Neill have risen at least 20% annually in the last five years, said Jean-Louis Rodrigues, head of the French operation based in Anglet.

Driving Growth

America is the bigger market, but Rodrigues said Europe drives the industry's growth. One reason: It has more than twice as many people under the age of 25 than the United States. And unlike in the States, this all-important target audience for makers of casual wear has only just begun to be tapped.

What's more, the EU, with 375 million residents, will add 10 members next May, creating a duty-free market of potential shoppers 35% bigger than the United States. Many of the EU candidates have vast coastlines, though countries such as Poland and Lithuania aren't exactly on the surf culture's map -- yet.

The EU's expansion adds to the allure for California-based surf-wear makers that have made or are aiming for a continental beachhead in France. But Europe's conquest won't be as easy as America's was.

Although most residents of the EU use the euro as their common currency, they speak more than a dozen languages and their tastes are anything but uniform. The French will buy U.S.-style board shorts, but Greeks and Italians insist on hitting the beach in volleyball shorts.

"In Italy, if you don't have elastic around the waist, it won't sell," said Veytia, a former Laguna Beach resident. In Western Europe, the shirts are more fitted, while in Central Europe they're more boxy, as they are in the United States.

Some products that might work in California don't translate. The terrycloth shirt that Ocean Pacific recently relaunched as part of its Op Classics collection bombed here.

"Terry cloth just does not sell in France," Veytia said.

The fragmented market in Europe is a hurdle but not a deal breaker.

Consider Quiksilver Inc., the world's largest surf-wear maker and parent of 17 brands, which opened its European headquarters in southwestern France in 1984.

The firm, easily the biggest player in Europe, posted European sales last year of $283 million, about 40% of total sales. In the recent first quarter, Quiksilver's European sales jumped 38%, while revenue from North America and South America rose 14%. It has 48 U.S. stores and 159 in Europe, including one on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.

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