When hotshot skateboarder Erik Ellington agreed to promote the oddly named upstart apparel brand KR3W four years ago, his duties weren't much of a stretch.
"I just did the tricks out in the street ... dark slides and Casper slides and stuff like that," the Hollywood resident said. "And keeping it real in the streets."
He and other skateboarders sponsored by the Santa Ana company -- who wear its clothes while they skate -- kept it real enough to suit young shoppers. KR3W was rated hottest brand in national industry surveys this year. And that doesn't surprise people who are selling it.
"KR3W's smoking," said Steve Carlson, general manager of Central Coast Surfboards in San Luis Obispo.
"Each time I look at a new season line from them, I'm like, 'Whoa, doggie man. This one's testing me out.' "
The president of the Surf Industry Manufacturers Assn. put it another way. "It's just hotter than a pistol, that's all," said Dick Baker, who is chief executive of surf wear maker Ocean Pacific Apparel Corp. in Irvine.
KR3W's appeal is linked to the popularity of its skaters and what Carlson calls an "urban crossover attitude" that attracts young suburbanites. Its edgy punk styles struck a chord with young shoppers as tight pants became the uniform of a growing number of skateboarders over the last few years.
"There are definitely a lot of pros that are rockin' that look," said Laurie Bergthold, marketing director for the International Assn. of Skateboarding Cos. in Mission Viejo.
"That's all I wear," said Garrett Gundy, a 13-year-old Foothill Ranch resident who wore snug black KR3W pants that bunched at the ankle at Etnies Skatepark of Lake Forest recently. Garrett said he had half a dozen pairs. "You can see your board better than you can in baggie pants," he said.
Kyle Self likes KR3W too, but for a slightly different reason.
"Everybody's wearing it," said the 15-year-old Apple Valley resident, who has KR3W shirts, pants and hats. "I might as well wear it too."
It was KR3W's skinny jeans that put the company on the map, said Mark Richards, co-owner of Val Surf, a Hollywood-based chain with five stores.
KR3W sales rep Kirk Hodson likened an early super-slim version to pantyhose.
Today, the company sells about 30 jeans styles in varied widths -- including signature styles endorsed by sponsored riders such as Ellington, Jim Greco and Chad Muska. Some of them attended an autograph signing at Active Ride Shop in San Dimas recently, an event that drew more than 400 teenagers.
The skaters influence the design of the clothing.
"Anything that has my name on it, you can bet that I've designed it," said Muska, who signed with KR3W's parent company, One Distribution, almost a year ago. Signature Muska offerings include a snug jean, a long, slim hooded sweatshirt and a pinstripe suit coat with a detachable hood.
"All of us riding for the team and creating the products are really connected to what's hip on the street," said the 29-year-old Hollywood resident, who is also a disc jockey. Hot new lines with limited distribution are a boon for small shops that get to sell them before they show up in department stores or large specialty chains.
KR3W sells its shirts, hoodies, hats, jeans and jackets in about 1,500 stores nationwide. Industry giant Quiksilver Inc.'s namesake brand sells in 7,800 U.S. stores.
But if fresh brands can spark sales, they can also cause headaches.
Some of the small companies selling emerging brands are still trying to master the basics of business: maintaining product quality, keeping customers happy and delivering goods on time, said Mitch Kummetz, an analyst with Milwaukee-based financial services firm Robert W. Baird & Co.
Baird polled 101 independent surf, skate and snowboarding shops in 29 states in its most recent survey. In the category of "hottest" surf wear line, KR3W led the way this summer and again in the fall.
But Costa Mesa-based Volcom Inc., which has been around much longer and sells in many more stores, also is still sizzling. It outscored KR3W when the survey asked retailers to name their top three brands.
Kummetz attributed KR3W's success, in part, to the experience of the people behind it.
Co-owners Angel Cabada, Scott Bailey and Scott VanDerripe each worked in the skate apparel industry for more than a decade before they launched One Distribution in 2002, said Bailey, the president.
Cabada, the company's creative director and marketing guru, previously co-founded TSA Apparel, a skate clothing company.
Bailey's background was in finance and VanDerripe offered production know-how.
Glorious Sun Enterprises Ltd., a Hong Kong-based company that operates hundreds of stores in China and factories throughout Asia, put up a loan to get the company going and now owns a piece of it, Bailey said.
"I think a big part of our success was making the alliance with Glorious Sun from Day 1," he said. That "enabled us to do manufacturing in the highest-quality factories all over the world."