COMPETITIVE SPIRIT : The Newest Sportswear Lives Up to Its Name With Genuinely Athletic Looks

Mary Rourke is a Times staff writer.

IF YOU'RE TRYING to tell the jocks from the rest of the world, you can't go by what people are wearing. Everyone--participant as well as spectator--is dressing for sports this season, and the attire isn't pseudo-athletic.

Of the many genuine articles of sports clothing to choose from, cycling wear is having the strongest impact on street fashion. Thigh-hugging pants and torso-gripping tops are the basic ingredients.

Experts say that cycle fashion is the fastest-growing segment in sportswear, due in part to a biking boom that began after the '84 Summer Olympics. The demand for cycling wear that followed has increased 10 times since that year; sales topped $40 million in 1988.

"Even France and Italy (nations that have long packed velodromes with cycling enthusiasts) look to the United States now for technical innovations and for style," says Steve Ready, the producer of Interbike Expo, an annual trade exhibit. This season, he says, the cycling look coordinates shirts, shorts, even removable helmet covers.

In all active wear for spring, colors are fluorescent--even for men's skintight bicycle pants. Neon colors make a good showing in any athletic arena, but they lend themselves especially well to the beach. Today's surfer T-shirts are citrus-green or violet with hot-pink graphics; shorts are often marbleized in aquamarine and lemon.

These styles and color combinations were created on the beaches of Southern California, often by surfers themselves. "The local industry is filled with small, independently owned companies, where the designers are authentic beach people," says Steven Lewis, publisher of Orange County-based Action Sports Retailer magazine. He adds that local firms account for about 30% of a $1-billion national business.

This spring, the hottest names in surf wear include Irvine-based Stussy, known for its cartoon graphics and playful designs; Gotcha of Costa Mesa, which is showing Guatemalan prints, and Quicksilver, another Costa Mesa company, which is adding "hits of neon" to its line, according to company president Bob McKnight.

The savviest sportsmen and sportswomen take fashion cues from no single source. Rather, they emulate cross-training jocks who vary their workouts--volleyball alternated with surfing and weightlifting, for example--and interchange parts of their exercise wardrobes.

"I see people mixing aerobics tights with running shorts, basketball tops and volleyball shorts," says Maureen Broughton, fashion buyer for the Go Sport stores in Century City and Glendale.

At Du Pont, a leader in the development of fibers that give sportswear its glove-like fit, a cross-training look of another kind is being observed. Special events coordinator Bob Badner says he has seen variations on sweat pants worn with tailored jackets--in the board room. "Active wear is the fashion pacesetter," he says. Indeed, on Paris runways recently, outfits based on runner's tights and tennis skirts were shown by Jean Paul Gaultier; bike shorts were part of a Claude Montana suit. What next?

"A surfer T-shirt with a great-looking blazer," Badner predicts. "Why not?"

Stylist: Joanna Dendel; assistant: Dario Scardapane; hair: Edward St. George / Cloutier; makeup: Veronique Marot / Visages Style. Models, pages 30-31: Aaron Kearney / Omar's Men; Joe Sachen / Fontaine; Kathryn Eickstaedt / Elite; Ken Griffin / Vaughn; Jeff Cooper; pages 32-33: Helen Jurak / Elite; Robbi Chong / Elite; Claudio / Eastwest-Prima; pages 34-35: Jeanne Holmes / Nina Blanchard, San Diego; Henri De La Chappel / Fontaine; Peggy Marotta / Fontaine; Gregory Sandler / Company; Jackie Old Coyote / Click.

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