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Fading Fad : Fashion: Neon surfwear trend ebbs. Now it’s ethnic prints on shirts and shorts in deliberately dull colors.

<i> Sajbel, a free-lance writer, frequently contributes to The Times fashion pages</i>

Call it brightness backlash.

When neon clothes first swept the beach scene more than two years ago, even serious surfers wore them. But now that electric tints are back for yet another season, and moms, pops and kids coast-to-coast are into the trend, real surfers are calling it a wipeout.

They have demoted neon to dilettante status. And they’re wearing earth tones instead.

Kyoichi Sato pulls his surfboard from the ocean at Topanga State Beach and stops long enough to say, with a hint of pride, “I have never worn neon volley shorts.” Electric volleyball shorts are, perhaps, the single most frequently seen streaks of neon on the beach.

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Surfer Joe Phillips says, “I don’t wear neons and bright stuff. Nothing printed with logos. I like casual, loose, plain things.” He wears sweats, jeans and Hanes T-shirts.

A number of surfwear manufacturers are on the same wavelength.

At Gotcha once a leader in the neon trend, the new look includes Third World-inspired prints. Shaheen Sadeghi, a Gotcha executive vice president, says this is the firm’s way of picking up on the ecology-consciousness and small-world attitude that some surfers espouse.

“It’s an awareness of what’s happening internationally, culturally and environmentally,” Sadeghi says. “We try to understand that frame of mind.”

Ocean Pacific is showing ethnic prints and patterns that suggest a cultural mix, a look inspired by the lifestyle of world-class surfers.

“Surfers go all over the world, to Bali, Hawaii, South Africa, Fiji, Mexico and Spain,” says Suzi Chauvel, OP executive vice president. “They pick up bits of the culture as they go.”

Billibong President Bob Hurley says intricate prints made up of peace signs, crosses, African and aboriginal symbols are a new look. The fabrics correspond to the cross-cultural action he sees in earthy, ethnic music--"world beat music.”

Bob McKnight, Quiksilver president and a seasoned surfer, is showing muted-color surf- and activewear, with ethnic prints and deeper “ocean colors” as options. Subdued shades are his bestsellers.

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But it will take more than alternatives to neon to keep most surfwear manufacturers afloat, McKnight warns. The industry has more than doubled in size over the past five years to about $1.75 billion in retail sales of apparel, accessories and equipment, according to Kathy Browning, publisher of Active Sports Retailer, an Orange County-based magazine that sponsors trade shows. And the speedy growth has led to a supersaturated market.

Even well-established companies such as Quiksilver are feeling the effects.

“The next six to 10 months are going to be tough for everybody,” McKnight predicts. “Beachwear has been hot for three years and everybody has had a run at it. The market’s flooded.”

Craig Stecyk, an industry analyst and documentary filmmaker, believes the problem stems from the changing profile of surfwear company owners.

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“Up to 10 years ago, everyone who made surf clothes surfed or made surfboards,” he says. “They had their origins in the activity. A couple of years ago, it became a huge market, and a lot of companies are now run by people who never surfed. There’s a proliferation of outside people turning out generic stuff. They diluted it so much that the clothes don’t make sense.”

Stecyk sees the market in a consolidation period, in which the hard-core people will survive and the interlopers will move on.

Retailers are well aware of the problem, too.

Tom Noble, owner of Newport Surf and Sport shop in Newport Beach, says there are too many followers, not enough leaders in the business. Among innovators, Bio-Tribe and Pirate Surf are the top sellers in his store. Instinct is another up and coming company, showing muted colors this season (see photo E1). Too many surf wear companies simply follow the lead of the most successful companies, such as Quiksilver and Gotcha, Noble says.

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His solution? “The best thing that could happen would be for neon surfwear to go away.” If that occurred, he suggests, at least some followers might fade away, too.

Noble’s sentiments aside, brightness backlash has not exactly reached tidal-wave proportions. Department store buyers report that electric colors are selling well, including a new variation called “whitened” neon, with a whitewashed look to take away the glare. Prices for T-shirts and shorts this season are about $30, which does not represent a dramatic increase.

A year from now, McKnight predicts, things will be very different. Lycra surfwear as well as surf-inspired activewear, will be the strong look from Quiksilver for spring ’91.

As with the best of design, these clothes will exemplify a much admired dictum: Let form follow function.

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“There are three reasons why the Lycra collection is important,” McKnight says. “Surfing has gotten more acrobatic, so surfers want something that is tight to the body.

“There’s also the sun and skin cancer connection, so they want to cover up more skin.

“And surfboards are now covered in Astrodeck, an abrasive, so you have to cover up to keep from chafing.”

As the sport evolves and surfers’ needs change, hard-core surfwear designers such as McKnight are likely to keep pace.

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