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FASHION : Chillin’ and Shillin’ : The Hyper-Hip Surfwear Scene Buzzes While Underground Designers Scrape by in a Make-It-or-Break-It Show

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is how business gets done in the fiery depths of the California fashion scene: Meetings convene amid blaring rock ‘n’ roll; contracts are signed in the presence of bikini girls. It is not unusual for one or more of the parties to be barefoot.

Last weekend, 16,000 surfwear minions convened at the Action Sports Retailer Trade Expo to haggle over surfboards, snowboards, skateboards and, most important, the apparel universe that orbits these activities.

Swimsuits and sneakers, waterproof watches and baggy shirts.

Surfwear boasts such mainstream labels as Mossimo, Vans, Speedo and Quiksilver, accounting for a reported $1.2 billion in annual sales. But its manufacturers, distributors and store owners include some unlikely entrepreneurs--surfers, tattooed skate punks, retired beach volleyball players. They peddle both the merchandise and the image, and their yearly gathering resembles a trade show in only the loosest possible terms.

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“Not at all what I pictured,” said R. Paul Gannon as he wandered through the convention center.

At the behest of his teen-age son, Gannon recently opened a skateboard shop in a Boston suburb. He figured that ordering wholesale wheels and T-shirts would involve standard negotiations.

“I figured it would be guys in suits and ties pressuring me to buy their products.”

Instead, he found Christina Julian offering martinis to her customers at the Schroff clothing booth built like a voodoo shrine.

“There are so many cute guys here,” the sales manager cooed. “Everyone’s into the same scene. You just have to go with it.”

*

But the Action Sports Retailer was not the only show in town. Down the road, 70 or so renegade designers crowded into an empty warehouse for a convention of their own. The 432F Clothingshow billed itself as strictly “grass-roots,” an image reinforced by makeshift plywood booths and the lack of air conditioning on a sweltering afternoon.

The scene was populated by underground labels as well as neophytes who scraped together a few thousand dollars to get started and were counting on orders from boutique owners who strolled the aisles. The Mondorama booth chased last year’s girlie craze with racks of bright, zippered dresses. Sayaka, a young San Diego designer, peddled vinyl nurse outfits and fake fur jackets with teddy-bear ears on their hoods.

Such clothing had inexplicably been included in the Action Sports Retailer show until just a few years ago, when underground fashion was abruptly made to feel unwelcome amid the trunks and tank tops. Bleu Valdimer figured it was just as well.

“The people here are like family,” he said in an accent as thick as the hot, still air.

Valdimer had brought his Kingpin line, various T-shirts and sweat shirts, the best of which featured the television character Kojak with the slogan: “Schmoovah than the head of Telly Savalas.”

“I love Telly,” he said. “Maybe it’s because I’m New York-born and raised. Don’t know anything else. It’s scary.”

Especially to chain stores and national distributors, who hardly flocked to 432F. In their place, clusters of young Japanese shopkeepers arrived with translators who called themselves agents and charged 15% on every order placed.

Valdimer could smell a profit in the air.

“The Japanese are very big on underground styles,” he said. “All you have to do is say ‘New York.’ ”

*

Or say nothing at all.

At the convention center, Mossimo occupied a large booth that he confidently draped in beige curtains without a single identifying sign or logo. Young men and women in crisp white T-shirts and denim overalls ushered groups of buyers inside.

Most of the major labels went retro for spring, showing classic board shorts and flannel shirts, the same styles that one sales manager remembered wearing in the 1960s. This trend cast a certain homogeneity over the proceedings, so retailers were left to choose on the basis of who had the best knits, the best wovens, the cleanest-looking shorts.

But the booth with the loudest buzz stood at the back of the hall, a showroom that featured bikinis and women’s board shorts from Roxy of Quiksilver.

“The junior women’s market is really coming,” said John Campbell, merchandise manager for Miller’s Outpost. “Active, active, active.”

Retailers crowded into the nearly continuous shows at which smiling young women displayed the new line. Just outside, peering from the aisle, stood skateboard-shop owners and snowboard team members, young men with absolutely no financial interest in the retail swimsuit game.

“We’re perving,” one of them said.

*

No such skin shows at 432F. There were only designers fanning themselves in the heat, smiling tentatively at each passerby.

“Out of the 70 designers here today, 60 will not be here next year,” said Bernie S. Chow, co-owner of Street Smart, a Los Angeles line of lowrider-inspired shirts. “The young companies start here and then we see how long they last.”

While the labels at Action Sports Retailer deal in the millions, these entrepreneurs were doing well to write $50,000 in orders during the four-day show, Chow said. They bartered mainly with specialty stores and record shops.

“Pretty low budget,” said Rick Calvert, who peddled artistic Ts at the Unchained booth. “But we’re in touch with what the kids are wearing.”

If only the kids had more money to spend.

Chow, a veteran of three consecutive 432F shows, shrugged. “Designers have to start someplace.”

*

“This is the place,” crowed Jonathan Paskowitz, dressed in black, presiding over the Black Flys booth at Action Sports Retailer. “I mean, Rolling Stone was just here taking pictures.”

These days, Black Flys ranks as the brash new gunslinger in the sunglasses war. Paskowitz, a vice president at the Costa Mesa company, flitted around the booth shaking hands, introducing everyone to a small Austrian boy who he insisted will be the next superstar of snowboarding. The boy fidgeted silently.

“He doesn’t understand a word of English,” Paskowitz explained. “Has no idea what we’re saying.”

A Portuguese distributor arrived, asking for an exclusive deal. Paskowitz promised to put him in touch with a man in Germany. Rell Sunn, Hawaii’s surf star in women’s competitions, came by for a hug. Paskowitz clapped his hands.

This is how business gets done.

“This,” he said, “is my Super Bowl.”


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