FASHION REBELS : Skateboarders try to stand out. : When they set a trend, they roll out new ideas.

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Skateboarders have gone their own way since the beginning, in the '50s, when they cruised suburban sidewalks on wooden planks lashed to metal wheels.

That's true not only of the way they skate but also of how they dress. Skateboarders have a history of flying in the face of the fashion mainstream. Some say it's because it takes an independent person to master this solitary, self-reliant sport.

"Skateboarders have always been a little bit rebellious," says Sari Ratsula, vice president of design and product development of Vans Inc. in Orange. "They like to give themselves challenges by jumping stairs and walls, and the same applies to their clothing. They want to be a little different and show who they are."

Skateboarders don't follow trends, but they do set them.

When Vans staged the 1995 World Championships of Skateboarding at the Hard Rock Cafe in Newport Beach on Sunday, a lot of eyes were on the top pro skateboarders--not only because of their vertical maneuvers but also because of what they were wearing.

"You go to a skateboard park, and these kids are wearing the exact same thing" as the pros, says Tony Hawk, who flew to victory at the world championships Sunday and has his own skateboard products and apparel company, Birdhouse Projects of Huntington Beach. "They even look at their shoes and copy how they're laced up. It's kind of silly."

Those in the fashion industry know how influential skateboarders are on what kids wear.

School kids in Iowa are still walking around in clothes that are three sizes too big for them because skateboarders helped make that look hot. Several years ago skateboarders wore their clothes super baggy--until oversized clothes became a certified trend.

"Two years ago I was at Sears, and I saw this big banner that said 'Oversized Clothing.' That's when I knew it was the end of oversized clothing with skateboarders," says Jim Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Santa Barbara-based International Assn. of Skateboard Companies. "Today, skateboarders have rejected that look. They wear normal-fitting clothes."

Fitzpatrick began riding a skateboard while growing up in the '50s. Even then, skateboarders were fashion rebels, he says.

They didn't have an entire industry devoted to their apparel and accessories, so they trolled Army-Navy surplus stores and used-clothing bins in search of fatigues and other comfortable clothing. Fitzpatrick wore GI-issue clothes he found in his father's foot locker.

"Skateboarding lent itself to dressing differently," he says. "But the product wasn't available where you could go into a store and say, 'Oh, I want to look like a skateboarder.' It was self-determined."

During the '60s, skateboarders dressed like surfers, who were also riding outside the mainstream. A lot of skateboarders wore surf trunks and went barefoot or wore tennis shoes.

"When I was a surfer-skateboarder, neither one was very acceptable," Fitzpatrick says. "When your mom or grandmother said, 'Oh, he's a skateboarder,' it didn't have that ring of support the way, 'Oh, he's a baseball player' did."

A decade later, skateboarders broke ranks with surfers, who had developed their own, sunnier image.

"Surfing went off to neon, cutesy-pootsie and colorful attire. Skateboarders went into black T-shirts," Fitzpatrick says. "For years the best-selling skateboard clothes were black. It was a lot harder image than the beach."

Skateboarders rejected attempts at conformity. They wanted nothing to do with sanctioned, sanitized skateboarding activities like the all-American skateboarding team that Pepsi sent on a world tour in the '70s. Those skateboarders were like the Osmond brothers on wheels--they wore red, white and blue uniforms and performed coordinated, choreographed routines at shopping malls and schools.

Skateboarders were attracted instead to the punk movement; they identified with the punks' rebellious, urban attitude. By the early '80s, skateboarders wore almost all black. They liked torn and sleeveless T-shirts with hard-edged, image-driven graphics.

"The images usually had something to do with skulls and bones," Fitzpatrick says.

Meanwhile, the sport itself was growing fast, propelled by new equipment. Kids were inventing all kinds of acrobatic stunts on vertical ramps, thanks to flexible boards with smooth-riding polyurethane wheels. Surf shops began recognizing skate products and added limited skateboard apparel such as T-shirts.

"But you still couldn't go into a store and buy a skateboarding pant or jacket," Fitzpatrick says. "That was for skateboarders to determine on their own."

Then, in the late '80s, companies such as Vision, Life's a Beach and Skate Rags began expanding their skateboard clothing lines.

"Kids were hungry for something specifically directed to skateboarders," Fitzpatrick says.

Among the first skateboard styles to catch hold was the baggy look. It's unclear who started wearing baggy clothes first--gang members, inner-city kids or skateboarders--but the oversized look definitely came from the street. Skateboarders liked baggy clothes because they made it easier for them to ollie (jump) and perform vertical stunts.

"It was all a rejection of the mainstream," Fitzpatrick says.

That look has died with hard-core skateboarders. Today they wear more fitted--but not tight--clothes. Their pants tend to fit like original Levi's 501s.

"They're not baggy, and they're not hemmed, so they drag down a little bit," says Mark Sweetser, sales manager of Giant Skateboard Distribution in Costa Mesa, which owns Mad Circle, New Deal, Company E and Element Skateboards apparel lines.

Skateboarders are also wearing clean, loose-fitting knit sport shirts, Sweetser says. Many favor three-button, Polo-style shirts, especially ones with the hot Alien Workshop logo. Cargo pants and shorts with big pockets on both legs are being seen on skate ramps.

"If my grandmother was still alive, she'd say, 'Gee, [skateboarders] look pretty nice,"' Fitzpatrick says.

If skateboarders look nice these days, it's only because everyone else looks like a slob. Skateboarders deliberately skirt the trends. Several years ago, for instance, skateboarders started wearing their ball caps backward because otherwise the caps fell off when riding. Now that college kids and jocks have copied the look, skateboarders are wearing their caps forward again.

Even while practicing nonconformity, skateboarders pay close attention to what other skateboarders wear. Top pro skaters have a strong influence over skateboarders everywhere. Kids copy their shoes, their shorts, their boards.

"The weird thing is, skaters strive to be individuals, but they end up looking alike," Hawk says. "A year or two ago, blue jeans and white shirts were the skateboard uniform. Now things are more relaxed, but you can still pick a skateboarder out in a crowd."

The styles then crossover to the surf and snowboard crowd, which rejected "the rainbow approach" to clothing and dropped its neon hues after skateboarders went to dark clothes, Fitzpatrick says.

In the '90s, virtually every skateboard company has an apparel line. They've gone beyond T-shirts to a full line of pants, jackets, sweats and accessories.

Skateboard apparel has become big business, part of the $150-million-a-year skateboard-related industry, according to IASC, which has 47 members. A third to a half of skateboard companies are in Orange County, a natural destination for the casual beach lifestyle industry.

Knowing that the skateboarders have fashion clout, skateboard apparel companies sponsor top skateboarders, paying them to wear their merchandise and join their design teams to develop image, graphics and ad campaigns.

Skateboarders are label-conscious, and many of the hottest names are from Orange County, including Vision, New Deal, Element, World Industries, Rusty and Mad Circle. Most wear the same shoes--Air Walk, Vans and Etnies are logos you'll see at every skate park.

Still, if hard-core skateboarders feel a look is being worn by too many wanna-bes, they'll drop it fast.

"Hard-core, serious skateboarders aren't [as] interested in what they look like. They're more interested in their own ability," Fitzpatrick says. They just don't want to be copied.

In short, they want to ride high above the crowd.

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