As a sailor who races his boats about once a week, Kevin Brown of Newport Beach is "on the water a lot" and has seen his fellow mariners sporting everything from fancy nautical blazers to old shorts and T-shirts.
"If you go to a yacht race, you'll see everything out there you can imagine," Brown says. "Most sailors are such individuals, they don't want to wear what everybody else wears."
That independent spirit has led to havoc on the high seas, at least when it comes to sailing style. Unlike baseball players, golfers and practitioners of virtually every other sport, sailors have no uniform look to call their own.
Larry Walter has set out to bring order to sailors' wardrobes. In October 1996, he introduced L.W. Regatta Gear, a Newport Beach-based line of unisex clothing and accessories designed for sailors but also worn by landlubbers.
"The goal of the company was to create gear that was functional for racers, sailors and wannabes," Walter says.
He's encouraging racing crews to wear his clothes so they look like they're part of a team instead of weekenders on a pleasure cruise. Brown will test the waters with his crew mates by racing in identical shirts designed by Walter.
"We're going to give uniformity a try," says Brown, who already wears L.W. Regatta's fleece vest, polo shirts, T-shirts and jackets.
For now, the only attire universally accepted by sailors is the heavy yellow rubber overcoat worn in rough weather.
Walter set out to create styles that could be worn under all conditions--and that sailors would consider authentic.
He did not have to look far for material. He created jackets, vests and other sportswear out of the same materials used for sails, fitting the garments with nautical hardware. The line includes long and short jackets, vests and duffel bags made of Kevlar, the stiff and sturdy material used for sails on racing boats. He also uses white Dacron sailcloth.
"We wash it because real sails are too stiff," he says.
Walter will use sailcloth for an entire garment or as trim on a shoulder or collar. He even designed vests of color-blocked spinnaker cloth to resemble bright, balloon spinnaker sails.
For serious mariners, there are jackets and vests emblazoned with national sailing codes and racing numbers--insignia usually found on sails that identify the vessel. The line's Offshore vest comes with a choice of country codes such as USA, ITA (Italy) or NZL (New Zealand) made of insignia cloth.
Many styles have traditional zigzag sail seams made with sailmakers thread and the kind of large plastic zippers ordinarily used on bags that hold the sails. A metal ring called a clew, found on the corner of a sail, accents the front lower pocket of L.W. Regatta Gear's hooded Bluewater jacket. Running rigging serves as drawstrings.
Walter designed the garments with the rigors of sailing in mind. Vests have extended tails in back to keep out water and oversized armholes to allow easy movement.
While he designed the line to be seaworthy, Walter hopes the clothes will be worn on land and at sea.
"You can wear it on the racecourse or in a bar," he says.
L.W. Regatta Gear has been worn on the high seas by crew members of Taxi Dancer Racing and other teams. World-class sailor Neville Wittey has worn the line.
"We have sailors around the world wearing them," Walter says.
To gain visibility, Walter has launched several race promotions, such as awarding vests to winning crew members of the Lipton Cup Challenge at the Balboa Yacht Club in May and sponsoring the Schock national championships at the Newport Harbor Yacht Club in July. The company outfitted crew members of the America's Challenge '97 at the Whitbread Round the World Race (the team has since dropped out of the competition).
When he's not working on his line, Walter, 47, can usually be found aboard his 40-foot sloop, the Cha Cha Cha. He races whenever he can, he says, and was recently a member of Wittey's crew in a race in the south of France.
"It was so grueling and demanding, I swore I'd never do it again," he says.
Walter started L.W. Regatta Gear to combine his passion for sailing with his experience in fashion. He previously owned a division of a children's clothing line called Spumoni. When the division sold in 1994, he cast about for his own line.
Today L.W. Regatta Gear is sold through catalogs. Sample prices: hooded, cinched-waist long Bluewater jacket ($325 adults, $275 juniors); sailcloth vest ($160 adults, $135 juniors); fleece pullover with kevlar and Dacron insets ($120 adults, $100 juniors); and kevlar duffel ($145).
The line has an embroidered logo with the initials LW (leeward windward, not Larry Walter), and labels have the latitude and longitude coordinates of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. New Zealand happens to be the site of the America's Cup, scheduled for 2000.
Will U.S. sailors be sporting L.W. Regatta Gear during the race? Walter's working on it.
"Our goal is to have our team wear them," he says.