The Future Has Four Wheels

The surf market has been on cruise control for the last decade, with no significant changes to the look of surf-related apparel. Sure, it went through the “cargo tech” phase, but this was in reaction to what the skate market was doing. And this is exactly what I want to talk about: the big changes in the surf-apparel market, and what will drive sales next year, all revolve around the skate-influenced look.

If you don’t believe me, ask PacSun. As an independent designer, I’ve recently met with the designers of some of the larger surf brands. Usually the first two things they mentioned was how they had just had a meeting with PacSun and how the skate look is what kids want. How did PacSun come to this conclusion? It’s simple: T-shirt sales.

PacSun has a formula to test the strength of certain brands. For instance, they’ll order, let’s say, twelve T-shirts for twelve stores. If these twelve T-shirts sell within a certain amount of time, PacSun will order 4,000 of those T-shirts for lots of its stores.

It will do this process over and over again — which is a pretty good way to find out which brands are selling best. PacSun figures if kids are willing to buy a brand’s low-cost T-shirt, they’ll surely be inclined to buy a more expensive cut-and-sew piece.

Right now, skate tees are flying off the shelves, so PacSun is naturally investing in those brands. Makes sense, right?

There’s only one problem. Currently these skate brands aren’t equipped to produce these reorders in speedy manner, nor has the skate-industry’s apparel business been focused on complex cut-and-sew pieces. Surf brands, however, have been doing this sort of thing for years, and ultimately, this gives them the control they need to keep smaller skate brands at bay.

But what’s happening now is PacSun’s actually aiding these smaller brands in growing their business. It’s realized that the consumer wants the real deal and skate is not just a trend, it’s the new standard.

Since surf brands currently own most of the real estate on the retail floor, they’re trying to morph their brands to look skate. For some sort of legitimacy, they’re snatching up skate pros left and right.

In my view, this smoke-and-mirrors routine will only go so far before the kids realize what’s going on. They’ll look in their closet and see that the clothes they don’t wear anymore have the same label as the their new skate/surf clothes.

The entire situation reminds me of the disaster NBC just endured. When WWF Founder Vince McMahon saw that there was a more “Xtreme” fan out there, he felt the market needed a more “Xtreme” version of football. The result? Lousy ratings, loss of credibility and millions of dollars, and a pulled plug on the entire mess after one short year. You just couldn’t fool the fans — just like you can’t fool the skate kids.

I see the skate-only brands eventually leading the market, which will be a monumental changing of the guards. But I just drive around all day and stare in to the computer screen at night. What the heck do I know?