Girl On Board

With an increasing number of women breaking into the traditionally male-dominated world of skateboarding, more apparel companies are expanding their catalogs to include product designed for active women skaters, but broad enough to appeal to the entire juniors’ market.

Back when the number of sponsored female skateboarders could be counted on one hand, companies that offered women’s products were few and far between. These trailblazers were predominantly footwear companies, but it didn’t take long for skate-focused companies to also recognize the potential of the women’s market.

“There’s definitely been an increase in demand for a girls’ line,” says Lyndsay Phaneuf, designer at etnies Girl, “I feel it’s because girls are more likely to shop and impulse-buy than most guys.”

According to Volcom Director Of Design And Merchandising Summer Rapp, “Girls are much more likely to try things (like surfing and skating) because of all the mainstream exposure and movies. Plus, the buying power of girls is much bigger than guys. A guy may only need one pair of jeans a season, but a girl will buy something in a store if she thinks it’s cute.”

These shopping habits coupled with the increasing popularity of skating among women have created a fertile market that more skate companies are taking a serious look at.

“There’s been an incredible increase in the number of girls skating these days,” says longtime skater Melissa Dafnos. “I used to run into another girl once every few weeks. Now it’s like every day.”

More Than Just For Skaters

Just like most skate shoes are sold to non-skaters, the new emphasis skate companies are placing on their women’s line entices a much broader market than the small but growing crowd of women skaters.

“Even though girls involved with action sports will wear pieces in our line, the bulk of the consumer is a girl who’s after a strong, stylish look,” explains Phaneuf. “The etnies Girl line has pieces that appeal to girls globally-whether they’re into action sports, fashion looks, or live in the city or suburbs.”

Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the huge growth in the juniors’ market is the increasing fashion sophistication and popularity of boardsport apparel lines. “Our entire market has stepped up to the plate in producing high-quality fashion product,” says Billabong Juniors Brand Manager Candy Harris, “so being categorized as a ‘surf’ or a ‘skate’ brand doesn’t mean the same thing that it did five years ago.”

Harris believes that with the growing mainstream appeal of the surfing and skateboarding markets, companies like Billabong have the catalysts for what’s popular in the mainstream. “It doesn’t mean that there’s a lack of quality or style when compared to a mainstream fashion brand like Abercrombie,” she explains. “Instead, it’s the opposite-it seems that our industry is setting the trends for them to follow.”

Fashion Versus Function

Comfort and functionality are high priorities for skate-apparel design, but translating these qualities while maintaining a feminine edge would at first seem like a difficult challenge.

Au contraire, say many designers.

“Balancing fashion and function is not a problem at all,” says Phaneuf. “This is when good details come into play, like embroideries, screenprints, and cute trims such as piping and ribbons.”

This wasn’t always the case. Just a few years ago, Heida Birgisdottir, founder of Nikita, couldn’t find any cool clothes for the female skate and snow customers coming into her Reykjavik, Iceland shop. So she started Nikita to fill the void.

“Too many people-both girls and guys-somehow think that a girl can’t be sexy or chic unless she wears something super tight and pink,” says Birgisdottir. “However, ‘sexy’ and ‘flashy’ aren’t the same thing. A girl is sexy when she feels good, when she’s comfortable in her own skin and in her own style.”

Founded in 1996, New York-based Rookie Skateboards is considered the first all-girl owned and operated skateboard and clothing company. Cofounder Elska Sandor agrees that the fashion-function divide may not be as wide as it first appears: “I reckon the person who wears the garment makes it sexy. Tomboy can be chic-although skating is perhaps more difficult in a knee-length skirt.”

By looking beyond the skateboard and offering functional yet fashion-oriented designs, these apparel lines are helping to smash the tomboy stereotype surrounding female skateboarders.

“Five years ago, girls basically looked like guys when they skated,” says etnies am skater Lauren Perkins. “You had basically no idea that they were girl skaters. The past three to four years have been a big change-it’s improved.”

Rookie Skateboards certainly helped blaze that more-feminine trail, a strategy Sandor says was pushed along by the brand’s somewhat unique Japanese distribution. “Currently, we don’t have a fashion versus function line,” she says. “In the past, though, we had two lines-mainly for Japan. Two different distributors sold us into skate shops and boutiques. After a few seasons, the skate shops started requesting stuff from our boutique line and vice versa.”

Enticing New Participants

Nikita’s tagline is “For Girls Who Ride.” Manager Runar Omarsson says this is certainly true, but admits, “A lot of girls who don’t ride buy our stuff and just wear it to school or work. We think that maybe we can suck them into riding through the clothes.”

Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that brands like Nikita and Rookie help bolster participation. “Some girls start riding because they like the clothing that comes from the brand and identify with it,” says Omarsson.

Gallaz was among the first women’s-specific boardsport companies, and its roots remain firmly planted in skateboarding. “We’re proud of the fact that the foundation of the brand is in the support and growth of women’s skateboarding,” says Gallaz Marketing Director Melanie Butler.

Butler says she doesn’t think the “tomboy” and “girly” classifications still exist, or at the very least have the same influence over girls as they may have had in the past.

Butler says female skaters are looking for the same convenience that the male skaters have: “Our market doesn’t view their options as fashion versus function. They have an expectation that they can wear the same clothing just as easily for skating as going to the movies in.”

The response from Gallaz, as well as many others, has been to create a common ground of durable clothing that’s easy to skate in, yet also has enough aesthetic appeal.

More Show Than Go?

While fashion and function may not be mutually exclusive, there remains a fine line between the two. When it comes to the gear girls actually skate in, comfort and simplicity remain most important.

“I think the women’s skate-clothing market is shocking,” says etnies and Bootleg pro Elissa Steamer. “I see girls out there skating in these tight pants. People want to see what tricks you’re doing, not your ass. The clothes they make for girls are like club clothes or something. They make you look like you skate like a girl.”

Steamer says comfort and durability are important: “I just like a nice pair of stiff jeans and a T-shirt-dark colors, nice fitting so you look right on a skateboard.”

Dafnos adds: “I think the girls’ skate market has always been for girly girls. It seems to be more for the girls who are into skate culture than the girls who actually skate.”

Most of the women skaters we polled continue to prefer the jeans and T-shirt ensemble over the less practical “girly” clothes while skating. Perhaps Corey Duffel is the only skater wearing skintight women’s jeans?

“I just like whatever is comfortable and durable,” says Villa Villa Cola’s Lori Damiano. “And that’s usually your basic pair of jeans and a T-shirt.”

Other women skaters say the new fashion emphasis is picking up steam. Certainl
y the women’s skate-lifestyle apparel market has grown by leaps and bounds in the past five years.

“Since women skateboarding has stepped up, definitely all your skate companies have crossed over to the women’s lines,” says Perkins. “They’re all starting to make cool fashiony clothes to skate in. They’re up-to-date with good style.”

What’s come out of this market are options for girls who don’t want that tomboy stereotype, yet who want to identify with and support the skate industry. Because the nature of skateboarding is in contrast with the traditional nature of women’s clothing, the women’s skateboard clothing market is paving a middle ground for girls, allowing the carefree comfort of skaters, all the while presenting an air of style and femininity. If these skate brands are worn mainly by the non-skating, mall-going mainstream, then so be it. Business is booming.

“These days all of those characteristics (skate, surf, and fashion) are merging when it comes to our consumer,” says Billabong’s Harris. “The pure fashion end of our line has evolved over the years and is getting a lot of exposure in major fashion publications, so as a result we’re definitely seen as a lifestyle brand and not just a ‘core sport label.”

For some companies, the lines between fashion and function are blurring, while others don’t even care to address the difference at all. “What’s emerging is a market for women that cannot be segmented as easily as men’s can be,” explains Butler, “and it’s because these limitations don’t exist that the market has so much potential.”