Hollister Co. Tries To Glom On To The Surf Lifestyle

Abercrombie & Fitch, the dorm-friendly retailer that made waves and enemies of some surfing legends with the “Surf Nekkid” spread in its Spring 1999 catalog, has gone to the next level in its attempt to cash in on the surf market with Hollister Co., a West Coast-oriented lifestyle brand targeted at high school-age guys and girls. So far, A&F is stoked.

One year after the first Hollister Co. store debuted in Columbus, Ohio, there are now more than 30 outlets in Class A malls across the country, with a new store opening every few weeks. According to A&F Chairman and CEO Mike Jeffries, Hollister is well on its way to reaching its goal of 800 outlets, surpassing even its parent A&F outlets.

Surf-industry leaders are monitoring Hollister’s progress and its impacts, positive and negative, on their specialized market.

According to A&F spokesperson Hampton Carney, launching Hollister Co. was the logical response to both A&F’s successful line of surf-inspired clothing, and its goal of tapping the high school-age bracket — A&F’s main target has been the upscale college crowd.

“Although Abercrombie & Fitch is geared to the college market, we’ve had a great following in the high school-age set,” says Carney. “We wanted to create a focus specific to their needs, so we came up with Hollister Company.”

A&F chose the surfing theme “because surfing is one of those sports that, whether you do it or not, you are inspired by the lifestyle. It represents freedom, it’s exciting, it’s dangerous, it’s difficult to do. It’s very aspirational.”

Carney was quick to point out that Hollister Co. is not billing itself as a hardcore surf line. “We’re not going after the ‘core surfing market. It’s more about the lifestyle and inspiration, rather than the actual activity.”

Asked whether A&F consulted with surfers or industry insiders to develop its clothing line and perfume, Carney says no, the company relies on designers familiar with the West Coast style — which he conceded has much of its roots in the surfing lifestyle.

For the record, Hollister Co. is not affiliated with, but apparently inspired by, a certain coastal ranch in Central California, referred to by Carney incongruously as “The Hollister Pipeline.” Customers passing by The Hollister Co. store inside the “Class A” Brea Mall in suburban Orange County are greeted by a tanned male mannequin with a washboard stomach standing guard under a Hawai?ian bungalow facade.

Inside are wall-sized black and white photographs of beautiful teen models moist with the surfing mystique, more Bruce Weber than Art Brewer. A rack of gleaming virgin longboards make a colorful backdrop to the sales counter, and a generous number of couches beckon customers to relax and peruse the latest editions of Maxim, TransWorld SURF, Surfer, and Surfing while serenaded by an MTV-driven song list.

T-shirts tout trendy phrases and make-believe high jinks like, “Co-Ed Shirts and Skins, Handchecking Recommended.” The display card for Hollister Co.’s homegrown, self-titled unisex perfume paints an equally unabashed picture for upscale teens: “Walking the strand with friends/Top down night driving/Young. Confident./Exclusively Hollister.”

Conspicuously absent (to the trained eye) among the glossy longboards and magazine racks are any images or references to well-known surf commodities like Kelly Slater, Rob Machado, Malia Jones, Mavericks, or Teahupoo. As Carney says, Hollister Co. is about the surfing lifestyle, not necessarily surfing itself.

Despite its early success, Hollister’s impact on the ‘core surf industry remains to be seen. SIMA President and Ocean Pacific CEO Dick Baker says he is surprised it took A&F so long to tap into surfing. “Normally they’re ahead of the curve in their categories of business,” says Baker. “I was a bit suspect, not about their ability to execute — they’re great merchants — but what the thought process was behind what looks like a direct attempt to go after the PacSun business.”

After visiting the Hollister outlet at Topanga Mall, Baker says the girl’s line was “very trend correct, right on the money,” but labeled the male side “relatively boring and nothing new.” As a rival to Ocean Pacific, Baker says Hollister Co. is no more of a threat than mainstream lifestyle brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Gap, or American Eagle.

“I don’t see any significant impacts on the ‘core surfing brands or on the surfing industry in general,” Baker says. “It’s actually a compliment to how the surfing lifestyle has become a major component in the consumer world. The young kid of today is a living function of surf/skate/snow, and now the rest of the world is immersed in going after that kid. It only adds credibility to the Quiksilvers and Billabongs of the world.”

Quiksilver Executive Vice President of Sales Tom Holbrook is wary of Hollister’s version of the surfing lifestyle, and its impacts on the industry. “They bring attention to our industry’s lifestyle in principle, but use many of our industry’s authentic products to merchandise their designs and products — at a cheaper price,” says Holbrook. “Sure it’s America, but what do they contribute to the sports we represent? They indirectly give a little more credibility to our industry because they’re middle America, but we have to hope that the kids they target will someday know what’s authentic and what’s not.”

For Holbrook the real issue is the harm Hollister might be doing to authentic brands. “They rip off many companies’ logos or looks and adjust them just enough to claim them as their own. And since they sell our type of look cheaper, do they also reduce the value of the brands they use as their sources?”

But Holbrook doesn’t want to overstate the threat to Quiksilver, the world’s largest surf brand. “All their stores are in malls,” he says, “and I have confidence that our independent accounts in the malls can compete with the Hollister posers pretty well.”