If ever you questioned the buying power of America's youth, question it no more.
It was in full force last week in the jam-packed, Gen Y/Gen X-driven Action Sports Retailer tradeshow in Long Beach, which is one part sales extravaganza and three parts nonstop party.
The lineup of 550 manufacturers makers of everything from skateboards, snowboards and surfboards to apparel and shoes was testament to the fact that what was once a niche market for a small segment of primarily skateboarders has mushroomed to encompass a mainstream market of young people around the world.
Over a three-day period, the Long Beach Convention Center floor was packed with more than 18,400 attendees who came from 60 countries to take stock of the Southern California-inspired products sold in shops as far away as New Zealand and Jordan. The convention generated more than $13 million in economic activity for the city.
There were TV crews from Japan filming the skateboard demonstrations. There was the publisher of a French surfing magazine checking out the latest boards and swimsuits. And there were 7,000 buyers of urban streetwear apparel, inline skates, swimsuits, surfboards, shoes, sandals, sunglasses, skateboards and snowboards at the industry-only show.
"People used to look on the surf industry and the skateboard industry as a backyard industry," said Court Overin, the tradeshow's director. "Now we have this demographic of 5- to 55-year-olds that is part of the skating and surfing crowd."
Indeed, the market for hard gear such as skateboards, surfboard, and the shoe gear that goes with it is now estimated to be approximately $2.2 billion a year, said Angelo Ponzi, president of Board Trac, an Orange County company that tracks the lifestyle and purchasing habits of the 12- to 24-year-olds who are into board sports. The apparel side of the industry is at least another $2 billion.
To capture that market, manufacturers have sprung up all over the place. A good portion of them come from Los Angeles, San Diego and Orange counties, where surfing and boarding took root years ago among the Tweens, Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers whose spare time is spent zipping down hills, catching waves and shredding snow-covered slopes.
The popularity of these sports and their "extreme" counterparts has not been lost on apparel companies that have seen a corresponding boom in the urban streetwear look.
But competition is stiff. So companies at the show spend thousands of dollars on their booths to entice buyers to take a look.
Ocean Pacific Apparel Corp. of Irvine had three skinny disco dancers gyrating atop three-foot-tall pedestals. The trio of women, wearing white Afro-style wigs, silver lam & #233; bikinis and silver platform boots, had no troubling stopping the pedestrian traffic that shuffled by on the convention floor. In many ways, it was a throwback to the 1970s, when OP was the leader in beachwear.
Outside the booth set up by Reef, a San Diego manufacturer of shoes and sandals, four women with identical henna tattoos on their behinds, stood in thong-bikinis, signing autographs.
Socially Hazardous, a Huntington Beach company that makes glittery stickers with socially relevant and irreverent messages, had a beige 1949 Mercury in mint condition parked in its sales area. The salesmen were taking orders in the back seat.
"It slows people down," explained Mark Lavine, the company's vice president who also goes by the nickname Goldfinger.
Socially Hazardous' flashy stickers range from the risqu & #233; to the mildly humorous, such as "Gone Crazy Back Soon" or "Normal People Worry Me." They also make key chains, patches, talking pillows and temporary tattoos.
The wacky nature of their products is indicative of the counterculture crowd that attends the three-day show, which in the past has had a wild reputation.
Overin, the tradeshow's director who has been coming to the show since 1984, remembers when the crowd attending the event, which is also held in San Diego in September, was a group of serious buyers mixed with rough individuals. At the San Diego show, body tattooing took place right on the show floor. One year in the mid-1990s several brawls broke out.
Consequently, hundreds of participants were uninvited to the event. Not to be deterred, the outcasts set up a rival show across the street in a warehouse. But they eventually faded from the scene.
While fighting is discouraged, partying is not. During the three-day show, downtown Long Beach is inundated with throngs of young people attending above-ground and underground parties.
"The real parties are underground," said one 20-year-old participant at the show. "It's hip hop, baggy pants and beer."
"When everyone gets together at these shows, they get to see their friends," explained Rob Molt, a team skateboarder and salesman for Orange County-based Sector 9, a manufacturer of long skateboards. "It turns into one hip party."
That was true at the Hyatt Hotel, located next to the convention center. On Saturday night, the lobby was swarming with young people searching for the coolest gathering.
Tradeshow director Overin may have described the party scene most succinctly. "I call it the gathering of the tribes."
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