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FEATURE STORY
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Wearing our passion on a sleeve

With its miles of coastline, Orange County has long been a lure for surfers, so it stands to reason that it would also become a hub for action-sports apparel makers.

By tori richardsPublished: May 01, 2011

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a seven-part series examining the industries that drive the region’s economy. This month we take a look at Orange County’s apparel industry.

• Next month: Orange County’s tourism industry
• Last month: Orange County’s green industry. Read the digital version HERE.

The runways of Paris, Milan and New York might be the height of haute couture, but Orange County is a player in the fashion industry as well.
   
We have more apparel companies headquartered here than any other region in the nation except Los Angeles. At last count, 743 companies conceptualize, design, market or distribute their fashions from Orange County. The industry generates $5.6 billion per year and employs 15,355 people, according to 2009 figures released by the California Fashion Association.
   
Some of the companies make their products elsewhere to capitalize on cheaper operating costs. “It’s a very significant manufacturing cluster,” says Ilse Metchek, president of the California Fashion Association – or CFA. “Location is very important. In Wisconsin, no one would see you. Buyers come to where there are markets, trade shows.”
   
So if you haven’t guessed it by now, Orange County’s main niche is sportswear – action-sports apparel, bathing suits, T-shirts, dresses, shorts, hats, sunglasses and footwear. Lured by the sun, sea, laid-back lifestyle and athletic focus, companies like Oakley, Quiksilver, O’Neill, Billabong and PacSun have been at home here for decades.
   
“The main reason why the surf industry settled in Orange County is because of the rich history of the beach culture – some of the best coast in the world, known since the ’30s as a surfing destination,” says Doug Palladini, president of the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association, commonly referred to in the industry as SIMA. “Before any sort of industry, surfboards were homemade and no one thought of making money whatsoever, but people came here to surf. The passion about surfing existed here first. It started with guys making their own surfboards and opening their own shops. They said, ‘Hey, I have a great logo and I’ll put it on some T-shirts and hats.’ And it went on from there.”

Humble beginnings
Indeed, the birth of today’s apparel industry can be traced back to Birdwell Beach Britches in Santa Ana. It started in 1961 when Carrie Birdwell began making sportswear out of her home and then swim trunks for Newport Beach lifeguards. The trunks were made of canvas and nylon with a lace-up fly. Word spread about the innovative product, and soon Birdwell had more orders than she could handle. The entire family was enlisted to help production, and before long, a thriving mail-order business was in place.
   
“She did not advertise, but her britches became known,” the company website says. “Our first ad was in the fledgling Surfer (magazine), (and in) their second or third issue, while they were still printing on a six-month schedule. Our small ad has been in every issue since.”  
   
The business is still family owned and distributes worldwide.
   
Two other companies soon followed that would bring worldwide attention to Orange County. Paul Van Doren bought an Anaheim factory with a storefront in 1966, and Vans shoe company started selling heavy-soled slip-on tennis shoes. In 1972, Ocean Pacific – OP – started making swimsuits for men and women, followed by a full apparel line. Suddenly, these items were the hottest thing in sportswear, and production flourished.
   
Other companies started noticing the enclave in Orange County and flocked to the area.
   
The ’80s and ’90s brought a new culture – skateboarding. It also cemented Orange County’s image as a premier athletic destination, with OP sponsoring the OP Pro Tour surfing competition every summer, attracting 250,000 spectators – the largest live audience in the sport. Beach volleyball tournaments also were gaining popularity.  
   
Orange County was now home to the biggest names in the business, including Oakley, Volcom, Hurley, Gotcha International, O’Neill, Raj Manufacturing, Mossimo and Stussy. The latter was started when Shawn Stussy began scribbling his unique signature on surfboards, and soon the demand grew for T-shirts, shorts and caps that he sold out of his car.
   
Other apparel manufacturers outside of sports call Orange County home, but they are in the minority. The St. John factory takes up an entire block in Irvine and manufactures its products on-site. Lunada Bay in Anaheim is the parent company of Lucky, Bebe and Becca.
   
Ports in Long Beach and San Pedro make it easy for designers to create a concept and then have the product made overseas. Further processing such as affixing labels and hang tags, and quality control often occurs back at the headquarters.

Dollars and cents
Although no figures are available separating Orange from Los Angeles County, the CFA released the following statistics on the two counties combined:

1,385    

The number of independent fashion designers

620
The number of independent showrooms

750
The number of educators

890
The number of textile representatives

Orange County’s powerhouse company is Quiksilver, which has two subsidiaries – Roxy and DC – and boasts $1.8 billion in annual sales. The company plans to increase its revenue to $3 billion, according to the company’s glossy, full-color 2010 annual report, which features photos of teen girls on surfboards in the waters off the coast of the Waterfront Hilton. 
   
Located in Huntington Beach with a workforce of more than 1,200, Quiksilver was started by CEO Bob McKnight and world champion surfer Jeff Hakman in 1976, when the pair sold board shorts from their homes.
   
Another giant company, Foothill Ranch’s Oakley, is not publicly traded and would not provide financial data. However, it employs 2,110 people who work on designing, manufacturing, testing, marketing and selling Oakley’s sun and prescription glasses, apparel, footwear and accessories.
   
“Orange County is especially good for a company like Oakley,” says Brian Takumi, the company’s design director. “With our blend of action sports, traditional sports and performance lifestyle products, it makes the perfect setting to bring them all together. Obviously, Orange County is well known for its action-sports-based roots. For Oakley, we also get to kind of create our own perfect storm for an active sports lifestyle. Being able to surf, hit the snow, motocross, mountain bike, golf, cycle in the same day makes for a pretty special environment.”
   
The fashion community has grown up enough to even have its own organization, the Orange County Fashion Association, and a campus for the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. The former sponsors mixers, fundraisers, lectures and even runway shows.
   
Metchek of the California Fashion Association also holds events twice a year with the Orange County Professionals Club.
   
“They never like to cross the Orange County Curtain,” Metchek says, jokingly, of the local players in the industry. “They think they need a passport to come to L.A. We have to come to them.”

Tori Richards is a Huntington Beach-based journalist who has written for the New York Times, the New York Post and MSNBC.