Surf's Up, Dude -- In Europe, That Is

As the craze washes over the continent, apparel makers are riding a mighty big wave

For a springtime surfing competition, the weather couldn't be better. As the sun glints off the breaking waves, which top 2 meters, more than a thousand spectators -- all sporting surfer duds -- mill on the sandy beach. This could easily be your typical Pacific beach in California, Hawaii, or Australia, until the commentator yells: "Oui! C'est un bon backside!" Welcome to Biarritz' Grande Plage, home to one of Europe's fastest-growing crazes.

From the breaks of Ireland's Bundoran to the swells of Portugal's Peniche, surfing's popularity has exploded in Europe. Some of the world's top surfing competitions, such as the Rip Curl Pro and the Lacanau Pro, now take place on France's Basque coast. And for those hapless Europeans without easy access to a beach, Chris Bachmann's Zurich company, Sudden Rush, offers lake surfing off a boat's wake -- $42 for a 20-minute run. Surfing has even taken off in Germany, where beach bums can get excited about waves on the Isar river in Munich that get up to a meter, a mere ripple compared with the action in the ocean. In France the surfing craze has spawned a blockbuster film, Brice de Nice, which chronicles a blond, long-haired Frenchman's largely unsuccessful attempts to surf the placid Mediterranean. "Surfing culture is developing very quickly in Europe," says Bernard Mariette, president of Quiksilver Inc. (ZOK ), the world's largest surfwear company, headquartered in Huntington Beach, Calif.

In fact, surf culture is proving to be a much bigger draw than, well, the surf. For beachwear companies such as Quiksilver, Billabong International, and Rip Curl International, sales growth in Europe and the U.S. is being driven mostly by fans who have never touched a well-waxed board. European sales of surfing gear and apparel have doubled in the last four years, to $1.5 billion in 2004, according to the European Surf Industry Manufacturers Assn. That's less than the $3.5 billion beachwear companies rang up in the U.S. last year. Still, Billabong International Ltd., based in Burleigh Heads, Australia, chalked up a 12% increase in European revenues to $121 million for the fiscal year ended in June, 2004. Quiksilver did even better, boosting European sales 28%, to $496 million, for the fiscal year ended in October.

California dreamers such as Bruno Travaglione, a 24-year-old Neapolitan, have turned Quiksilver's two-story flagship on the Champs-Elysées into the company's highest-grossing store worldwide. Travaglione doesn't even own a boogie board, but he can't resist adding to his collection of brightly colored T-shirts and knee-length boardshorts. During a recent trip to Paris he made a beeline for the Champs-Elysées outlet. "[The clothes are] comfortable and remind me of the U.S.," he says.

The surf may be up, but who cares? Did you see that cute hibiscus-print tank-top Claudine is wearing today?

By Jordan Burke in Biarritz

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