OB surf shop rides new wave of women’s-only surf-and-beach boutiques
by Marsha Kay Seff
Published - 05/16/12 - 03:23 PM | 38872 views | 0 0 comments | 27 27 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Left, South Coast Wahines Ocean Beach employee Katie O’Neill helps Taylor Wagner pick out a cool top. The surf-and-beach boutique caters solely to women.     Photo by Jim Grant I The Beacon
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Heather Shields was a wahine before surfing became a big-time sport for women.

She’s been riding the waves off Ocean Beach and as far away as Australia for the last decade. And for twice that time, she has worked her way up from “floor employee” to buyer and partner at South Coast Surf Shops, a local specialty retailer for more than 30 years.

So, it’s no surprise that Shields is excited about last month’s opening of South Coast Wahines Ocean Beach, the company’s second women’s-only surf-and-beach boutique. The original women’s shop, South Coast Wahines Pacific Beach, has been at the foot of Crystal Pier since 1999. Wahine is Hawaiian for a woman surfer.

The new store on Newport Avenue moved to the 1,070-square-foot space that used to house South Coast Longboards. Before that, women’s wear had been relegated to 450 square feet of the South Coast Surf Shop a few doors up the street.

“We outgrew that space,” said Shields, who spearheaded the complete redesign for the new shop. “It only made sense to consolidate our Ocean Beach inventory by gender, giving our customers more of what they want in each location.”

Besides the three South Coast Surf Shops in OB, including an outlet, the company has its women’s-only and its largest store in PB.

Though there have always been women surfers, Shields said movies like the 2002 “Blue Crush” and 2011 “Soul Surfer” brought out female surfers “in droves.”

A leading market research company cites that female participation in the board sport has jumped from 19 percent between 2001 and 2005 to 33 percent since.

There finally was a need to focus on wetsuits with curves and other surf wear for women, with a penchant for shopping, according to Shields.

“Even female jocks can be extremely feminine and fashionable,” said Shields, who met her husband of five years while surfing in Ocean Beach. The couple has a 2-year-old son who has already been boogie boarding in Waikiki.

“Surfing as a culture has grown so fast that the department stores started carrying the brands and made us more competitive, dropping prices and advertising to the locals,” Shields said.

Today, she said, some 30 surfwear manufacturers include designs for women.

“They’ve come a long way from board shorts and T-shirts,” she said.

South Coast Wahines Ocean Beach is an “extremely girly” boutique, decked out in hardwood floors and shag carpeting, chaises and a crystal chandelier. Changing rooms are bigger than at the old store and the new glass garage door makes the shop inviting and accessible.

“This is where the boutique meets the beach,” said Shields, who started working with the company when she was 16 years old. That was 23 years ago.

Owner Rob Ard “didn’t rein me in at all (on the design),” Shields said, adding, “Well, we disagreed loudly a few times. Pinks aren’t his thing.”

The store showcases iconic brands in women’s surf and beachwear, like Roxy, Billabong, Reef and Rip Curl, and introduces newcomers like TOMS, Quiksilver Girls and Oakley Ladies. Displays showcase everything from lace blouses and crocheted shorts to $80 rhinestone sandals. The longboards moved to the other store on Newport Avenue, along with women’s wetsuits.

As for opening a business in the midst of the slow economy, Shields said she’s not worried.

“The weather is more important to this business than the economy, and the weather has been good this year,” she said.

The women’s store did better on its first weekend than the flagship store.

“The new store is comfortable for women,” said Shields. “We can see your body type and be able to size you up and pick out the items that will fit you the best.”

The all-female staff includes high-school and college students. Some are kids of former South Coast employees. Customers range in age from 13 years old to 70, she said.

“Surfing is really fun and the water makes you feel younger,” said Shields. “There’s no impact, and when you fall, you fall into the water… [But] the sport is more athletic than many people realize. It takes a lot of technique and skill. And it’s great exercise, especially for the abs.”

She is an advocate for the sport and said she can get somebody up on a longboard within a half-hour.

Surfers can do as much or as little as they want when they hit the beach. While some of the “old guys” come out and just paddle around “like a coffee klatch, waiting for the big one, the perfect wave,” Shields said women don’t usually hang out in the water. “I’ll take 10 smaller waves to a perfect one.”

But in the water or out, Shields said, most women want to look their best. And that’s where South Coast Wahines Ocean Beach comes in.

• South Coast Surf Shops, 5037 Newport Ave., (619) 223-8808, www.southcoast.com

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