Action sports and high fashion may not seem like the most likely of companions, but in the past decade designers have done more than dip a toe into surf culture; they have embraced the easygoing, sun-drenched lifestyle common to Southern California and found plenty of inspiration.
The fashion industry's love affair with surfing became most apparent about 11 years ago, when Karl Lagerfeld sent models clutching Chanel-logoed surfboards down the runway as they modeled clothes for spring 2003. Since then, high-end interpretations of surf-inspired clothing and accessories have come from Alexander Wang, Rag & Bone and Proenza Schouler.
And now the next wave of the trend has arrived in the form of rash guards: the second-skin, mock turtleneck shirts traditionally used to protect surfers and other water sports enthusiasts from the elements, as well as the abrasive buildup of surf wax found on a board's surface.
"It's mainly female surfers who wear rash guards," says Chad Marshall, professional surfer and co-owner and manager of Mollusk surf shop in Venice. "Rash guards have become more stylish with better cuts and tailoring. It's about having the total kit, looking cute with a new surfboard and all of your gear and taking it to the next level."
Taking it to the next level and catapulting rash guards into the mainstream this spring are companies such as Tory Burch, J. Crew, Cynthia Rowley and the Australian line Zimmermann, which have emblazoned the stretchy shirts with digital floral prints, nautical stripes and even sexy snakeskin patterns that feel more club kid than beach bum.
"We've introduced new textures and cut them in a way that creates a more feminine feel," says Nicky Zimmermann, head designer and creative director of Zimmermann. "I think that has opened up the way in which they can be worn." She adds that "rashies," as they call them in Australia, are also functional in bridging one's beach-to-bar wardrobe.
Many of the styles this season incorporate some form of color-blocking and mixing of patterns. Burch's version includes a sea horse print and navy blue panels down the torso for a slimming effect. Rowley keeps the traditional neon hues of 1980s wetsuits alive in her feminine floral printed rash guards. And J. Crew stays true to its preppy roots with a versatile nautical striped style that could also work for a casual lunch, when worn with denim shorts and a pair of ivory Superga sneakers.
According to Rowley, her customers aren't buying her color-blocked and floral print wetsuits and rash guards solely for hard-core water sports. "A printed rash guard looks cool mixed with a cute bikini," she says. "And if you want to take it to the extreme, pair it with a pretty skirt and go out at night."