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Mass Firms Set Sail

NEW YORK -- With consumers wanting value-priced, fashionable swimwear, suppliers to the mass chains are seeing new growth opportunities. But just churning out updated swimsuits isn't enough. To keep sales pumping, swimwear firms are selling to...

NEW YORK — With consumers wanting value-priced, fashionable swimwear, suppliers to the mass chains are seeing new growth opportunities. But just churning out updated swimsuits isn’t enough. To keep sales pumping, swimwear firms are selling to overseas markets, individually tailoring private label to stores and developing secondary labels to beef up distribution. Here, a look at the strategies of three swimwear firms:

Pembrooke Inc.: “We are definitely providing fashion on a more timely basis,” said Mark Waldman, president of the 53-year-old family firm, which sells private label misses’ and plus-size swimwear to such mass merchants as Sears, Roebuck, and J.C. Penney. “Mass chains used to be the followers of fashion; now they want to be the leaders. They are applying that same strategy to swimwear.”

For Pembrooke, that means spotting trends faster and turning around samples to stores within two days. The five-member design team hits the European shows once a year and shops at stores monthly throughout the country.

Waldman said that one reason for its success is domestic production — the firm’s manufacturing facility is based at the headquarters in PenArgyl, Pa. Over the past few years, the firm has computerized its equipment, including patternmaking, sewing and grading to speed up the production process. About 50 percent of the business is done on the mass level.

Over the past few years, Pembrooke has also tailored its private label to each of the mass chains. The firm is also the licensee of Bonjour swimwear, which is also sold to the mass chains.

Waldman added that the firm has done well with its textured suits, like crocheted tanks, mesh suits and suits with push-up bras. This year, the firm switched to a more subdued color palette, featuring shades like espresso brown, cranberry and forest green. New fabrics include crushed velvet in solids and prints, as well as circular-knitted fabrics, a fabric primarily used in sportswear. The swimsuits wholesale between $14 and $25.

Maxine of Hollywood: Maxine of Hollywood, Los Angeles, is launching a variety of strategies, from selling to Mexico to developing a secondary label called La Playa to boost distribution. “There is a demand for value-priced swimwear,” said Ken Nim, a salesman at Maxine of Hollywood, which sells misses’ and plus-size swimwear to such merchants as Sears and Penney’s. “And it is also happening overseas.”

Last year, Maxine started selling swimwear to Liverpool, a department store in Mexico City, and will market the line overseas to Australia and Canada for 1995. Nim expects sales to hit around $2 million in international sales within the next year.

The mass business garners about 65 percent of the firm’s sales, which hit more than $20 million last year. Department stores account for the remainder. Its secondary line, La Playa (beach in Spanish), is targeted to department stores that don’t carry the Maxine label.

“Some department stores did not want to carry the Maxine label because they thought it was overused so we thought there was opportunity for another label,” he said. The lines will look similar, though La Playa will carry sizes ranging from 8 to 18, while Maxine starts at size 10. La Playa is expected to be in stores by December.

Both lines, which are primarily made of a raschel knit of Lycra spandex, wholesale for about $17.

While Maxine of Hollywood does not target the fashion-forward customer, the line does take notice of major fashion trends. Best-selling looks continue to be boy leg suits, sheered and sarong suits. To get fashion inspiration, the design staff goes to the swimwear shows and shops stores, from mass stores to upscale department stores.

“The minute we find a desirable trend, we act on it,” said Nim, adding that samples can be made within two days. The line is produced in Los Angeles.

Jantzen Inc.: Capitalizing on mass merchants’ interest in fashionable swimwear, Jantzen is expecting double-digit increases in its six-old-year, value-priced line called Southpoint.

“A lot of mass stores are looking for more fashionable swimwear,” said Clark Tedrick, director of special markets at Jantzen, which is aggressively looking to expand its base of mass merchant customers, as well as its existing customer base. “It’s becoming more of an important category.”

Tedrick, who declined to comment on Southpoint’s sales, said he is pitching a number of mass merchants. He added that customers such as Mervyn’s and Sears are expected to increase real estate of Southpoint for the cruise season, though he declined to say how much.

“In the past, we had been focused on expanding our other businesses,” he said. “But now we want to be a dominant player in both the upper tier and lower tier.”

Company officials point out that, just like the firm’s upper-tier lines, Southpoint keeps up with trends like suits with mesh overlay, plaid looks and tanks with bra paddings.

Both the mass and the upper-tier lines are produced at the company’s two manufacturing facilities in the Northwest — Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, B.C. But there are distinctions between the two labels. Jantzen uses tricot, while Southpoint uses the less-expensive raschel knit of Lycra. Tedrick pointed out that the company will incorporate the latest fashion trends first with the Jantzen label, then a season later to Southpoint.

“We’ve worked on quicker turnaround for the past three years,” said Larry Miller, director of Jantzen’s women’s sales, adding it has been updating its modular manufacturing technology. He added that if the fabric is in-house, Jantzen can turn around a suit within two weeks.

Some of Southpoint’s best-selling suits for cruise include a navy blue and green plaid tank with scooped back and a pink, blue and yellow floral two-piece suit, both in a Lycra raschel knit. Wholesale prices range from $9.75 to $26.