By  on July 16, 2014

For a number of foreign swim brands vying to expand at retail, California is just the right fit.

To see how the Golden State measures up, consider the following stats. In terms of economic potential, it ranks eighth worldwide with a gross domestic product of $2.2 trillion, ahead of Russia, India and Canada. Plus, a coastline stretching 840 miles provides plenty of places to don swimsuits. Never mind the plethora of pools and resorts. Even in the dead of winter, the average temperature peaks at 69 degrees. All of which is conducive to an active lifestyle that, for better or worse, births new health and fitness trends constantly. Therein lies a vast consumer base.

“For us, California is a great combination of local residents and travelers from around the world,” said Brian Lange, president of Vilebrequin’s Americas unit in New York, who oversees six stores in California for the Saint-Tropez, France-born brand. “We really have a great confluence of people who live there, people who have a second home there and people who, as tourists, travel around the globe.”

Many high-end swim brands have found a home in California. Eres, the Chanel-owned brand that laid its retail foundation in Beverly Hills in 2005, told WWD in February that it sees potential in cities like San Francisco as it continues to roll out boutiques worldwide.

A swim staple in Australia since 1975, Seafolly unveiled its first U.S. boutique in Newport Beach’s Fashion Island Mall last October and launched e-commerce for American customers six months later. It’s considering Santa Monica for its second Stateside location, as part of an ambitious plan to open 15 to 30 stores in California.

Prism London said opening a store in the City of Angels is an area of interest for British founder and creative director Anna Laub. A U.S. store is also in the pipeline for Venroy, the Australian maker of men’s swim shorts, although it concedes it’s too early to reveal details.

The timing could be ripe for retail expansion. Swimwear sales are rising. WeConnectFashion, a New York-based search engine and database resource, estimated that the U.S. market will tally $3.9 billion in swimwear sales this year, up from $3.7 billion in 2013 and $3.5 billion in 2012. On a worldwide scale, swimwear and beachwear sales are expected to climb to $19.4 billion by 2018 from $16.5 billion in 2013, according to Global Industry Analysts Inc., a market research publisher in San Jose, Calif.

Furthermore, shoppers are visiting specialty stores again. In a survey conducted last November, WSL Strategic Retail said the number of women who bought something from a specialty clothing store in the past three months increased to 29 percent from 23 percent two years ago. The gain among men who shopped at specialty stores in the same period was even more notable: up 12 points to 23 percent.

“With people with higher income, specialty stores are the places they venture into,” said Wendy Liebmann, founder and chief executive officer of New York-based WSL.

Liebmann noted that, while the competition among specialty stores is intense, operating a freestanding store year-round could liberate a swim brand from the seasonality and complicated dynamics of wholesaling to department stores. There’s also a void left by Quiksilver, Billabong and other moderately priced brands from the surf industry that are shedding assets to minimize their financial losses or, in the case of Kering’s Volcom, shifting attention to skate and snowboard apparel. For companies like Vilebrequin, Saint-Tropez-designed Scalise and Australian-based Zimmermann, all of which project the image of a premium lifestyle, specialty stores look more appealing, she said.

“They’re more about lifestyle — the moneyed lifestyle of Europe or the moneyed lifestyle of Australia,” Liebmann said. “There’s that piece of the market where there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of specialty swimwear retail.”

For Zimmermann, a store is a manifestation of its contemporary lifestyle, right down to its all-Australian sales staff. Established two years ago, its boutique on Los Angeles’ Robertson Boulevard mirrors a modern art gallery with a wire sculpture dangling from the skylight and angular metal racks offsetting stark white walls. By adopting techniques that originated in its ready-to-wear, like laser-cutting, bonded fabrics and Lurex metallic embroidery, it had no problem selling out of its statement-making swimsuits priced between $500 and $700 last year.

Zimmermann opened its second store in New York’s SoHo neighborhood last November and a third in East Hampton this past Memorial Day. On a recent visit to Los Angeles, a company executive scouted locations for a second Southern California store on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, Melrose Place, Malibu and “the usual haunts,” said Nicky Zimmermann, designer and cofounder of the label.

“The West Coast customer, instead of seeing a department store edit, sees everything [in the boutique]: rtw, shoes, bags, children’s,” Zimmermann said.

Miami is also on the radar for Zimmermann and her sister, Simone, who helped start the company 24 years ago. “To have a presence in the U.S. in brick and mortar is hugely important for us to showcase what the brand is,” she said.

Depending on the locale, Vilebrequin selects from two different concepts to present its brand. While its traditional decor for stores located near the ocean is the “cabine de plage,” or “beach cabin,” it plans to introduce a city-centric format called “dune” in California via a redesign of the 10-year-old Beverly Hills store next year. The dune concept calls for the ceiling and walls to be painted blue to represent the sky, as well as white pebble stones and wood floors installed to evoke the beach. It began offering swimwear for women and girls this summer, to complement its offerings for boys and men that retail from $115 to $650.

After opening four stores in Southern California within a five-month period over the past year, Vilebrequin is prepping another to launch by year’s end in Silicon Valley. Lange said the company is targeting at least one more shop in the state next year. “All of the things are there to tell us that California will appreciate the brand,” he said.

California is also a preferred destination for Scalise, which broke into the American market in May with a 1,300-square-foot shop on Robertson Boulevard, next door to Zimmermann. “We wanted a place where there is sun and celebrity, like Saint-Tropez,” said founder Yohan Simonian.

Aspiring to transform the three-year-old brand into “Saint-Tropez’s Ralph Lauren,” Simonian said his goal is to have 50 stores worldwide by the end of 2016 — including 25 in Asia, nine in Mexico and at least four in the U.S. — and to increase its annual sales from just under $20 million. The next U.S. unit will be found on New York’s Greene Street, near Dior and Louis Vuitton.

While Simonian is based in Hong Kong, Scalise’s artistic director, Maxime Cotte, who lives in Saint-Tropez, is responsible for the reclaimed driftwood furniture, striped turquoise linen and white sand that set the relaxed background for the $209 men’s boardshorts embroidered with purple lobsters, $149 women’s cutout bikinis and $89 boys’ polo shirts. Thanks to the Saint-Tropez connection, “it’s easier for us to market the brand around the world,” Simonian said.

To win over new customers in the U.S., Australia’s Black Milk Clothing is capitalizing on Los Angeles’ urban edge and manufacturing might. The streetwear brand, which counts on graphic swimsuits for 20 percent of its Web-only sales, is setting up a new distribution center in downtown L.A. this month. By the end of the year, it plans to erect a concept store, showroom and café featuring free Wi-Fi within the walls of the cavernous building.

“Customers can come in and try on the gear and the stuff will come from the back of the house,” said Cameron Parker, head of Black Milk Clothing’s sales and marketing. Since the five-year-old company prides itself on local manufacturing, producing its $85 swimsuits and $71 leggings currently in Australia, Parker said, “We’re thinking of made in America and L.A. has great resources in the garment industry.”

Moreover, the irreverent culture and envelope-pushing brands borne out of Los Angeles jibe with Black Milk Clothing’s mission.

“The thing with our swimwear is that people use it for bodysuits. They wear it with cutoff jeans. It’s not just for swim,” he said. “In terms of the gear we produce, it’s very L.A.”


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