By  on August 25, 2008

No matter how murky the economic waters, swimwear vendors are confident that great suits will compel shoppers to open their wallets.

Although the current spate of economic ills is certainly weighing upon the group of nearly 60 vendors attending WWDMAGIC, they’ve weathered trying times before. In recent years, they’ve been tested by corporate fallout in their niche industry — Warnaco’s downsizing of its multibrand swim division to Calvin Klein and Speedo is one vivid example — and widespread consolidation in the retail sector, the biggest jolt being the Federated-May merger.

The challenges have forced swim companies to better understand their market, and recent results bear that out. As other sectors have sputtered, swimwear has chugged along. According to the most recent data from research firm The NPD Group, women’s swimwear sales in the U.S. totaled approximately $2.7 billion from May 2007 to April 2008, climbing roughly 1.2 percent from $2.66 billion in the like period a year before.

Given the uncertain retail outlook, vendors are aware that hefty increases in swimwear orders are unlikely. Retailers are more apt than ever to stick with loyal and reliable companies. But brands that can offer suits that are pitch-perfect on style, delivery and price point still can convince retailers that they’re worth spending on.

Colleen Thompson, who cofounded the months-old Winter Park, Fla.-based swim brand Bikini Flavors, has learned from a decade working at swim specialty retailer Everything But Water that buyers are persuaded by the chance to be different. “I am hearing conservative,” she said about buyers’ approach for 2009, “but I also hear they are looking for newness that will attract [consumers] to their particular location.”

Ron Russell, president of L.A. swimwear stalwart AVI Design Group, which handles La Blanca, Sessa, 2Bamboo, Citrus, Lauren by Ralph Lauren and Ralph Lauren Blue Label, stressed that picking up on key trends and providing quality suits will keep buyers returning. “We are constantly looking for ways to better make the product,” he said. “It is like a steakhouse — if the dinner is good, you want to go back.”

What’s getting buyers to go back now?

The designer category is on a hot streak. Blue Water Design Group, a division of Apparel Ventures, has been revved up by the designer segment, especially the Trina Turk brand, and has seen revenues jump 25 percent this year, according to its president Howard Greller. The swimwear maker is so keen on designer suits that it is shifting its W label to the licensed label A.B.S. by Allen Schwartz, which he explained will be priced at retail $4 to $5 above W and allow the company to push its design forward.

“We have seen explosive growth at the designer tier level, which indicates that people are willing to spend at the luxury price level if the suit is right,” said Greller. “We believe that with A.B.S. we can replicate the model we have with Trina Turk….We are able to stretch our fashion sensibility with more hardware, more detail. The buyer will acknowledge it because of the fashion-value relationship.”

Misses’ suits have also enjoyed success. Although the juniors category has taken a hit at Tustin, Calif.-based Raj Manufacturing, the company’s co-president Alex Bhathal was pleased that its misses’ business has held up. Raj makes swimwear under the Tommy Hilfiger, Athena, Guess, O’Neill, Luxe and St. John labels.

“It [misses’] has been very strong this year in relation to juniors and contemporary,” said Bhathal. “The missy side of the market has done a nice job in newness.” He cited the filtering of the mix-and-match concept from juniors to misses’ as helping lure customers.

Rob Hamilton, national sales manager for control brand Miraclesuit, suggested there’s a mounting need for well-executed misses’ merchandise, slimming styles in particular, as the population ages and waistlines grow. By filling that need, he noted that Miraclesuit is “expecting strong increases” in the upcoming season.

“Juniors has been up and down, and missy has been on a pretty good uptick, but particularly for us we keep gaining more and more interest from the consumer because of what we offer,” said Hamilton. “[Americans] are getting bigger so control is just a big thing, and those people who are famous for [control suits] are gaining momentum.”

Despite rough going in the category, those in the junior business are not throwing in the towel. There are even new vendors hopping on the juniors bus.

Aquarelle Swimwear, a four-year-old Miami-based company, has unveiled the Marisol line for 2009 with about 14 groups of swimwear styles. Marisol Zapata, the company’s owner and the line’s namesake, said Marisol is aimed at customers roughly 14 to 20 years old, but she emphasized it’s the cost, which she estimated is $15 to $20 below some of her competitors at $30 to $35 wholesale a set, that will appeal to retailers.

“If you keep this kind of quality with a good price, you are going to be a success,” Zapata said one buyer told her after viewing the line. She is able to keep the line’s prices affordable by manufacturing in Colombia as opposed to Brazil, where the contemporary Aquarelle brand is made.

However, nabbing price-sensitive shoppers in a juniors category where the Wal-Marts and Targets of the world command major pricing advantages is a difficult task. Targeting age brackets slightly older or slightly younger than juniors is one way manufacturers with long histories in juniors swimwear are attempting to get a leg up.

Blue Water Design Group is vying for younger tween swimsuit shoppers. It has revamped its juniors Waterfront Surf brand as a preppy tween brand with seahorse logos for consumers in the 12- to 14-year-old age range. “We realized [in] our own population — I have a daughter who is 14 — that there are a lot of dollars being spent,” said Greller. “There is room out there for this.”

Bell, Calif.-based Malibu Dream Girl Inc., a juniors swimwear specialist with the labels Gossip and Gossip Collection, is introducing a line called Palage for women in their 20s. At retail, the Palage suits do not go above $130, but are considerably higher price points than Gossip and Gossip Collection, which top out at about $65.

Of the potential Palage customer, Carlos Cortes, who handles sales and marketing at Malibu Dream Girl, said, “She wants a little bit more fashion. She is out of college and doesn’t mind spending money.”

In this shaky retail environment, Cortes hopes to get as much face time as possible with buyers — via appointments at WWDMAGIC and trips to their stores — to encourage them to choose Palage and Malibu Dream Girl’s other lines. “More sales reps are becoming true road sales reps,” he said. “You really have to be hands-on with your customer in order to get that order.”

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