MIAMI — The 20th annual Miami swimwear show was a firecracker of an event, with enough pop and sizzle to put the most discouraged retailer in a festive mood.

Inspired by cultures from every corner of the globe, stores had plenty of reason to buy for the cruise 2003 season.

Buyer attendance at the show, held July 20-24 at the Miami International Merchandise Mart & Radisson Center, increased 12 percent over last year’s event, which drew around 1,500 people.Exhibitors numbered around 400, compared with 350 last year.

Celebrating the show’s 20-year anniversary, sponsors the Swimwear Association of Florida and DuPont threw a fashion show and party Monday night, with entertainment by KC & the Sunshine Band. The event cost over $200,000, SAE officials estimated.

Another, equally lavish party caused quite a stir, even for South Beach: the Saturday night extravaganza by Perry Ellis International. Having bought Portland, Ore.-based Jantzen from VF Corp. in March, new owners, George Feldenkreis, chairman and chief executive officer, and son Oscar Feldenkreis, president and chief operating officer, relaunched Jantzen with a bash that capitalized on the brand’s heritage. As a first plunge into swimwear for the Miami-based Perry Ellis, the owners have ambitious plans for growing the Jantzen brand.

Held poolside at the Palms Hotel in South Beach, the event had two bands, enormous food and drink spreads, and celebrity look-alikes, including Marilyn Monroe surrounded by early publicity stills of the former Norma Jean Baker modeling Jantzen suits in the Forties and a bevy of models in vintage and new Jantzen swimwear.

Leveraging brand heritage and beefed-up marketing is also high on the agenda at Authentic Fitness Corp., a division of Warnaco, which has been in bankruptcy for a year. Roger Williams, president of Authentic Fitness, projected sales for 2002 are $380 million, compared with $420 million last year, following the closing of 95 of its 144 stores. Williams said Authentic Fitness brands, including Speedo, Anne Cole and Ralph Lauren, had performed well.

Kathy Van Ness was hired as president, designer swimwear, in January to rebuild all brands. A relaunch is under way for junior line Sunset Beach. Cole of California, the company’s oldest brand, will use vintage ads and materials to emphasize the brand’s heritage.Trend-wise, the show was a multi-cultural array. Among the notable directions:

l Western/Prairie: From cowboy looks using sueded fabrics with fringe, silver or turquoise details and homespun prairie features.

l Mediterranean Chic: Spanish-flavored embroidery and lace, French corset and lingerie looks, Impressionist watercolor prints, Grecian-inspired draped bodices, shirring and ruching.

l Exotic/Ethnic: Bohemian, African, tropical or Batik prints embellished with beading or raffia fringe.

Coming off tough years, as tourism dropped, buyers previewed lines with budgets often up to compensate for cutting inventories last fall. Hitting on the hot trends and new looks were foremost in buyers’ minds, although price was sometimes a consideration for jittery consumers.

Separates and fashion looks were foremost concerns for Sarah Bailey, junior swim buyer at Younkers, a Des Moines, Iowa-based department store.

Predicting that current trends — halters and low-rise bottoms with tie-sides — will continue into fall, she shopped for fresh color and prints in proven bodies. She cited Esprit, Guess, Raisins, Rampage and divisions of Beach Patrol as key resources and also shopped for off-price from lines such as Ocean Avenue.

Mary and Don Bauer, owners of The Beach House Swimwear, a Fort Meyers, Fla.-based chain with nine stores, shopped with a budget up 10 percent.

"We have fewer people in stores, but we’re not seeing price resistance or caution with consumers," he said.

Mary Bauer said she would buy more Jantzen, a key resource, noting that "the line looked good and has more energy" since the purchase by Perry Ellis. She also shopped Gottex and noted strong collections from Christina, Nautica, OP, Sessa, Anne Klein and La Blanca.

Buyers for Coldwater Creek of Sandpoint, Idaho, shopped Miami to expand swimwear in the catalog division. For a separate cruise edition of the Elements catalog, Mathew Dillon, vice president of merchandising, bought swimwear, accessories and shoes.

Joyce and Robert McFarland, owners of Marco Island Clothing Co. increased their cruise budget by 5 to 10 percent, buying aggressively with key suppliers, such as Tommy Bahama, Gottex, Diva and Jantzen. They bought more misses’ separates from Jantzen and will buy Lilly Pulitzer swimwear and resortwear, applauding the lines’ fresh fabrics and looks.

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