SWIMWEAR: AN OVERSEAS TRIP

Byline: Anne D'Innocenzio

NEW YORK--After a tough season, swimwear makers are adopting a variety of strategies to reverse their fortunes for '96.
They include:
Keeping prices in check.
Diversifying brands.
Selling overseas.
Homing in on what they believe are big business opportunities, such as mix-and-match separates and bigger cup sizes.
One key issue, of course, has been maintaining prices, given the devaluation of the dollar against such European currencies as the German mark. Some swimwear companies who depend on European fabrics said they were being forced to absorb the higher costs.
"We are maintaining prices, but we are struggling," said Barbara Henriquez, designer and vice president of Darling Rio, a contemporary swimwear company based in Miami. "We get a lot of our fabrics in Italy, and they have become increasingly more expensive."
She said since July, prices for some Italian fabrics have jumped 10 to 15 percent.
"Luckily, we bought large quantities originally, but going forward, we are going to get hit with the high prices," said Henriquez. "We are going to have to absorb them because we can't raise our wholesale price."
Darling Rio suits wholesale for around $32.
Henriquez added that, unlike many of her competitors, her business last year was strong because Darling Rio invested in bold colors instead of the dull shades that dominated the market.
Henriquez expects a double-digit increase next year.
Pilpel, based in Nazareth, Israel, is maintaining prices on its suits, but has significantly reduced the prices of its coverups, which account for 30 percent of the cruise 1996 business, according to Michelle Czopp, sales director.
Instead of using expensive European fabrics in mostly polyamide, the company is now making coverups in less expensive cotton fabrics from India.
Coverups now wholesale from $16 to $23, compared with last year's $70. Because of the lower prices, Pilpel is counting on further developing its coverup business in the next two years.
Prices of suits, primarily in Italian fabrics, have been maintained at about $38. Czopp noted that, because the company does business in German marks, it has been hurt by the dollar's devaluation.
"We've had to absorb costs," said Czopp.
Capitalizing on the separates business is Hawthorne, Calif.-based Sunsets Separates, which has been offering mix-and-match suits since its inception 10 years ago--way before the category caught on fire at retail.
"It is the hottest category in the business right now," said Greg Stager, president. "A few years ago, retailers were confused by it, and they weren't that interested. Now, it's a different story."
To hold on to its business, the company is keeping prices in check by absorbing the higher costs of Lycra spandex. Each swimsuit piece wholesales from $14 to $20.
California Waves, based in Los Angeles, has been rapidly expanding its business.
The 13-year-old company, which specializes in mix-and-match separates, added showrooms in New York and Dallas this year to develop domestic sales.
The firm's junior line, California Waves, outperformed its contemporary line, Endless Sun, according to Jacques De Waele, general manager.
To pump up sales,, the company plans to upgrade Endless Sun with better fabrics like tricot. Average wholesale prices will be $12 to $13 for bottoms, while tops will be priced from $15 to $18. That's a 15 percent increase from last year, he said.
"We want to further differentiate the two lines," said De Waele."We also felt there is a demand for a better line."
The company is rapidly expanding its D, DD and E-cup bras.
"That segment of the market is growing for us," said De Waele. "This could easily be 15 to 20 percent of the business within the next year or so."
This past year, the company began selling to the Pacific Rim, in Tahiti and Japan; next year, California Waves plans to sell its label in Korea. Overseas business has been done through importers who distribute through specialty stores.
About 8 percent of the company's $5 million in sales is from overseas, and California Waves plans to double foreign volume next year.
For 1996, De Waele projected $6.5 million overall.
"Because of the dollar being so low, our product is very attractive overseas," said De Waele. "The name California Waves also has this great connotation. We are sort of exporting something of California, a kind of paradise for Europeans."

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