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Diving Into Crowded Waters

Calvin Klein Choice, St. John Knits, Skechers, Paul Frank and Sag Harbor were some of the brands that launched swim lines in Miami this week.

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MIAMI — The swimwear business is percolating, as more well-known fashion brands seek to enter the category and existing lines expand their offerings with new collections and divisions.

Calvin Klein Choice, St. John Knits, Skechers, Paul Frank and Sag Harbor are some of the big-name labels that launched swim lines at the Cruise 2005 show in Miami this week. Juicy Couture swimwear, produced under license by Swimwhere Anywhere, was previewed to select retailers and will officially debut at August market in New York. Michael Kors recently signed a deal with the Warnaco Group and will launch its collection next year, and Carmen Marc Volvo might be entering the category, as well.

“People are looking for newness and strong brands,” said Alexander S. Bhathal, executive vice president at Raj Manufacturing, which is producing the St. John Knits line under license and also makes Guess, O’Neill and Athena. “Price is not always a factor. Customers are willing to pay for a suit if it’s the right fit and color and has a strong name.”

Women’s swimwear sales were $2.2 billion from June 2003 to May 2004, up 5 percent compared with the previous year, according to the NPD Group. Women generally own twice as many suits as they wear, and three out of four women report spending less than $50 for a single swimsuit. More than half the women surveyed by NPD Group said they purchase swimwear “on sale” at least 50 percent of the time.

In Miami, retailers praised a number of new trend directions for the cruise season, including decidedly feminine details such as ruffles, jeweled embellishments and bright colors. Many of the looks reflect what is happening in ready-to-wear, with ladylike styles reminiscent of Fifties glamour girls. Itsy-bitsy bikinis are still around, but many companies offered cutout one-pieces and tankini styles as an alternative to the skimpy Brazilian looks that have dominated the market in recent seasons.

“No one really wants bikinis from me,” said Alisa Marie Beyer, founder and creative director at AXM Swimwear, a year-old firm based in Vienna, Va. “We are seeing interest in one-piece cutouts and cover-ups.”

Amy Benishai, owner of ARB Associates, which distributes Rygy, Zimmerman, Inca, Red Carter and other brands, said, “The real world does not wear tiny bikinis. Many stores now are looking for things that fit a bigger cross section of the population.”

Other key trends for the coming season include:

  • Citrus colors such as lime green and yellow.

  • Pucci-inspired prints and graphic, op-art-inspired motifs.

  • Scuba treatments such as mesh and belted bottoms reminiscent of women in James Bond movies.

  • Feminine elements, including ruffles, polkadots, skirted bottoms and Marilyn Monroe-style halter tops.

  • Vintage themes.
Almost every company was pushing separate offerings of items that can be mixed and matched. Firms seem to have realized that customers are usually not the same size on top and bottom and are looking for suits that accommodate them. Companies also are expanding their offerings of cover-ups with loungewear items, such as T-shirts and loose-fitting pants that can be worn to a nightclub after a day on the beach.

Island Company, for example, is only in its second season, but it already plans to add boardshorts and T-shirts, said Spencer Antle, creative director. Vix, meanwhile, offered a new line of Lycra dresses that are sold as cover-ups but could easily be worn to the office, depending on the dress code.

At the show, big swimwear producers also introduced line extensions and new divisions that will give them access to a wider range of consumers and price points.

Warnaco launched a new high-end Speedo collection called Platinum, as well as Speedo Sport, an active-inspired line, and debuted the Anne Cole Studio line, which caters to a more fashion-forward customer. Calvin Klein Choice, Anne Cole and Speedo are part of Warnaco Swim Group, which has been actively building its offerings in swimwear and also makes Nautica under license and Catalina. Speedo also introduced a selection of active apparel, a division that will be formally launched in the next few months, said Kathy Van Ess, president of designer brands at Warnaco Swim.

“We have a good team in place and are poised for growth,” she said. “This is an important area for Warnaco. With our new launches, we now cover the market with a wide range of distribution channels and price points.”

At Swim Experts Alliance, the giant swimwear company that owns Gottex and other brands, the Gideon Oberson label was relaunched with a fashion-forward and directional feel. SEA bought the Oberson brand last year. Oberson the designer also is taking over as director of the entire Gottex collection and is working with the team to update the brand. SEA also owns Christina, and produces XOXO and the new Skechers line under license.

Swim company A.H. Schreiber, which makes Sirena, Beach Native and Delta Burke, among others, is expanding its offerings with Oceanfront Properties, a new division catering to junior and contemporary customers.

The five-day show, sponsored by the Swimwear Association of Florida, drew about 450 exhibitors and more than 2,000 buyers, an increase over last year, said Judy Stein, executive show director.

Some store owners said their business was challenging in the last year because of unseasonably cold weather in Florida and other states, as well as a flood of junior brands in the market. Nonetheless, many said they were looking to add more resources for the coming season, and were optimistic that swimwear will be a solid category in 2005.

“We are really liking all the color and reversible prints, as well as the ruffles,” said Diane Jones, a buyer for junior and moderate swimwear at Foley’s, a division of May Co., which has 69 stores. She said Rampage was a particular standout for her at the show. “Swim was a little challenging for us this year, but we are not cutting back, and we are planning up for cruise,” she said.

Roberta Robbins, a swimwear buyer for Filene’s, another May Co. division, also praised the wide use of color and feminine touches. “We had a little bit of a tough season this year,” she said. “But I think the new trends will sell well. Now I am trying to balance promotional pricing with building our status brands.” She cited Rampage, Guess, Esprit and Beach Patrol as notable collections at the show.

Bonnie Wilkes, president of Liz Claiborne swim, said she saw a strong reaction to color, especially pinks, blues and turquoise. The line has been updated with more fashion forward and trendier looks, she noted,

As always, there were newcomers looking to make their mark. Errol, a two-year-old New York line, showed sexy looks with a satin finish. Chaiken, which is well known for its rtw looks and has had a selection of swimwear for about five years, is now offering a full collection.

Another newcomer is Cosabella, which is well-known in the intimate apparel business. Initial offerings include a wide range of groups. Many come in bright colors or vibrant prints.

“We have been asked to do swim many times, and we feel now is the right time,” said Sergio Oxman, vice president of sales at Cosabella. “Our brand has a lot of momentum, and this is an important part of our development.”

Also showing for the first time was AquaMom, a line of swimwear for pregnant women, as well as G-III’s new swimwear collection, which consists of suits with team logos. G-III has deals with Major League Baseball and the NFL, NBA and NHL.

The action in Miami wasn’t just on the show floor. In addition to the giant annual runway show and cocktail party organized by the Swimwear Association, BCBG Max Azria held a lively runway show and party at the Raleigh Hotel, where models pranced across the stage wearing Max Azria’s evening gowns, new swimwear designs and accessories. BCBG has had swimwear for the last three years, but this was the first time the company held an event to showcase the line. The looks were accessorized with bold jewelry and BCBG accessories, including silver stilettos and aviator sunglasses.

“We are all about creating a whole look and a lifestyle,” Azria said after the show. “It’s a sexy category and one we want to build.”

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