By  on July 25, 2007

MIAMI BEACH — Swimwear was a round-the-clock affair here this month with the Swimshow during the day, IMG Fashion shows running in three tents every night and enough after parties to test the endurance of the most enthusiastic South Beach reveler.

It all began with a lavish kickoff July 10 at the Raleigh Hotel, where IMG Fashion, sponsored by Mercedes-Benz, set up three tent venues for 16 fashion shows July 10 to 14. Models paraded around the shallow water of the huge pool's perimeter, while The Beach Boys performed live to an audience of 800, who partied poolside afterward.

"Our shows are about the media-Internet attention," said Fern Mallis, senior vice president of IMG Fashion, who added that celebrities John Stamos and Tyson Beckford attended, adding to the buzz, along with Jessica Simpson, who walked the runway July 14 to launch her own swimwear line at The Shore Club.

Mallis said of the 16 lines at IMG, which included Badgley Mischka, Red Carter and Ashley Paige, one-third were international, such as Cia.Maritima, a Brazilian line.

Lycra brought a refreshing twist to IMG's tents July 11, with "Reality Beach." Lycra solicited real women from the Miami area to attend swimwear fit clinics July 10 and 11 with Bobbie Thomas, host of Style Network's "Fashion Police." Fifteen local women, all ages and sizes, were selected to walk the runway July 11 in swimsuits made with Xtra Life Lycra.

"Trying on a swimsuit is the most horrible, scary thing a woman can do," said Iris Revson, 49, who strutted her stuff in a sexy black swimsuit with gold studs, along with her 18-year-old daughter, who also modeled in the show. "This suit makes me proud of my good features. It makes me feel hot."

Ninabeth Sowell, marketing manager for Invista, makers of Lycra, said, "Our biggest challenge is reaching and educating the consumer. We know that fit is the most important thing to them."

At the Miami Beach Convention Center, fit and the search for color and new trend direction were foremost on buyers' minds as they got their first look at Swimshow 2008. Sponsored by the Swimwear Association of Florida, the show ran July 11 to 15 and celebrated its 25th anniversary with 350 exhibitors.An estimated 2,000 buyers attended, up 15 percent compared with last year, said Judy Stein, executive show director.

The Swimshow kicked off with a 218-piece fashion show, attended by 1,400 people, held in a tent at Nikki Beach, a trendy South Beach nightspot.

Exhibitors, chastened by all the dark-colored swimwear last year that didn't sell well, made sure they had plenty of color in their collections, especially red, orange, yellow and a range of blues.

Prints were inspired by modern art, geometric shapes and vintage designs, and often combined with stripes, dots and other treatments.

Despite less overt embellishment than recent years, shine and glitz were still alive, from fabric treatments such as foils and metallics to hardware. Metal trimmed suits in rings, studs, crystals and rhinestones.

One-piece silhouettes returned, though mostly in cutout shapes with deep plunges. Bikinis featured more high-waisted, belted bottoms and over-the-shoulder tops. Exhibitors expanded collections, particularly cover-ups.

"We're encouraging retailers to show swimwear and cover-ups together on the floor and as a story, rather than separate them, which makes no sense," said Lynne Koplin, president of women's at Tommy Bahama.

Other lines emphasized the importance of reaching the consumer through marketing. Jantzen, which relaunched its line last year based on archival collections, spent $5 million on marketing and will increase that budget this year, said Lori Medici, vice president of marketing.

Product and fit, rather than specific categories or brands, drove buying decisions at Everything But Water, the Orlando-based swimwear chain that with two recent acquisitions added 30 stores for a total of 72 stores nationwide.

"Swim is an ageless business and product drives it," said buyer Bridget Strickline. "Brand is important, but it doesn't trump fit. A suit can have no big name, but perfect fit and women will buy it."

Buyers from EBW, including the new president, Sheila Arnold, shopped the show for five full days, taking in the new trends. They were most pleased to see the return of color, including orange, coral, blues and purples, after last year's dark palettes.

Strickline also noted the "return of bling," though in more refined versions than previous seasons, with chains, hardware and sequined treatments. She liked the option of cutout, one-piece suits, which she said "are working at retail, for most customers."To battle mounting competition from discounters and promotional department stores, some specialty retailers were seeking higher price lines, providing they have what it takes to make consumers willing to shell out big bucks.

"Other stores can sell $29 suits, break price early and offer coupons,'' said Merrill Levin, owner of Shirley & Co., a swimwear and resortwear store in Newtown, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb. "We're specifically targeting upscale customers."

Citing Betsey Johnson, Becca, Karla Colletto, Gottex and Maryan Mehlhorn as those that are resonating with customers, Levin said she also focuses on year-round stock, full-size ranges and customer service

Ben Schwartz, owner of Sunset Bay, a Chicago swimwear store, also noted a return to glitz, in foil treatments and sequins. He praised lines such as Karla Colletto "that don't need embellishment, but rely on great design and fit."

Schwartz bought Becca for its innovative prints and Betsey Johnson's vibrant blue and gold groups, and bustier silhouettes.

Susan Kaplan, owner of Teen Heaven in North Palm Beach, Fla., said, "Fashion has been turned up a notch. Better fabrics, embroidery and crystals are all things that justify the higher prices manufacturers are asking for suits."

Kaplan said the industry had "cracked the $100 ceiling," with customers paying more than $100 retail for swimwear.

Describing her customer as "toe-dippers" rather than hard-core surfers or beach girls, she bought fashion-forward swimwear, such as a lobster print bikini from Red Carter, print separates from LSpace, and sophisticated embellished suits with jewel details from Luli Fama.

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