LOS ANGELES — O’Neill Clothing, a label founded a half-century ago and known for its Neoprene wetsuit, is finally diving into women’s swimwear.

The Irvine, Calif.-based surf brand announced Friday a multiyear licensing agreement with Raj Manufacturing Inc., which will codesign, make and distribute the juniors swimwear line set to bow at the cruise 2004 Swimwear Association of Florida show July 19-23 in Miami.

“The [juniors] line has evolved and become more fashion forward, so swim is just a natural extension of the brand,” said Malia Alani, O’Neill’s juniors marketing director.

Aimed at the 15- to 24-year-old girl, the line’s eight to 10 separate sets will blend performance and fashion elements, Alani said. Sport-bra tops and swim trunks will complement halter and tie-side bottoms with beading in sturdy tricot fabrics. Lisa Bhathal Vogel, Raj’s executive vice president, said the partners also will test run a one-piece suit for the active surfer. O’Neill has produced board shorts for men and women, but this is its first foray into traditional swimwear.

Prices will range from $68 to $82 for a suit, with shipment beginning in fall to surf shops and department store accounts. O’Neill also plans to promote the line in surf and mainstream publications in the next few months.

Vogel projected $7 million to $10 million for the swimsuits at retail the first year.

In spite of heavy competition from established lines like Roxy and Billabong, Vogel sees the line tracking immediately,owing to the swell in popularity of surf brands.

“We hope to take it to the level of Guess Swimwear, which became a top line in three years,” she said, referring to Raj’s other license.

Meanwhile, Tustin, Calif.-based Raj plans to launch its Next by Athena collection at the Miami show, as well. Geared to the Generation X female shopper, it will offer about 14 styles with retail tags of $68 to $101 for better positioning at high-end department stores. It will replace the misses’-oriented Athena Collection that began in 1982, but Raj will continue the contemporary line, Athena Pick Your Fit.“Based on our research, that Baby Boomer isn’t buying as many suits and we saw more opportunities with the new line,” Vogel said.

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