By and  on January 5, 2006

A number of small, fashion-forward swimwear brands with reputations founded on success in specialty stores are breaking into the big time.

"Bigger retailers we never had in the past are now giving us a shot," said Amahlia Stevens, designer and president of Laguna Beach, Calif.-based brand Vitamin A. "Those buyers are much more receptive to our calls or are actually seeking us out. I think some of the more cautious retailers let their peers take the risk up front and they now feel confident because we're still new, but we've proven ourselves in high-end boutiques around the world."

Torey Schulof, owner of the J. Rosen showroom in New York, which represents brands including Lisa Curran and Vix, said: "Stores like Bloomingdale's, Nordstrom and Saks are looking for specialty items to spice up their floors. They want different prints and extra details to make their presentation more interesting."

By investing in niche brands, department stores and other large chains are seeking ways to boost business and entice consumers with fashionable and directional products not widely distributed. The swim industry remains largely seasonal and many shoppers don't think about buying new brands until hot weather sets in. Last year, a number of stores saw lower margins in swimwear, since shoppers, especially in the Northeast, didn't start buying swim until late in the year due to cooler spring temperatures, and prices had already been cut.

Women's swimwear sales were $2.7 billion in the 11-month period ended Nov. 30, a 6.4 percent increase over the prior-year period, according to The NPD Group.

The swim selling season kicks into high gear this month and next, and niche swim brands are well represented at department and chain stores around the country. Among these fast-growing niche labels are brands such as Letarte, Lenny, Vitamin A, Lisa Curran, Island Co. and Poko Pano. Stevens, who started Vitamin A in 2000 when she was working full-time at Abercrombie & Fitch, sold to Neiman Marcus for the first time this year and noted that her orders in single-door stores have increased 100 percent over last year. She's also been picked up at Everything But Water and Swim & Sport, two East Coast swim chains she'd been unable to break into in the past. Her line wholesales for $21 to $44.

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