By  on August 2, 2007

Sensing a mounting demand for D-cup swimwear, Raj Manufacturing last year retooled its Next by Athena brand to offer up to a D cup in lingerie-style sizing.

The move paid off, with the D cups comprising one-third of Raj's Next by Athena business. As a whole, the Tustin, Calif.-based company's sales increased 130 percent year-over-year, and a substantial chunk of the increase was due to Next by Athena's revamp.

"It seems like whether you are an A, B or C [cup], it is easy to find swimwear," said Lisa Vogel, co-president of Raj Manufacturing. "It used to be really a specialty store business, where women who were looking for [large] cup sizes had to go into specialty stores, but it has really changed. A lot of the major department stores are asking for them."

For the 2008 swimwear season, Raj's pursuit of the D-cup-and-above customer has heated up even more. DD cups have been added to Next by Athena, and Athena's contemporary sister brand, Athena Pick Your Fit, received a helping of D cups in one- and two-piece suits. Also in Raj's brand portfolio, O'Neill Swimwear and Guess Swimwear have moved into D cups.

Roomy tops aren't new to the swimwear industry, but they've mostly been isolated to the plus-size or misses' corner in the past. However, this season is shaping up to be the D cup's coming-out parade, according to Vogel. The mainstreaming of the D cup is taking place on all levels: Brands from across the swim spectrum — designer to junior — are elevating their size options, and retailers, from online to specialty to department stores, are coming along for the ride.

"D is representing a terrific part of our volume," said Bridget Quinn Stickline, vice president of merchandising at swim specialty chain Everything But Water. "I tend to find that this customer is not as embarrassed as she is frustrated. She is more concerned about the fact that she doesn't have what she wants. We want to make sure she is feeling that she has a really good selection."

She added that five of Everything But Water's top 10 sellers this year are either D or DD styles.Robin Piccone, which is available at Everything But Water, Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom, is among the designer swim brands introducing D cups for the 2008 season. "There are a lot of women out there who have great figures, and they want something that is fashionable and not frumpy," said Roy Schwartz, vice president of Robin Piccone.

Exactly who the shopper is who's driving expansion in the large-cup market remains hard to pin down. Certainly, as Schwartz indicated, there are naturally large-breasted women, plus-size or otherwise, who are requesting chic suits that previously were hard to find. With waistlines widening, this group encompasses all ages and is only expected to continue growing.

But vendors and retailers caution that surmising that large-cup customers are necessarily older or plus-size women can be misguided. "There is a general perception that the D-cup guest is a larger guest," said Gary DeShon, a vice president at Becca swimwear. "She is out there in different sizes and shapes. She is not just wanting solids. She wants prints, crochets, textures."

Becca provides D cups in every group of separates it produces. For D-cup wearers who aren't plus-sized in all body parts, the variety allows pairings of large tops with small and medium bottoms.

"There are so many body types, you never want to leave out any," said Brooke Winston, a former fit expert at Everything But Water who now is a consultant for Becca.

Lori Medici, vice president of marketing at Perry Ellis, said the swimwear buying habits of teenage and young adult shoppers came into play when its Jantzen brand decided to include D-cup sizes last year. Perry Ellis has enlarged its assortment of D cups in its namesake brand for next year, and has experienced strength in D sizes in its Jag brand, a longtime resource for D-cup wearers.

"There is a youth demographic that is a little healthier, more well-endowed. There is the combination of that along with plastic surgery," said Medici. "We saw that [the D-cup suits were] a very profitable business for us, and it was an area that we had a demand for. Because, as a major manufacturer, we sell to such an array of retail distribution channels, we are getting requests across the board."Breast implants are proof that plus-size women aren't the only D-cup shoppers. While it is difficult to ascertain their exact impact on the category, anecdotal evidence suggests women with implants have significant swimwear buying power. "Even our account in Alaska will say, 'You have no idea how many boob jobs we have,'" Ellyce Zolt, partner in the Ronnie & Ellyce Sales Showroom, told WWD earlier this year. The showroom represents Endless Sun, a contemporary separates brand that runs up to an E cup.

Plastic surgery statistics back up anecdotal claims. The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reported that 383,886 breast augmentations were performed in the U.S. in 2006, and augmentation was, for the first time last year, the top cosmetic surgery procedure chosen by women. Overall, ASAPS estimated the number of cosmetic surgery procedures has jumped 446 percent in nearly a decade.

Like naturally large-breasted women, artificially enhanced women can't easily be categorized by their swimwear shopping behavior. Shelby McDougall, president of Miami based-Chica Rica Bikini Co., has discovered that often young women with breast implants don't purchase large tops, preferring smaller sizes. Chica Rica makes D and DD tops in its Chica and Jelly junior brands, and its customers are principally 18- to 25-year-old women.

At Raj, Vogel said the Guess Collection's D-cup additions could be for that enhanced customer seeking fashionable — and noticeable — bikinis. The suits retail for $94 to $120. "What we hear from the Guess retail stores is that it is more of an enhanced customer that is coming in and buying it," she said. "That is a totally different customer than the D cup in Next by Athena."

Many women in their 30s and beyond with implants may, however, be seeking swimwear that is not quite so showy. "We are getting to the generation when the women who had enhancement in their early 20s are becoming moms now," said Vogel. "They have to have support and coverage for that."

The D-cup market has matured with the customer, offering silhouettes such as halters and triangles in a range of styles that won't make a woman appear that she is wearing a bra to the beach. For example, Chica Rica, which had underwire and triangle styles in large cup sizes, supplemented its D and DD sizes with halters two years ago. Quinn Stickline pointed to Becca tankinis that are popular with the D-cup crowd.But gaps still persist in the D-cup-and-larger market. Quinn Stickline mentioned that one-pieces could use a wider diversity of larger cup offerings, and Vogel said the lack of options in one-pieces is why Athena Pick Your Fit is jumping into the business. "We can still develop D-cup silhouettes for her that look like what her non-D-cup peers are wearing," said Quinn Stickline.

Additionally, most retailers and manufacturers that are not plus-size specialists stay away from anything above DD. Everything But Water has a few E styles, but primarily stops at DD. "It is a much more challenging size to fit. You are really talking about what support they need," said Quinn Stickline of E cups. "I am a big believer that you shouldn't do anything that you aren't going to do well."

Traditionally, online and specialty retailers have been havens for customers with the largest busts. Not only has their choice of D styles and above been more complete, but online retailers also have been able to guide the shopper through the frequently terrifying swimsuit experience with fit instructions and by stocking well-received D-and-above styles.

"Because it is an area that has previously not been well serviced, it is something that people are more likely to come to the Internet for," said Sarah Dolan-Abrahams, a buyer at online lingerie and swimwear retailer Figleaves.com. "Some people don't feel comfortable going [to stores] and getting someone to fit them. It is more comfortable for them to do it in their homes."

As D cups and above spread through the retail channels, though, Vogel is closely watching to see if they will gain traction in retailers such as department and surf stores that have traditionally not carried vast amounts of larger sizes. Macy's and Dillard's bought Next by Athena, and Macy's also has picked up O'Neill swimwear in D sizes.

But Jill Klein, a buyer for online surf retailer Swell, suggested the O'Neill D sizes might not work well everywhere. Swell carries swimsuits sized extra small to large in O'Neill, and small to large in other brands, including Roxy, Billabong and Volcom. "I don't think a D cup should be wearing a majority of the styles that we offer," she said.

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