By  on June 27, 1994

ATLANTA -- Tackling the U.S. market has meant big business for a number of South American swimwear companies. But it hasn't been easy.

The challenges range from attracting retailers and fighting a stereotype of poor quality, to learning what Americans will wear and won't wear. Sizing has been still another learning process. "It's not just coming here with pretty swimwear," explained Benny Benson, president of Venezuelan-based Dorita Vera's U.S. operations who, along with other manufacturers was interviewed by phone. "There's the delivery, the marketing and the follow-up," he said.

Benson, whose U.S base is in St. Augustine, Fla., said his firm has had to restructure its thinking to understand and accommodate the needs of the U.S. market. "The timing is different here and the market is so much bigger. We have to adapt to these things," he said.

For the American market, swimwear lines open in July, while in South America, collections are presented in September. In addition, American stores order in much larger volume because they're dealing with a greater customer base, as opposed to, say, stores in smaller countries like Colombia and Venezuela. Although Benson shows the same line in North and South America, he edits the collection to what he thinks will sell in the U.S.

He says American women like sexy, but not skimpy. In his current line, he shows only one thong-back suit and concentrates on suits that work for larger bustlines. "The U.S. customer demands more coverage,"he said.

Benson says the hardest part of breaking into the market has been gaining name recognition. Currently, the U.S. accounts for about 20 percent of total sales. "Big-name retailers are hesitant to take a chance on the unknown, " he said.

The line, which opened in the U.S. two years ago, was featured in both Glamour and Cosmopolitan magazines last season, and Benson said the exposure helped immensely. "As they say in Venezuela, 'The piûata just broke."' He said one of the important things he does to entice retailers is keep a well-stocked warehouse in St. Augustine so that reordering is easy and fast.

Erma Golan, president of Cotton Clouds swimwear, Bay Harbor Island, Fla., also cited difficulty in establishing a name, but added building trust with retailers as another key factor.She explained, "There have been many fly-by-night operations that produced suits of poor quality -- suits that just didn't fit. We have to fight against that unfortunate stereotype." Her seven-year-old company sells four lines in the U.S.: La Ronda and Caramba, which are made in Bogota, Colombia; La Maylo, produced in Barcelona, Spain, and Tangelo, manufactured in Herzelia, Israel.

Golan said U.S. sales account for between 60 to 70 percent of her total business. Her manufacturers create special collections for the U.S. market. The fabrics they use are the same; the designs are not.

"American women's tastes are totally different," Golan said. "They like high-cut legs and scooped waists, and while they like to show cleavage, they want more support and coverage."

Golan added, "Also, the average cup here is a C Cup, while in South America and Europe there are more A and B Cups."

Last year, her firm hired an American consultant who works with the designers overseas and advises on pattern and fit.

She finds the U.S. market very conservative.

"Swimwear trends have been unusually hard to predict this year," Golan said. "If you're marketing a nice, safe, appealing suit, that's what's going to sell."

Carla de Castro, chief executive officer of Rio de Janeiro-based CX Enterprises, which makes and distributes Sharkbite swimwear, agreed that American women tend to be larger and are more conservative than the South American customer.

"It took us a few years to get it together," said de Castro, who runs the U.S. office out of Miami. The 4 1/2-year-old company was formed specifically to sell to the U.S. market and all of its business is with the U.S.

There is also Sharkbite Brazil, which is a separate firm, though it is owned by the same person, Carmen Rezende, and shares the same designer, Rezende's mother, Katharina Rezende.

De Castro said the U.S. Sharkbite line includes a lot of bright colors and floral patterns, while the Brazilian line uses more dark colors and ethnic prints.

"Brazilian women are also very small. Their idea of small is extra small in the States."

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