NEW YORK — Labor Day is still weeks away, but swimwear makers are already gearing up for next year’s business with new categories, labels and strategies.

By the time the swimwear market gets under way here Monday, summer 2004— at least in their eyes — will already have arrived. Cast in that light, brands will be busy touting fresh flashes of color and such new labels as Fiorucci, Apparel Venture’s Playa by La Blanca, Jantzen’s Diving Girl and Mainstream’s Caribbean Joe.

On a darker note, they’re trying to address issues that have long plagued the $2 billion industry, like early markdowns and keeping merchandise in stores at the height of the season.

Peter Rubin, president and chief executive of Mainstream, which picked up theCaribbean Joe license in November, said stores could avoid markdowns by holding price until July 4. “She’s going to buy it. Why give it away?” he asked.

Rubin noted that one successful specialty store he sells to generates about 70 percent of its business in June.

While Mainstream swimwear offers ample coverage, Caribbean Joe has styles that are more updated, but without being skimpy. The latter also has plenty of prints, especially floral and Hawaiian-inspired ones. “We like to associate with labels that have strong brand recognition and take direction from different types of prints and fabrics,” Rubin said.

Lisa Curran is trying to appeal to her summer shoppers by shipping a smaller third collection in June. “People are buying closer to their needs due to the economy and the weather,” she said. “It also helps buyers because they’re not holding onto their goods.”

Curran has also seen a shift in her resort purchases now that more of her shoppers are going away in February and March instead of November and December. They’re also shopping a week or so before they go away instead of further in advance, she said.

Lisa Curran customers are buying tinier swimsuits, due to their health-consciousness and the South American influence on the swimwear market. “Bikinis have become so much more important. Women don’t want as much coverage,”she said. “There’s still the customer who goes to the country club that wants a tankini, but a lot of customers want bikinis. Before, it was only 25-year-olds.”American shoppers’ willingness to buy sexy swimwear bodes well for Rosa Chá, a 15-year-old Brazilian company that has built a following on its bare styles, said founder Amir Slama. Next month, Rosa Chá introduces a lingerie collection, another effort to broaden the brand’s lifestyle appeal.

“The market has changed in the past two years. People are more selective and not so impulsive. They study the pieces they are going to buy,” he said. “But when you have what she wants, she buys.”

As part of its plan to increase its $2 million in U.S. sales by 50 percent, Rosa Chá will open its first American store in Miami next month, Slama said. The $12 million company has 20 stores in Brazil and one in Portugal. Improving U.S. distribution — something the company took in-house last year — is a priority for Jutta Kurz, sales manager, who heads up Rosa Chá’s new U.S. office in Miami.

For the second consecutive year, the firm will stage a fashion show in September during 7th on Sixth in Bryant Park. Adriana Lima, Karolina Kurkova, Naomi Campbell, May Anderson, Liya and Heidi Klum are expected to walk the runway. Campbell modeled in Chá’s recent fashion show in Brazil.

Despite seeing swimwear sales jump 50 percent this year, Shoshanna is still trying to get some major retailers to dedicate floor space to separates. That’s “the only hurdle” the company is facing now, said Felicia Marie Gellar, senior vice president.

“For an industry that sells one of the least conservative things, swimwear buyers tend to be conservative,” she said. “The funny thing is with handbags and swimwear, people will be more girly and feminine.”

Case in point, this summer’s bestselling style for Shoshanna was a white halter bikini imprinted with rainbow-colored hearts. Gellar attributed some of the item’s success to the frenzy for Louis Vuitton’s Murakami handbags, which have a similar palette.

The company has made inroads with Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s, which will both carry its line in more doors, and by encouraging sportswear specialty retailers to carry swimwear. To try to build sales with swim specialty stores, Shoshanna will exhibit at ISAM this month in Las Vegas, just as it showed at the Miami swimwear trade show last month for the first time since its launch.Some stores have moved up their March 30 deliveries four months to Nov. 30, with the hope of attracting more customers who go away for the holidays, Geller said.

In terms of new labels, Fiorucci will unveil its women’s swimwear and beachwear at the Intima America trade show at the Jacob K. Javits Center Sunday through Tuesday. MonBell International is distributingthe collection, which is licensed to Trademar, an Italian company. Bikinis, shorts, dresses, sarongs, tanks and coverups will be among the offerings. Wholesale prices will range from $18 to $70, a spokeswoman said.

Nautica will be talking up its new allegiance with Sports Illustrated. The company is staging model searches this summer at four pro volleyball tournaments. Ten finalists will compete on the runway in Nautica swimwear. The winner will receive a $75,000 three-year contract with Next ModelManagement, a Nissan 350ZX roadster and will appear in SI’s swimsuit issue.

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