By  on August 27, 2007

Compared with apparel makers' uneasiness about upcoming seasons, swim vendors are decidedly cheerful.And indeed there's plenty to be cheerful about for the nearly 100 of them attending ISAM. Recent balmy weather has put water on consumers' brains. Brands that withstood department store consolidation are finding that trend-right items have a resilient customer base throughout several retailing channels. And year-round swimsuit and resortwear sales continue to pick up steam."I am very upbeat," said Greg Stager, president of Sunsets Inc. in Torrance, Calif., which makes swimsuits under the Swim Systems, Pursuit, Sunsets, B. Swim and Sunsets Kids labels. "I am looking forward to another great season next year. It makes the trade show circuit that much easier."Howard Greller, president of Blue Water Design Co., a division of Apparel Ventures Inc. that manufactures swimsuits under the Local Motion, W Swim, Trina Turk and Rampage labels, was equally sanguine about the season. "It is going to be great. This is the best response we have had in years," he said. He projected that Blue Water's revenues would climb 20 to 25 percent this year over last.The latest national sales figures justify the exuberance. From June last year to May this year, research firm The NPD Group estimates women's swimwear sales came in at just under $2.8 billion, up 14.2 percent from $2.4 billion in the same period a year ago. Among the three categories of swimwear styles, separates experienced the heftiest year-over-year growth, at 21.2 percent, while one-pieces grew 8.8 percent and bikinis grew 12.7 percent.With the separates business humming, brand after brand is leaping onto the bandwagon and moving away from sets. Roy Schwartz, vice president of Robin Piccone, has helped the Culver City, Calif.-based brand transition from sets to separates in the past few years. Robin Piccone suits are available at Everything But Water, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor."[Robin Piccone] was doing high-priced designer suits, [but] wasn't really consumer-friendly in terms of appealing to the masses," said Schwartz. "We turned it around to go into more high-end mass merchandisers by introducing separates." He added that Robin Piccone's sales have increased 20 percent annually, partially due to the shift to separates.Indeed separates are spreading to every corner of the swim industry. Misses' brand T.H.E. originally unveiled separates last year, but this year has gone full force into the segment with a new line called Topanga by T.H.E. "Separates have been a real growth area for us," said Steve Corser, national sales manager for the Huntington Park, Calif.-based company. "The stores have enjoyed that we had a goal of keeping our bottoms in stock all year round. The retailers are very optimistic about what we are doing."Despite the new entrants, longtime separates vendors do not seem threatened. Sunsets Inc. has been producing mix-and-match pieces for more than 20 years, and Stager said the company has not been hampered by the burgeoning competition."It is not to the point of saturation," he said. "There are still many retailers out there that have not committed enough space to mix-and-match separates. There is still room for growth in this category, and there will be [for] another couple of years."Has the separates explosion affected swimsuit pricing? Topanga by T.H.E. and the core T.H.E. line may be separated in wholesale price by 50 cents, but Corser said that the two "really end up being about the same price point." For the most part, he said the company's tops run from $16 to $19 wholesale, while bottoms start at $12 and top out at $16 wholesale.However, at Blue Water Design Co., diving into separates has impacted swimsuit prices. Greller said that retailers customarily added another $2 after doubling Blue Water's wholesale price, to get their retail price, but this year can add $3."We believe the world has become 100 percent separates, and the consumer has to pay for that luxury. It is costing us more money to handle the maintenance of separates because the consumer is given the opportunity to mix and match," he said. "We don't believe the customer is going to bat an eyelash."Perhaps the customer won't notice separates-driven price hikes because swimsuit prices overall are inching upward. According to The NPD Group, the average price for women's swimwear was $24.99 from June 2006 to May this year, compared with $24.40 in the same period a year ago and $23.73 in the same period two years ago.Schwartz said that rising hardware and material expenses have driven up prices for Robin Piccone swimwear. He said that the prices for the line, which retails from $110 to $140, have climbed 5 to 6 percent over last year, but he doesn't expect any resistance to the elevated price tags."Price is not a big factor for us. We never really had people complain about it," said Schwartz. "People who buy us want the best-looking suit."Not all swim makers have been afforded the same price acceptance. Trisha Geftos, owner of Geftaki, a three-year-old Detroit-based company specializing in embellished swimwear, has been working to bring down prices because stores were having difficulty selling Geftaki suits. The brand's suits now wholesale for $22 to $70 per piece, after starting at $35 per piece last year."People are having trouble selling things more than $150 retail," said Geftos. "We are a newer company in the market, and it is harder for a name that is not as well known."The degree of price resistance may depend on the retailing channel. Monica Wise, founder of L*Space in Santa Ana, Calif., said traditional surf shops in particular are reluctant to stock swimsuits that cost more than suits by recognizable surf brands, including Roxy, Billabong and O'Neill. "They are afraid of it. They don't want to give it a chance," she said of surf store buyers' attitudes toward pricier suits.Wise indicated those surf shops that have embraced more expensive fashion-oriented swimsuits have found success. She said that Brave New World Surf Shops, a small chain with three units in New Jersey, has notched 80 to 100 percent sell-through with L*Space swimwear. "That is an old-school surf shop, but they just learned how to keep up with the times. They have no problem selling my product at the price points," she said. "We all know that you can't compete with your Targets and your Wal-Marts. You have to go totally the other direction."Throw celebrities into the mix, and price resistance as an issue fades away. Like in the clothing and accessories business before it, celebrities' relevance in the swim industry has been mounting. When Lindsay Lohan was photographed wearing a navy and white L*Space suit dubbed Rock the Boat, Wise said the demand for the item skyrocketed. "It just blew the suits out throughout the country," she said. "Consumers are so hungry for the stars. Everything [stars] have, [consumers] want."A similar phenomenon occurred when Cameron Diaz was pictured wearing a Le Doux bikini several months ago. Juliana Regan, creative director for the Beverly Hills-based brand, estimated she received at least 30 calls a day from people asking about that suit, called the Lollipop. She said that celebrities influence the shopping behavior of younger customers in particular. "They follow trends a lot more than the older people," she said. "[Costumers in their] teens and early 20s, they want to be the celebrities and wear what they wear."The emphasis on celebrities has added a new wrinkle for emerging brands attempting to secure a toehold in stores. Geftos said that, not only do young companies have to prove they can deliver cute suits and do so on time, they are frequently asked about celebrity press coverage as well. "That is important to buyers," she said. "That is very big in the marketplace to be known, to make sure [customers] see who is wearing it."

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