NEW YORK — Most people don’t like to anticipate the end of summer, but swimwear executives are ready to move on after a fairly challenging season and year.

For 2003, that means gearing up with swimsuits in brighter colors and printed styles, according to buyers and manufacturers at last week’s market. Despite this summer’s scorching temperatures in the Northeast, which should have lifted swimwear sales, executives were saddled by the sagging economy and pre-July 4 markdowns. So much so, that this year’s retail sales are expected to be flat with last year at $1.8 billion. But competition remains fierce.

Peter Rubin, president of the Swimwear Manufacturers Industry Association and chief executive officer of Mainstream, said: "For every brand that is in the stores, there are four or five others with their noses pressed against the glass, trying to get in."

Harry Cipriani’s on 42nd Street was the site for SWIM’s annual market week fashion show. During the cocktail hour on Aug. 6, some guests addressed the challenging state of business.

Kathleen Mudd, owner of Canyon Beachwear, a 10-store chain based in Los Angeles, said she was impressed with the swimwear at Lingerie Americas, a three-day show at the Metropolitan Pavilion. Argentovivo, a Bologna-based label, Eres, Luisa Maria Lugli and Laura Urbinati were among her favorites there. She especially liked Urbinati’s deconstructed shorts with details like simple ribbons and liberty prints. Finishing touches like belts, jewels and piping should be important next summer, Mudd said.

Despite a "fabulous summer" for swimwear sales on the West Coast, Canyon Beachwear is planning for this year’s sales to be flat compared with last year. But brands like Lisa Curran, Robin Piccone, Calvin Klein and Beach Patrol should help push next year’s sales.

Tanya Thorson, women’s swim merchant for Lands’ End, and Pirkko Karhumen, senior director of design, said they were pleased to see the assortment of flat prints and nontraditional colors like neutrals paired with brights, instead of everyone playing it safe like last year.

They said they planned to play up separates — two-piece swimsuits that can be bought in different sizes — since Lands’ End customers want swimwear that focuses on fit. That strategy should help increase sales of bikinis and stir up some excitement around the category, they said.Fit was also the focus for Britta Cabanos, designer of B. Cabanos swimwear. Instead of trying to sell to specialty stores, as many newcomers do, Cabanos is going after larger accounts to avoid limited production runs. Her aim is to double annual sales to $500,000 this year.

Anne Cole marked the 20th anniversary of her collection with a party on Aug. 5 at the ‘21’ Club. Her game plan is to update key styles from the past and to play up the brand’s heritage in marketing.

The following night, Raj Manufacturing also celebrated a milestone — 35 years in business — by hosting a party at Britney Spears’ new restaurant, Nyla. Bikini-clad models, a drag queen decked out as Beyoncé Knowles of Destiny’s Child, and a Spears impersonator mingled with guests.

One attendee, Sarah Bailey, a swimwear buyer for Younkers, said she is counting on halter tops and low-rise bottoms to continue to be strong next year, with Esprit, Daffy, LEI, Guess, Rampage and Electric Beach being among her favorites. Next summer, she plans to focus solely on separates, mix-and-match items that can be bought in different sizes, which has been a hit with junior customers.

"Business has been so good that some stores didn’t have enough merchandise," she said. "It’s a matter of having the right mix."

Given that, Younkers, a division of the Saks Department Store Group, is planning for sales to be flat with last year, Bailey said. The chain aims to build business by playing up more swimsuits in paisleys, faux suedes and denim.

A buyer for Gadzooks, who asked not to be named, said she liked the looks at Raisins, Radio Fiji, Bebe and Guess. Swimwear makers have made a point of diversifying their styles, which means stores can find something for their various shoppers’ needs.

For the most part, manufacturers reported solid interest from buyers. At the Lingerie Americas show, the Eres, Manuel Canovas, Princess Tam-Tam and Laura Urbinati booths were busy with retailers. Urbinati said stores were looking for "very feminine" looks.

At La Perla’s offices, there were so many appointments one afternoon that the reception area was used as a makeshift showroom.The Mainstream showroom was also busy with buyers. To try to stake its territory in department stores, Mainstream focused on bright colors, skirted looks, bow details and coverups, especially tie-front pants. Blugirl by Blumarine Mare served up festive themes like "Postcards from Capri" and "La Dolce Vita" for its romantic rose-print, bold colors, floral and other feminine swimsuits.

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