By  on January 17, 2002

NEW YORK -- In an attempt to cheer up buyers and consumers, swimwear makers showed off scores of colorful swimsuits, a departure from the more muted and sophisticated tones of past seasons.

Interest in vivid florals and preppy tones brought life last week to what is typically a quiet market for summer fill-ins. Having underestimated the resort swimwear business, some buyers scrambled to try to write immediate orders at brands such as Liz Claiborne and Manuel Canovas.

There were plenty of vibrant-print swimsuits geared for lazy days at the pool or beach. More conservative swimsuits, especially one-piece styles, seem primed to make a comeback this summer, given the new conservatism and the plethora of looks showcased last week. Tankinis also took on a more tasteful look, with longer tops that nearly covered the midriff, hinting at consumers buttoning-up their attire.

Monokinis, cutouts, mesh insets and maillots were front and center in a variety of showrooms, including Anne Cole, La Blanca, Liz Claiborne, Ralph Lauren, Speedo and Manuel Canovas. There were also plenty of Marimekko-inspired prints -- vivid oversized florals. Founded in Finland 51 years ago, Marimekko's original business concept of clothing and textile design emerged from a desire to create something uplifting and long-lasting for postwar Finland.

"Everyone wants happy colors like lime green and blues instead of gloomy tones like browns," said Donna Corey, merchandise manager for swimwear maker Gottex. "They also want one-pieces. After Sept. 11, people want to enjoy their lives a little bit more. They want to be comfortable and they don't want to deal with what it takes to wear a two-piece."

Miraclesuit president Jay Feigenbaum, a 30-year-plus veteran of the swimwear industry, said: "Needless to say, with the questionability of the world situation and where the economy is in the recovery cycle, we have to be creative to attract customers."

What Miraclesuit came up with were spliced fabrics with solids and prints, laser cuts and vibrant colors such as glacier blue, yellow and burnt orange. Flexibility is also a must, with some retailers pushing their deliveries back a month or two, Feigenbaum said.

David Burnett, president of Liz Claiborne Swim, and Patricia Ratut, the U.S. sales representative for Manuel Canovas, both noted that stores are still holding off on chasing trends and are frequently disappointed to learn makers are out of stock on key items.While swimwear trends generally do not rise and fall with the world's political climate, there are some similarities. The bikini's introduction in France in the summer of 1946 marked the celebratory mood of that postwar period. But American fashion editors were quick to cast it aside as tacky. Diana Vreeland suggested that the swimsuits "revealed everything about a girl except her mother's maiden name."

For summer, discretion seems to be back in vogue. Anne Cole, who has been plugging the return of the one-piece for the past 17 months, said: "Wearability is a key note today. Fashion has gone berserk since we're going through these difficult times."

Like many executives wary of any unnecessary flights, Cole skipped summer market. In a coast-to-coast conference call from her Los Angeles office to her Park Avenue showroom, she described the new line as "happy, clean and feminine." Calling attention to conversational prints like a white tank with palm trees, Cole said swimwear stands to be a welcome reprieve from these headier times.

Interest in coordinating pareos and coverups has shot up in recent months, she said. Women now want items that go beyond the beach, like pareos that double as evening shawls or fishnet-type dresses that can be worn on the street, Cole said. They are a more transient set -- a far stretch from late 19th-century beachgoers who were transported to the water's edge in enclosed carts and laden with "aquatic costumes" that weighed up to 20 pounds when wet.

Authentic Fitness, the maker of Anne Cole, Speedo, Oscar de la Renta and Ralph Lauren swimwear, aims to broaden its stable of labels. Roger Williams, chief operating officer for Authentic Fitness, plans to hold on to its existing brands and is looking to acquire new ones.

In the company's Ralph Lauren showroom, buyers liked the looks of halter-neck and lace-up swimsuits in white and khaki. Stores also were checking out weathered blue and ivory swimsuits with varsity letters in the Polo Sport line.

Ocean Pacific played up its surf heritage by unveiling OP Classic, a throwback to its early days. Silk-screened terry cloth swimsuits are offered in pale yellow, light blue and white -- the only colors that could withstand screen printing when the company was founded in 1972.The signature OP swim line paid homage to the company's past, with groups named Tiny Bubbles and Blue Lagoon. OP's swim line included a few items with embroidered bottoms on the lower back, reminiscent of teenagers' favorite place for tattoos. Both lines are produced under license by Apparel Ventures.

With the junior business surging ahead, Christie Fish, merchandise manager for juniors at Apparel Ventures, said: "[Teens] are getting on with their lives more quickly than others. They're still going to go to Daytona [Beach, Fla.] on spring break and they're still going to buy a new bikini. They keep doing what they're doing. They have a sense of immortality."

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