By  on January 26, 2005

For small swim makers, be they surf- or fashion-minded, the right mix of big talent and tiny fabric swatches can go a long way. Now more than ever, companies in the $1 million to $10 million range are making an impact on California’s nearly $1 billion women’s swim industry by breaking hot-selling trends and snapping major players to attention — in matters of product design and portfolio acquisition.

Warnaco’s recent $40 million acquisition of Ocean Pacific Apparel Co. underscores the big business belief that California’s active lifestyle brands are the latest money makers. Warnaco Swim Group, the industry’s leading player with an estimated $400 million in revenues — about 20 percent of the worldwide swim market — had yet to fill that junior surf niche in its portfolio; the company already owns brands in the contemporary, designer and active arenas with CK Choice, Michael Kors and Speedo among its eight labels.

Another major swim player looking to diversify is Los Angeles-based Apparel Ventures Inc., worth an estimated $90 million. In December, the megabrand snapped up $20 million, three-year-old Waterfront Design Group, makers of the leading junior brand Rampage Swim and contemporary line W Swim. The newly acquired company was renamed Blue Water Design Corp.

Of course, there are a few years and a lot of sales that bridge the gap between a $2 million company and a $20 million one. But that distance may be shortening.

In a cyclical industry such as fashion, the rise and fall of small brands is nothing new. After all, surfwear megalabels like Roxy and Billabong were once indie upstarts too. “The pendulum swings back and forth. At times, major lines dominate and smaller lines grow up,” said Alex Bhathal, executive vice president of Tustin, Calif.-based Raj Manufacturing, makers of Guess, O’Neill and St. John swimwear.

He recalls about seven years ago when status-label fever took swim by storm and all any consumer wanted was suits by Guess, Nautica, Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. Now, once unheard of names like Vix, TNA and Letarte are buzzwords among retailers near and far.

“California lines are known as innovators, they are the lines that help set [retailers such as] Everything But Water apart,” said Karen Tanner, merchandising director of the Orlando, Fla.-based 36-store specialty chain. “They introduced the embellishments and details that have been the trend for the last few seasons. That’s now being carried out on a grander scale by corporate giants.”

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