By  on February 14, 2005

The resort and swimwear category is poised for a strong year, and companies are gearing up with new plans for growth.

“Business looks very promising,” said Chuck Handy, a swim industry veteran who is now president of New York-based TriStar Apparel, which makes the new Surface swim line.

John Gembecki, national sales manager at Altamonte Springs, Fla.-based clothing and swimwear firm Jack White Apparel, agreed. “The economy is picking up, the elections are over and people are feeling more comfortable,” he explained. “They are ready to go on vacation and spend some money. Instead of buying one suit, they are buying a few suits.”

With the strength of the category, however, comes increased competition, leading many resort and swimwear makers to be on the lookout for smart strategies to keep their heads safely above water.

EXPLORING NEW TERRITORIES

Vendors said after a few years of decline, travel has started to pick up again. This has led to increased sales in the resort and swimwear category and has spurred vendors to look into new areas of growth.

For TriStar Apparel, that new area of growth is addressed in its Surface line, which launched last May. Surface features moderate swimwear that is designed for fashion-forward customers who want a full fit, and not the skimpy looks that have dominated much of the market in recent seasons.

“Customers have been asking for a high-quality full-fit swimsuit. Everyone is into tummy control,” said Handy at TriStar.

Handy said he expects to have a strong year since his line “is different from what is out there.”

“Everything is sold with a cover-up — either in tricot or Lycra mesh — and the pricing is very competitive,” he noted. All the items in the Surface line wholesale for about $23.

Among the items for sale are one-pieces and tankinis, and many come in bright colors and bold prints. In addition, many items have adjustable arm straps or elasticized legs, as well as special touches such as heat-transfer logos.

Handy said the Surface line has already been picked up by Belk’s and some other department stores, and he is looking to expand into specialty shops and  more big-name chains.Going forward, Surface may also expand into maternity and plus sizes, Handy noted.

Jack White Apparel is expanding its distribution across the country. “We are well known on the East Coast, but now we are expanding on the West Coast and also deeper into Hawaii, which has been a great market for us,” Gembecki explained.

Gembecki said that with these launches and updates, his company is expecting to rack up double-digit growth in 2005.

Steve Pinsky, co-owner of Sommerdale, N.J.-based Creative Wraps Inc., said his company has experienced about 5 percent growth over last year in response to its contemporary offerings.

“We got our start in junior looks for resort, but contemporary looks seem to be where our customers are taking us,” he said. “The demographics of our retailers’ customers are growing up, and we are trying to address that with more sophisticated looks that also have higher margins.”

The company sells products under the label Raya Sun for girls and teenagers, and the line is now available in about 43 stores.

The company also has recently started selling a men’s line under the label RS Surf, according to Pinsky.

A YOUTH INITIATIVE

While Creative Wraps is going after a more contemporary customer, a number of companies are stepping up their offerings for preteens and young shoppers.

Jack White Apparel has its eyes on the preteens’ and kids’ markets. “We have been producing men’s and women’s swimwear for the last six years, and we have seen that the category of girls’ swimwear has exploded,” explained Gembecki at Jack White.

Jack White is introducing two new swim lines. Purple Peanut is available in sizes 4 to 6, while

U Girls is for sizes 7 to 16, said Gembecki.

The styling for both is meant to appeal to fashion-conscious girls. “We are really imitating the teenage market with styles such as triangle tops. The whole world is growing up a little faster now,” he explained. “The preteens want to look like 18-year-olds.”

Another company seeing strong sales of kids’ wear is Happy Kids for Kids, a firm based in Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. “We expect our business to be up this year,” said Belle Aharon, a manager at the company. “We are opening a lot more stores and have seen more interest from specialty accounts.”CROWDED HOUSE

All the good news in the resort and swimwear category has been attracting new competition among both vendors and retailers.

More big-name designers and brands are dipping into swim, including St. John Knits, Diane von Furstenberg, Carmen Marc Valvo, Juicy Couture and Kenneth Cole. Michael Kors will introduce his first swim collection next spring.

More chain stores, such as Banana Republic, Old Navy and Victoria’s Secret, also are diving into this category, and resort and swimwear shoppers no longer have to go to department stores or specialty swim shops to buy the latest looks.

Meanwhile, big-box stores such as Wal-Mart, Target and Kmart also are muscling in on the action by moving more steadily into beach towns and vacation areas with a wider selection of resortwear than they offered in the past.

Nonetheless, resort and swimwear makers are coming up with creative ways to stay ahead of the game.

Pinsky at Creative Wraps said he has responded to the challenge posed by big-box retailers to department stores and specialty swim shops by stepping up the company’s focus on doing business at theme and water parks, which aren’t typically affected by these mass stores.

Handy at TriStar is changing the way his line ships to be more accommodating to stores. “Our [line] is shipped as a set and we ship our items already on the hang tag to make it easier for retailers.”

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