PASADENA, Calif. — Tommy Bahama is trying to reinvigorate its women’s business, and the resortwear brand appears to be benefiting from a basic tool.

Last spring, the Seattle-based company supplemented the no-frills haberdasher forms in its freestanding stores with lithe female mannequins showing off halter dresses and bikinis. Since then, in the midst of a slowdown in apparel retail, women’s sales increased 5 percent to make up 25 percent of total sales in Tommy Bahama’s 80-plus branded stores.

“The woman would walk into the store and say, ‘I want what’s on that mannequin,’ ” said LynneKoplin, president of Tommy Bahama Group Inc.’s women’s division. “You’re not going to mean anything to women if you don’t show [the product].”

Since joining Tommy Bahama in July 2005, after spending six years overseeing the brand’s swimwear license at Apparel Ventures Inc., Koplin has taken cues from the contemporary fashion market to appeal to a 35-year-old customer, who is at least a decade younger than the shopper Tommy Bahama targeted when the women’s business launched in 1997. The changes Koplin implemented provide guidance on how to spruce up a women’s line spun off from a men’s brand that basically had shrunken printed silk camp shirts in smaller sizes for female customers.

In addition to using mannequins, Koplin also began offering separates in the swim category, emphasizing solid colors over prints, shifting from an all-silk stock to easy-care textiles such as linen and a rayon-viscose blend, and boosting the number of dresses more than eightfold. An e-commerce site launched in October 2007. There are two women’s-only stores, on Santana Row in San Jose, Calif., and in Las Vegas’ Forum Shops at Caesars.

Koplin also hired a staff for her division’s new headquarters here in a 6,000-square-foot converted warehouse that houses 22 employees, including sportswear design director Dominic Sabella, swim designer Harriet Fleming and a sample production room, a first for the company. She also stopped the practice of contracting men’s factories to manufacture women’s clothes.

“Defining a women’s business in a company of men, about men, takes time,” Koplin said.

Yet time is a luxury in a recession. Tommy Bahama, which is part of Oxford Industries Inc., the Atlanta-based manufacturer that also owns Ben Sherman, Oxford Apparel and Lanier Clothes, is under pressure to bounce back from slumping sales. Tommy Bahama swung to an operating loss of $173.4 million in its latest fiscal year from operating income of $75.8 million a year ago, as revenue fell 9 percent to $421.7 million.

Oxford Industries posted a net loss of $265.8 million on total revenue of $947.5 million, compared with net income of $45.4 million on revenue of $1.09 billion a year ago.

Although women’s represents a small portion of Tommy Bahama’s business — 15 percent of total sales — company chief executive officer Terry Pillow said growing the women’s division is one of his top priorities, along with expanding internationally and broadening the product mix. This holiday, Tommy Bahama will proffer women’s T-shirts, sweatshirts and washed linen under a casual sportswear subbrand called Relax, retailing from $40 to $122.

“As we continue to build as a lifestyle brand, the women’s piece is clearly an important piece of that,” Pillow said. “We won’t be truly happy with the women’s until it’s 50 percent of our own stores’ business.”

In Tommy Bahama’s store at The Grove shopping center in Los Angeles, one-third of the space is devoted to women’s fashion, including $225 pineapple-print halter dresses, $50 magenta bikini bottoms and $69 matching over-the-shoulder cup bras, $78 fuchsia hats trimmed with silver rope, $125 leopard stone thong sandals and $128 brown polkadot halter dresses made of the same nylon-Lycra fabric used in the swimsuits. Coconut-scented candles, tall bottles of Tommy Bahama-branded rum and palm-frond-etched cocktail glasses amplify the vibe that Tommy Bahama is Margaritaville for Baby Boomers.

The women’s line is wholesaled to Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, Von Maur and Macy’s on the West Coast, but the brand relies mostly on specialty shops in Arizona, Hawaii, California, Texas, Florida and other resort spots across the U.S. because of its focus on warm-weather looks. The network of independent retailers ranges from Brave New World in Point Pleasant, N.J., and Fast Buck Freddies in Key West, Fla., to Bermuda Bay Clothing in New Orleans and Artisan Gems Boutique in Fountain Valley, Calif. About 75 percent of Tommy Bahama’s swim business is through the wholesale channels, a result of Koplin’s success managing the swimwear license at Apparel Ventures.

“We’re a specialty-store-based business in sportswear, with the intention to grow into a bigger store distribution, but because of the seasonal nature of our product mix, we need to be geographically correct for a store,” Koplin said. “In swim, we have a more diversified distribution, covering both department and better specialty stores. Revenue growth is slow at this point in time, as it is with everyone, but our sell-throughs are strong and the product direction on target.”

The brand reacted to slowing sales by reducing prices about 10 percent. Starting with next fall’s collection, retail prices will stay at less than $200. In the current spring lineup, its priciest pieces include a $235 sleeveless jungle-print silk dress highlighted by a contrasting geometric print at the hem.

Koplin is a 25-year veteran of the swim business. She got her start in fashion working at the now defunct San Francisco department store I. Magnin, where she met swimwear legend Anne Cole. Later, Koplin ran the Anne Cole line and designer business at Warnaco before working at Apparel Ventures. When she began running the swim license for Tommy Bahama at Apparel Ventures, Christian Francis Roth was Tommy Bahama’s design director. Roth eventually left, and Tommy Bahama’s license with Apparel Ventures expired at the same time her contract with the Gardena, Calif.-based swim manufacturer finished in 2005. At that point, Tommy Bahama asked her to take the swim business in-house.

“Instead of working on 10 brands [at Apparel Ventures] for swimwear, I felt it would be worthwhile to work on one lifestyle brand,” Koplin said.

And she doesn’t underestimate the allure a bikini has with a male customer.

“It’s great what women’s swim does for a men’s brand,” she said. “It really kind of makes the brand on the men’s side a little sexier and a little edgy — not stuffy and traditional. It gives it another dimension.”

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