By  on May 16, 2013

Everybody in the water.

That could be the sunny mantra from a slew of recently launched men’s swimwear labels aiming to make a splash in the surging category. Incorporating advanced fabrics, trendy prints and premium details, the indie brands are targeting contemporary customers who have made bathing suits the latest fashion item ripe for reinvention.

“The swim market feels a little to me like the denim market 10 or 15 years ago — it was historically underdesigned and underappreciated but, as better quality came on the market, people really begin to open up to premium and higher price points,” said Alex Faherty, who last month launched Faherty Brand with his twin brother Mike, using an e-commerce launch pad offering laid-back, but exactingly designed, boardshorts and trunks that retail for $140 to $165.

Faherty Brand joins an increasingly crowded pool of labels vying for the style-conscious vacationer. Beachgoers can choose from a platoon of Euro-centric lines like Orlebar Brown, Robinson Les Bains, Cuisse de Grenouille and 83990, the latter named for the sun-kissed postal code of Saint-Tropez. There are revivals of vintage surf brands, such as Lightning Bolt from the Seventies, M.Nii from the Fifties and Sundek from the Forties. Upstart Australia-based makers like Venroy and States of Play have made inroads at influential U.S. retailers, while homegrown brands like Onia, Saturdays Surf, Parke & Ronen and Charlie by Matthew Zink are making waves with their modern updates on the category.

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“We are seeing more and more swim lines at trade shows like Capsule. Each season, there are a few more lines to look at,” said Jesse Warren, founder of Tenet, a trendy store in Southampton, N.Y., that carries men’s swimwear from Orlebar Brown, Olasul, Venroy and Saltbox USA. “A few years ago, there was a void in the market, but it’s becoming filled now. There’s been a lot of momentum in the category.”

That momentum is reflected in robust sales figures. For the 12 months ended in March, men’s swimwear sales grew 7.9 percent to $611.6 million, according to The NPD Group figures. That expansion was on top of a 9.9 percent increase in the previous 12-month period. Men are also spending more per unit on their bathing suits, up from an average of $15.82 for the 12 months ended in March 2011 to $18.27 for the most recent year.

“Our swim category has been growing substantially each year,” confirmed Bryan Reynolds, divisional merchandise manager of men’s at Scoop, which operates 15 men’s stores. “Men are treating bathing suits as a fashion item that translates from beach to post-beach activities and buying multiple options.”

This season Scoop picked up Strong Boalt, a men’s swim line founded by Amanda Boalt, who is based in Palm Beach and the granddaughter of the town’s late doyenne of prints, Lilly Pulitzer.

London-based Orlebar Brown was an early pacesetter in the rising tide of men’s swimwear. The company launched with 1,000 pairs of men’s swim shorts in 2007 and sales have doubled each year since then. The firm is on track to sell 120,000 units this year, with distribution in over 250 global wholesale doors, including Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Selfridges, Lane Crawford and Mr Porter.

Orlebar Brown has opened three branded stores in London with a fourth set to open in Canary Wharf in November. The company is eyeing retail locations in New York and Miami for next year.

“The idea for Orlebar Brown came from spotting a gap in the market. OB launched as the more tailored approach to swim shorts,” explained founder and majority owner Adam Brown, who based the design of his trunks on the traditional 17-piece pattern of a man’s suit trouser, with a zippered fly, a four-part shaped waistband and darts on the back for a better fit.

Also taking a sophisticated approach to design is Carl Cunow, a former production manager at Steven Alan who launched Onia in 2010. “Everyone was launching a denim line or doing plaid shirts and I saw a niche for something different,” he remembered. “At that point, there was only the loud prints and surf brands like Quiksilver and I thought there was room for something clean and tailored and high quality for the contemporary market.”

Onia uses Japanese and European fabrics, clean-finished interior seams and mesh liners made from stretch material in its swimsuits, which mostly retail for $130 to $145. Sales have tripled each year since 2010 and the brand is now in more than 150 stores globally, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys New York, Australia’s David Jones and select Theory stores. It has also developed a strong hotel and resort shop business.

John Moore, a veteran of Abercrombie & Fitch and Modern Amusement, two years ago revived the storied M.Nii label and its classic Makaha Drowner boardshort. Made from two-ply, ring-spun twill instead of nylon, the vintage designs have been picked up by Barneys New York, Steven Alan, Ron Herman, Pilgrim and Beams. “They are like that perfect pair of Levi’s or Ray-Bans,” said Moore.

Swim has proven to be a strong seller online, with many companies first launching via e-commerce. The Web accounts for 30 percent of total Orlebar Brown sales and comprises 70 percent of sales at Charlie by Matthew Zink. “I can offer a great product and quality while keeping prices down,” said Zink of the online model. “With swim, as in jeans, once someone knows their size they tend to come back to the same style and buy again and again in new colors and prints.”

Zink, a former swimwear design director at Victoria’s Secret, launched his label in 2010. Channeling inspirations like Seventies Halston and Eighties Calvin Klein, Zink offers swimwear that is minimalist and body-conscious, with a focus on clean lines and fabrics. All Charlie briefs and trunks are fashioned from a unique knit, stretch microfiber nylon from Italy.

Vilebrequin, long the gold standard in independent swim brands, was scooped up last August by G-III Apparel Group Ltd. for $106.2 million, which is aiming to rev up growth and expand into new categories. Since the acquisition, G-III has opened new Vilebrequin retail stores in Short Hills, N.J., and Greenwich, Conn., with another in Washington, D.C., set to open next week, which will bring the U.S. freestanding store count to 17. Two more units are planned for Southern California by the end of this year, said Brian Lange, president of the Americas region at Vilebrequin.

Globally, Vilebrequin now operates about 150 retail stores, split about evenly between owned and franchised, in addition to shops-in-shop. G-III’s bet on Vilebrequin was applauded by analysts, who see room to capitalize on the unique brand and a hot category.

“Swimwear isn’t just for swimming anymore,” pointed out Sean Venturi, who founded Venroy in 2010 with partner Theo Smallbone. “Swim as a category has developed to complement a summer lifestyle where guys want to be able to wear shorts not just at the pool, but also later on at the bar and then on to dinner afterwards.”

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