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Vilebrequin Ramps Up Growth

Swimsuit maker Vilebrequin launches sportswear, expands distribution.

While the recession is prompting caution among luxury goods companies, Vilebrequin is moving ahead with plans to transform its popular swimsuit line into a global lifestyle brand.

This story first appeared in the March 12, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

In the past four months, the Geneva-based accessories company inked five master licenses to distribute to new regions, formed partnerships to bring the Vilebrequin name to the classification business and made good on its promise to launch sportswear.

The last occurred in the brand’s new, paint-still-wet showroom in Manhattan earlier this week, where Thierry Prissert, chief executive officer of Vilebrequin’s North American operations, showed off the company’s first fully realized sportswear collection.

“Our strategy has always been to grow little by little,” he said of Vilebrequin, which was acquired by the Dutch private equity fund Fashion Fund One in December 2007. “Now we think it’s time to expand our product offering.”

The sportswear collection takes its cues from classic resortwear and includes pique polos, a light boating jacket, linen shorts, loosely woven shirts and washed scarves — all in Saint-Tropez-friendly white and navy blue. Aside from a wintertime knit cap and scarf, the sportswear collection never strays too far from the pool. “You’re not going to see us doing heavy sweaters and jackets,” Prissert explained. “We are still in the sun business.”

The expansion has prompted the company to move its delivery schedule to a traditional fashion model. Instead of one collection with two deliveries — one in November, the second in March — Vilebrequin will now have three separate collections — fall, cruise and spring — with related deliveries.

The company expects its sportswear collection to account for 35 percent of global sales by the end of 2010.

While Prissert admits plans for the line were conceived before the recession, he said sustained growth in 2008 encouraged executives to move forward. “We realize it’s not the best time, but we’re confident about the product and our plans,” Prissert said. “We’re not in it for the short-term.” The privately held company does not release sales figures but said its global revenues jumped 14 percent in 2008; sales in the U.S. alone rose 16 percent.

The brand is also gaining floor space at retail — Bloomingdale’s plans to open eight Vilebrequin shop-in-shops starting in March — and is moving into new regions. Since November 2008, the company has inked deals for master licenses in Brazil, Central America and the Caribbean, the Middle East, Russia and Malaysia.

The company also expanded its swimsuit offering with trimmer silhouettes, a longer boardshort and new fabrications in a bid to appeal to a broader demographic. It even added an opening price, vintage model that retails for $150. “Vilebrequin’s style can appeal to many different kinds of men,” Prissert said.

Vilebrequin is also looking to shore up partners in the classification business. The company has its eye on the footwear and sunglass markets and recently signed a deal with Italian manufacturer Confezioni Madamar Srl to produce underwear. The project, headed by the former owner of La Perla, Daniele Borgomanero, will launch at Pitti Uomo this summer.