sink or swim

Swim makers look to increase their bottom lines with on-trend merchandise and by venturing into new niches, like plus size

With the industry in a period of flux, swim manufacturers at WWDMAGIC and ISAM don’t need long memories to recall what happens to labels that don’t keep their mix fresh.

Last year, swim perennial Beach Patrol bit the dust, and its licenses were picked up by various players, including Perry Ellis, Manhattan Beachwear and Sunsets Inc. Early this year, Roger Williams stepped down as swimwear group president of Warnaco, the largest swimsuit maker in the world. Although he cited personal reasons for the resignation, the swim division has been lagging and posted an operating loss of nearly $14 million in the three months ended Sept. 30, 2006.

Younger brands are among those nimbly picking up the slack. Designer labels Red Carter and Trina Turk, a relatively recent addition to the license portfolio at Blue Water Design Group, a division of Gardena, Calif.-based Apparel Ventures, are forging ahead. In the surf segment, Volcom has launched swimwear to step up to the plate against heavy hitters Roxy, Billabong and O’Neill.

Most swim vendors attending WWDMAGIC and ISAM said they are hopeful about the state of the market. Women’s swimsuit sales are rising steadily, with 2006 up more than 4 percent, to nearly $2.67 billion, from $2.56 billion the previous year, according to industry-tracking firm The NPD Group.

Manufacturers jumping into the swimwear market beware: Adjusting to rapid fashion trends that have kept contemporary apparel whirling has become critical for success in swimwear as well. Spoton merchandise, for example, can win floor space at Everything But Water, where contemporary and designer labels such as Trina Turk, Vix, Red Carter and Shan have been welcomed.

“It is really important to be out in front,” said Bridget Quinn Stickline, vice president of merchandising for Everything But Water, which has grown to around 60 stores after the integration of Water Water Everywhere. “We feel like this larger company is going to give [the customer] a chance to understand that [swim and resortwear] is a fashion purchase. She doesn’t have to put on a big flower tunic at age 35.”

Fashionable swimsuits have been a consistent performer for designer Kara Janx, who has sold swim pieces to Ravinstyle.com and Girlshop, among other outlets. She thought swimwear might overtake her New York-based line before her appearance on “Project Runway” changed her business’ course.

This story first appeared in the February 13, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

This season she draws inspiration from the Fifties. Two-piece suits wholesale for $55 and one-pieces for $65.

“Buyers are looking for something that is new or something that can add a little spice to their store,” said Janx. “I feel like a lot of younger designers are starting to incorporate more swim into collections because it is a clever marriage to have your collection with your swimwear.”

The designer swimwear market is tough to crack, however. The junior market, flooded with swim brands grabbing at teenage wallets, isn’t any easier. Creative manufacturers are locating new avenues to distinguish their brands in a field where the similarities between labels often outnumber the differences.

Jack White Apparel, based in Altamonte Springs, Fla., has retooled its Ultimate swimwear brand to accommodate a burgeoning base of plus-size swimwear customers. John Gembecki, national sales manager, said Jack White expanded Ultimate’s size range — it now goes up to 32 rather than stopping at 24 — after it received requests from retailers to do so.

“We found that in the past, for the plus-size lady, they have had limited color and design. There was a definite need,” he said, adding that the emphasis on plus sizes has been at least partly responsible for an “incredible” revenue boost.

Ultimate one-pieces are priced from $23 to around $30 wholesale, and two-pieces are $14 for tops and $15 for bottoms.

Jack White Apparel has also been hard at work revamping Toes on the Nose swimwear after recently securing the license to produce the Newport Beach, Calif.-based surf label’s suits. Instead of aiming the swimwear squarely at the junior shopper, designer Elena Sosa said she is gearing the swimsuits toward athletic women in their 20s to 40s. Toes on the Nose tops wholesale for $14 and bottoms for $16.

“We are trying to reach that woman who is sports-oriented: a volleyball [player], kayaker, surfer,” she said. “It is a good market. There are a lot of women who can’t wear low, low bottoms.”

When it comes to swimwear, Michael Langer, executive vice president of intimate apparel company Dynashape Intima, is pinpointing a different type of woman — the pregnant type. When the Alhambra, Calif.-based company bought Zero 2 Nine in July, it inherited a maternity swim line that was in the development stages. There is only one Zero 2 Nine swimsuit style for 2007, in a bright coral and ocean blue print. Sets wholesale from $10 to $15.

Despite the limited swim collection and Dynashape Intima’s lack of knowledge about swimwear, Zero 2 Nine swimsuits have been snapped up by retailers. Langer reported that the initial cuts were sold out in 30 days. “We are blown away,” he said, adding that the company will produce more looks for 2008.

Already hitting specialty maternity stores, the maternity swimwear, he said, could find a home in stores with broader merchandise. “If we did this good this quickly just by throwing a couple of things together, we think that we will do a lot better by learning about the market,” said Langer.