Byline: Deirdre Mendoza

LOS ANGELES — After several seasons of sluggish domestic sales, swimwear makers say the tide might be turning, and they’re banking on the upcoming round of trade shows to spur business.
International sales, they say, are flying; it’s the home market that’s troublesome. HotPants and halter tops, which are typically American looks, are strong all over the world, some makers noted, and foreign buyers are gobbling them up.
Barbara Henriquez, owner and designer of Miami-based Darling Rio, said she hopes the domestic market “will begin to wake up,” noting that volume has been up by about 25 percent from January 1996 to January 1997 for international sales, but domestic sales for the same period have been down 15 percent.
Henriquez blamed swimwear retailers for the downturn.
“Buyers are no longer buying a swimwear collection, they’re buying deals,” she said.
She explained that some of the deals include consignment selling, delayed payments, guaranteeing sell-throughs or returns on items that don’t sell. If a manufacturer agrees to these conditions, it stands to get a small store’s entire open-to-buy, but it’s a difficult and risky way to do business.
“It’s made it impossible for the designer collection to survive,” she observed.
“[WWDMagic] will be the make-or-break show for swimwear manufacturers,” said the owner of the 15-year-old company. “If it doesn’t happen there, it’s not going to happen.”
For spring, Darling Rio is showing new colors, like chocolate and pastels, and added features like multistrap back treatments to its line of one- and two-piece imported suits. She’s also doing well with swim shorts, another important silhouette this year. Wholesale price points will stay the same as last year, at about $28 to $40. Darling Rio is distributed almost exclusively through specialty stores and boutiques in the United States and internationally.
Ray Bird, sales manager for Ritchie Swimwear, a multiline junior manufacturer based in Miami, said domestic business is up about 6 percent while international business is up by as much as 20 percent.
The 15-year-old company, which also has eight stores in South Florida, did between $8 million and $10 million last year, according to Bird. This business was strengthened because of healthy tourism in Florida.
Bird said junior swimwear is selling at retail and that he feels “optimistic” about the market direction in general. He said the crossover from swimwear to streetwear has been a boost to business.
“I think it’s more of a streetwear push now for juniors,” he said. “Our customer is wearing a lot of crossover items, like halters and swim pants, so we have a lot of success with things that serve a dual purpose.”
Bird said Tricot suits from his Pan Dulce line have sold well to a younger junior customer.
Prices for the Ritchie line average $38 wholesale, while Pan Dulce is about $34. Michael Berger, who owns the company with his brother, Richard, said he expects overall sales to climb 10 percent this year.
Janet Wittenberg, an owner of two junior lines — XOXO swimwear, a licensee of XOXO sportswear, and On the Beach, a moderate-priced junior label based here and in business for 24 years — said sales are up.
“Our business has been wonderful. We’ve been getting reorders on embroidered HotPants and halters, and heart-shaped plastic appliques and XOXO logo suits,” she said.
Wholesale prices for the fashion-driven XOXO line, which targets the upper end of the junior market, range from $24 to $36. It is distributed through department and specialty stores.
On the Beach has done well with styles that include halters, particularly with appliquAs and HotPants, she said. Pique suits are among her best-sellers.
Wittenberg attributes the success of On The Beach to its longevity and well-established presence and expects an increase of about 15 percent this year.
Jantzen, which has been performing at the top of its department and specialty-store market tier for three years, is also experiencing an upturn in sales, according to Larry Miller, president of Jantzen Inc.
“We’re coming off a pretty good year domestically and internationally in swimwear and in sportswear, and we anticipate an even better year going into 1997,” said Miller. Volume is expected to rise 10 percent.
Miller said he hoped to see high performance from the Electric Beach (E.B. by Jantzen) junior label, in addition to sales of the one-piece suits that traditionally move well for Jantzen.
“In the past few years, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the performance we’ve gotten at Magic,” said Miller. “It’s turned out to be more of a regional specialty store business for us.”
Swim manufacturers for the children’s market are also optimistic.
Phyllis Keast, an owner of Tide Pools, a children’s and preteen swim and sportswear resource in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., projected business will be up by about 20 percent. Volume for 1996 was about $600,000.
Keast said she believes the downturn in the economy during the last three or four years is largely responsible for the downswing in the swimwear market.
“Things weren’t great until this past August, when I noticed business picking up,” said Keast, whose line is sold primarily to specialty stores and wholesales from $13 to $22.
Keast said hot sellers in the children’s and preteen markets are two-pieces, rather than maillots.

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