Byline: Lynn Rhodes O’Rourke

MIAMI — Pastel colors, bust-line enhancement and expanded offerings of accessories were the big themes at the Preview ’96 swimwear show here last week.
Though retailers did not flood the halls, the five-day stand — which ran through Feb. 23 at the Miami International Merchandise Mart at the Radisson Center — proved to be a working show where a respectable amount of orders were recorded. The show was also brightened by the generally buoyant spirits of both retailers and manufacturers, reflecting the solid swimwear season many stores in Florida have seen.
“Those that are here have written,” said exhibitor Sandor Engel, vice president of Harbour Casuals.
The lack of traffic, though, was palpable. The Mart’s end-of-show numbers did equal Preview ’95 figures, but those showed a 15 percent drop from the year before. Jack Blum, president of the Swimwear Association of Florida, the organization that cosponsors the show with BASF Corp., estimated attendance at about 125 stores. Blum further noted the timing itself — falling over the Presidents’ Day weekend, a busy time for Florida stores — may have kept some retailers at home.
The stagnant attendance also pointed up the ongoing debate over the validity of the preview market — with goods designed to freshen up the clearance period with regular-price merchandise and bridge the gap between clearances and the early deliveries of the main lines, or cruise, in mid to late fall.
Mark Sidle, president of the 14-unit Miami-based Swim ‘n Sport, noted, “The preview market has been deemphasized both by manufacturers and retailers. Now there’s a lot more importance placed on early cruise.”
Sidle was not alone in seeing a deemphasis among vendors. “The preview lines are smaller this year,” observed Stacey Siegel, owner of the Orlando-based Everything But Water chain.
Still, buyers were able to see a broad spread of collections, with about 120 preview lines on view, from designer to junior. Among the labels were Calvin Klein, Adrienne Vittadini, Ann Cole, Anne Klein, Gideon Oberson, Gabar, Gottex, Sirena, Jantzen, Cole of California and the various Beach Patrol lines. And retailers frequently talked of plus sales figures in their stores as well.
Siegel, with 25 units nationwide, noted, “We were up 30 percent last year, and so far this year, we’re 9 percent ahead of that.”
Leslie Foster, buyer, the Twig Swim Shop in Vero Beach, spoke of being up 10 percent. “More people have bought second homes in our area, and in the summer we get tourist traffic.”
Sarasota-based Swim City was another retailer posting increased business. “Maybe it’s that the economy is better,” offered owner Mary Groninger. “Our business is tourist-oriented — and it’s up.”
With healthy figures behind them, these and other retailers did meander down to Miami. Even if Preview gets only a minor share of the swimwear pie, many feel it still has a distinct purpose.
“The Preview show is designed for our Florida customers to come and see what’s happening,” said SAF president Blum, who represents Twins Swimwear Miami, Slimsuit by Carol Wior, Pilpel, Cobra Beach Towels and Sharkbite. “And we also get some Latin American retailers. But if the buyers can’t make it to us, we don’t worry about it. We’ll see them in the next few weeks when we go on the road.”
He went on to say that one of the main draws of Preview is that it is a time for reps and retailers to analyze business, “what’s been selling, what hasn’t.”
Retailers concurred. “Sure this is a quiet market, but I take advantage of it,” said Sally Dadko, owner of Under Cover in Stuart. “Since it’s not as busy as cruise, I sit down and talk to the reps, look for trends. And I do fill in as well as make some off-price buys.”
Indeed “filling in” is the name of the game for Florida-based stores, where selling swimwear is a year-round business and newness is key.
Everything But Water’s Siegel noted, “I buy 12 months a year, and I’m always looking for what’s fresh and trendy for my stores. My customer has radar for what’s incoming.”
Siegel, like most retailers polled, said Preview amounts to around 10 to 20 percent of her yearly buy.
Preview ’96 offered up a host of silhouettes, with some falling in the more covered direction, others quite skimpy indeed. In general, Siegel felt that swimwear was “back to what swimwear has always been. We’re not as dependent on sportswear as we were recently.”
Coming off the trend in intimate apparel, the push-up or cleavage-enhancing bra has made its way onto many lines, but Siegel countered that it’s really nothing new. “For us, that’s a given. We’ve always had push-ups in swimwear.”
In terms of color, pastels were favored, a move that Swim ‘n Sport’s Sidle said is coming out of Europe. Retailers at the show appeared ready to take the plunge.
“I’m looking for pastels for summer,” related Twig Swim Shop’s Foster. “I want to go light; I’m sick of black.”
“I’m abandoning dark colors for ’96 in favor of brights and pastels,” concurred Everything But Water’s Siegel.
And Groninger from Swim City had this to say: “I like the new pastels and brights, and there’s still a little bit of glitter out there. Textures and satins are still good, and now there’s the revival of cirA.”
In addition to swimsuits, Groninger was seeking to augment her accessory pieces, a move mirrored by manufacturers. “I’m looking for T-tops, sarongs and shorts,” she continued. “We want to have a more color-related story this year.”
Offering plus business, swimwear ancillary pieces made a decent showing at Preview ’96. Harbour Casuals, for instance, launched new items for the show.
“Based on the success we’ve had with accessory pieces for cruise, we brought out a group for preview,” noted Harbour Casual’s Engel.
So the show wrapped up on a basically contented note. But the debate about preview’s importance endures.
“I’m buying,” noted Swim ‘n ‘Sport’s Sidle, “but I’m buying less. Preview amounts to around 15 percent of my total, but that’s shrinking. And while three or four years ago I’d have 50 appointments and spent a week here, now I only had eight or 10 merchandising appointments. Preview is just not as meaningful when I can get early cruise.”