AUSTRALIA ON THE RISE
SWIM DESIGNERS FROM DOWN UNDER ARE FINDING SUCCESS OVERSEAS, SPURRED ON BY A CERTAIN OLYMPICS AND A FAVORABLE CURRENCY.
Byline: Patty Huntington
Buoyed by the euphoria of the Sydney Olympics, an export-boosting Aussie dollar that’s still hovering at an all-time low of (U.S.) $0.55 and a red-hot crop of new labels whose cues are taken not from the boardwalk but the catwalk, Australia’s swimwear market is in export overdrive.
Everywhere you look, right now, it seems another Aussie “cossie” — that’s Down Under-ese for “swimming costume” — is lurking: on the cover of the Victoria’s Secret swim catalog (Zimmermann), inside consecutive issues of Sportswear Illustrated’s swimsuit issue (Zimmermann, Lisa Ho) and splashed, albeit briefly, through the world’s media last September, thanks to some ambush marketing down at Bondi Beach, the Olympics beach volleyball venue, (Tigerlily andWet Wet Wet, who both planted fans wearing their wares in the stands).
Apart from kicking off what many describe as the longest and best swimwear season on record here — in an otherwise patchy fashion retail market — the Sydney Olympics provided an ideal showcase for Australian culture and product.
“We came up great on camera,” said Lorraine Reynolds, whose landmark Bondi Beach swimwear store, Bikini Island, had its busiest summer in 20 years. “[We had] good weather and a hot clear summer over the holiday period. There was a lot of media coverage. When you add it all up, [the Olympics] helped swimwear.”
Another high-water mark for the Australian swimwear scene: The Mercedes Australian Fashion Week. The event’s critics may scoff that the Sydney shows are out of sync with key swimwear-buying cycles, but during fashion week, U.K. department-store retailer Selfridges stocked 80 percent of its new $1.6 million swim/intimate apparel department.
According to Selfridges, the swim-heavy order could net $1.09 million at retail over the next year. “The dollar and the Olympics have got nothing to do with it,” Selfridges swimwear/intimate apparel buyer Jane Yeo told WWD in May.
“It’s purely to do with the product. It’s the best.”
Swimwear should be a natural for Australian manufacturers. Often described as the world’s largest island, most of Australia’s 19 million-strong population is wrapped around the coastline. In some regions, there’s a year-round beach culture, which helped spawn the so-called “Big Three” of Australian surfwear — Quiksilver, Billabong and Rip Curl, who are all now major global players — Australia also gave rise to leading swim performance brand Speedo. Purchased by the U.K.-based Pentland Group in 1991 and now sold in 173 countries (the North American license is held by Authentic Fitness, a division of The Warnaco Group, which last month filed for Chapter 11), Speedo was launched in 1928 by Sydney’s Macrae Knitting Mills. Though its original focus was on leisure swimwear, Speedo quickly switched to churning out competition-ready styles, such as its revolutionary navy blue silk “Racer-Back.”
Speedo has supplied all Australian Olympic swimming teams since the 1948 London Games. At the summer games in Sydney, 85 percent of medals won in swimming events went to Speedo-clad athletes.
Speedo claims to own over 80 percent of the Australian performance swimwear market. But now it wants a slice of the much broader leisure market — both in Australia and overseas. To this end, the company has a new design team focused solely on new beach product. Starting in 2002, the line will be test-marketed first in the Australia summer before rolling out worldwide.
Some would argue Speedo will have to struggle to shift consumer attitudes here. “They [retailers] don’t see us as a beach brand,” said Speedo Australia managing director Rob Davies. “We’ll prove it with our own store — it will fly out of there. We say, ‘We rule the pool, now we have to breach the beach,’ because that’s our biggest opportunity.”
Speedo will launch a stand-alone concept store in Sydney in late August, the first of six such stores slated to roll out here within two years, modeled on existing Speedo stores in the U.K. and Europe (but which are unrelated to 130 Speedo stores operated by Warnaco in the U.S.).
A new generation of swim companies has, however, rapidly cornered the Australian swimwear market in terms of fashion and fun. For the past six years, they’ve had their sights set on export.
The 26-year-old Seafolly, which is Australia’s largest swimwear manufacturer, started exporting four years ago and now sells to nine countries. Last year, the company hit pay dirt in Europe.
Currently accounting for 25 percent of the company’s $13.6 million turnover, Seafolly’s exports increased 50 percent in the first half of 2001 and, according to Halas, should increase another 50 percent by September. At the Sydney Games, Seafolly sold 400,000 garments as the fashion swimwear licensee.
Seafolly’s key point of difference? “European swimwear is quite somber and serious, whereas Australian swimwear is fun. It really does give people a feel of what the Australian beach lifestyle is about,” Halas said. “It’s the color and the prints — you walk into a swimwear department in Europe and Seafolly just stands out.”
Bestsellers include the booster Acqua Bra and tankinis with shelf bras.
Currently available only in Canada and through the U.S. chain Everything But Water, Seafolly will make its debut at Miami’s Cruise 2002 show in July.
“In the U.S., you’ve got either very young-looking swimwear that’s incredibly skimpy and only really fits young girls, or mature styles that are really quite old-fashioned,” said Halas, who predicts that Seafolly’s U.S. Business could be worth $10 million within three years. “It’s a huge market for us.
“I’m thinking of moving there in the next two years,” he added. “Europe can stand on its own two feet.” Zimmermann’s already doing quite well in the U.S. Operated by Sydney sister act Nicole and Simone Zimmermann, designer and business manager, respectively, the label has been building up its U.S. business for the past five years and sells to Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus, as well as chains like Everything But Water, California Sunshine, Victoria’s Secret and lastly, Great Shapes, where Zimmermann’s is one of the top five best-selling brands.
“One of our major U.S. chains just received goods, and in three days, they’ve reordered,” said Nicole Zimmermann. “We’re having great sell-throughs in all the department stores. I think our product is completely different, and that’s what’s helping us over there.
“We have a lot of kudos with the fashion magazines,” she added. “We had a swimsuit on the [April] cover of Victoria’s Secret, and we’ve sold over 5,000 of that one style. When we go to Miami, everybody knows the label. We’re very nicely set up there now.”
Forty percent of Zimmermann’s $1.6 million-to-$2.7 million business comes from export to the U.S. Zimmermann pioneered Australia’s fashion swimwear export boom back in 1996, at the inaugural MAFW. Deciding that swimwear would be easier to export than ready-to-wear, the Zimmermanns included a capsule range of fashion-forward swimwear and resortwear in their first full-scale fashion show.
Adapting runway trends such as Prada-esque prints and retro styling to swimwear, the collection took off like a rocket with overseas buyers. Their signatures? Tie-side bikinis, boy-leg micro shorts, the ultra-versatile “Flexi-Pant” and prints.
“There are a lot of swimwear vendors in the States that have connected their swimwear to fashion prints, but Zimmermann has a sophistication to it that makes it that much more forward,” said Robert Gagnon, director of swimwear at Victoria’s Secret Direct. “I think Australia’s an untapped market.”
At Saks Fifth Avenue, swim buyer Irina Korkhin says Australian labels have created their own niche. “We look to them for new prints more than anything else,” said Korkhin. “Their silhouettes are a bit more updated, and they generally have twists that you don’t see here — maybe in the hardware or a new type of belt.”
Korhkin stocks such Aussie brands as Zimmermann, Lisa Ho and C. design, which was launched by former ballerina and dance costume designer Claire Metcalf. In addition to Saks, C. design currently sells to Barneys, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols. Seventy percent of C. design’s roughly $550,000 business comes from its chic, simple Essentials separates range: bandeaux, hipsters, string tops, string briefs and strapless maillots in up to eight colors.
Metcalf tries to include up-to-the-minute trends in every range. For Summer 2001: two florals, a Madonna-inspired cowboy print and a denim story. “You’ve always got to have those pieces that someone’s going to pick up off the rack and go, ‘Yeah, I want that NOW,”‘ said Metcalf. She is working with an American agent who she hopes will give her a bigger foothold in the U.S.
Even the surf circuit’s getting a fashion makeover, thanks to designer Jodie Packer. Launched at MAFWeek 2000, Packer’s Tigerlily brand was aimed squarely at the surf market — much to the chagrin of the department stores. Now sold in 480 surf and swim speciality stores in Australia and New Zealand, Tigerlily immediately shot to the top rankings in many stores due to its funky styling and high media profile. Packer is now weighing up her export options.
“[Tigerlily has] a different color palette and a different type of customer: an office girl who’s got a good body, a good attitude, and she wants to be noticed on the beach,” says Karen Neilsen, the women’s buyer and merchandise manager for Australia’s biggest surf chain, the 26-unit surf chain Brothers Neilsen.
Packer shouldn’t have any trouble attracting attention for her brand. A former top Australian swimwear model who married Australian media heir Jamie Packer, her two Australian Fashion Week shows have dominated media coverage of the event. This year’s show closed with a model sporting a $2.7 million diamond bikini and a live diamond-backed python twined around her neck. In September, Packer bought 20 tickets to the women’s beach volleyball finals at Sydney and filled them with as many Tigerlily-clad models. The stunt attracted so much attention from the assembled news crews that officials asked Tigerlily’s entourage to leave.
The latest arrival, Jets, proved a hit straight off the starter’s block.
Previously owned by Seafolly, Jets was bought by former Sydney swimwear designer Jessika Allen in late 2000 and revamped for summer 2001-2002 with a harder fashion edge. In addition to reversible separates in contrasting colors, the range boasts a signature seamless molded “Glamour Bra.”
With an established Australian retail base, Allen figured she had nothing to lose in showing her line at the MAFW to buyers, who practically fell over each other trying to order it. “It’s the best swimwear I’ve ever seen,” Selfridges’ Jane Yeo told WWD — after successfully fending off Harvey Nichols, among others, for an exclusive on the Jets’ first U.K. season.
Although she declined to give figures, Allen anticipates export will account for at least 10 percent of the new collection’s first year in business. “I think everyone in the industry has been working very hard for a long time,” said Allen. “I’ve been at it for 10 years, and suddenly now people know who I am, or what the Jets label is. I guess there’s no real overnight success.”