MAKING A SPLASH WITH SI
Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg / Anne D’Innocenzio
NEW YORK — Landing a swimsuit in Sports Illustrated’s annual swimwear edition, whose current issue hit the newsstands Feb. 23, could be considered a sport unto itself, something akin to an equestrian event.
Vendors must jump through hoops to whip up special designs, ship boxes of samples at a breakneck pace and run preliminary sketches by a phalanx of SI staffers.
The medals come to those firms that make the cut, because as every maker knows, having a swimsuit featured in the magazine is sure to boost sales and brand recognition.
The SI swimwear concept is a big money-maker. The magazine and other spinoffs like the calendar and CD-Rom generate an annual volume of $50 million.
Eyeing all the exposure, swimwear makers are not embarrassed to admit they are quick to hound Diane Smith, SI’s senior editor, who is in charge of the swimsuit issue, and her assistant Jennifer Stern.
A publicist at Authentic Fitness who meets with Smith at the Miami swimwear show, held in August, said, “We will jump through hoops to make this issue, making special creations based upon Diane’s direction and giving her as many suits requested as we can make under deadline.”
Other magazines like Maxim and the Source are trying to imitate SI’s winning formula, but Smith said that what sets SI apart from the pack is a staff that devotes the entire year to the issue. However, she admitted that she feels the pressure of coming up with a new concept every year. She also must make certain that the magazine strikes a balance between offering “sexy, modern-day pinups,” while at the same time offering something “elegant.”
“You have to take what’s been the format since 1964 and make it different. That’s the greatest challenge,” she said. “You have beautiful beaches, beautiful girls. OK, so now what? You have to come up with new elements.”
One of the locations the current issue used was Malaysia, which had never been featured in the SI swimsuit issue. Smith and her crew also traipsed all over Mexico and Maui. For the first time, the issue used 3-D photography, and even provided 3-D glasses. Last year, there was body-painting.
“After the body painting, we were pacing ourselves. We wanted to come up with a new sensation,” she said. “How much bigger can you get by having Heidi [Klum] jump out of the living room?”
Smith also takes seriously her role as scout of new swimwear talent. Of the 48 swimwear labels featured in the current SI issue, 11 were newcomers.
“I really don’t look at who the swimwear designer is, but what the swimsuit looks like,” she said. “I am just reacting to what is beautiful.”
That approach can be particularly advantageous to smaller vendors.
Inca, an accessories designer, is now launching a 15-style swimwear collection, which ships this spring, as a result of last year’s exposure in SI.
Having loaned beach bags and hats to SI for its swimwear shoots for the past few years, Stephanie Hirsch, owner and designer of Inca, offered to develop a swimsuit for last year’s shoot. When the striped, beaded bikini wound up in the issue, she decided to develop a full collection. Hirsch said she’d become so friendly with the SI editors that she showed them sketches during development of the line.
After Inca was featured again in this year’s edition, the company’s Web site received 5,000 hits in less than a week — more than double its monthly average, Hirsch said. That interest should help generate $600,000 in wholesale volume, she added.
“I think Maxim is really important. A lot of men see it and mention it to their girlfriends or wives,” Hirsch said. “But I don’t think they have the impact at retail that Sports Illustrated does. People will buy that magazine for the next three months.”
Ritchie Swimwear made the SI issue for the first time last year, said Richard Berger, chief executive officer of the Miami-based company. There are two Ritchie’s suits, an off-white bikini and a silver version, worn by Julie Romanowski, who’s husband Phil plays in the NFL. The silver suit was incorrectly attributed to Sauvage, but he wasn’t upset. Consumers interested in buying the suit were directed to his company.
“The swimsuit industry isn’t growing fast enough, and in some ways it is shrinking,” he said. “Any publicity you get is great.”
Berger quickly capitalized on the exposure, by appearing on local Miami TV.
“I made it before,” he said. “Herschell Walker wore one of my slim trunks. But his wife was in front of him, so no one could really see it.”
Despite “a lot of knockoffs,” the new competition has not diluted SI issue’s power, Ritchie added.
Having submitted 20 samples to SI for its photo shoot, Paula Hermanny, owner of Rygy for Vix Swimwear, a two-year-old San Diego-based company, said she was pleased they featured one of the bikinis, even though last year the company landed three styles in the issue.
“It’s really important with buyers and consumers because we get name recognition,” she said. “Sports Illustrated is the most important [swimwear magazine]. Consumers use it as a catalog to buy their summer suits.”
Rygy has received 75 phone calls — mostly from consumers — since SI hit newsstands last week. Such attention helps broaden distribution beyond its current level of 70 stores. Hermanny, who did not know about Maxim’s swimwear issue until it was published, said she is considering sending merchandise for next year’s issue.
For the eighth year in a row, swimwear designer Malia Mills made the SI issue. The current SI issue features one of her designs: a burgundy bikini, which triggered dozens of calls from her customers, she said. Like Rosa Cha and a few other companies, she plans to spotlight the SI mention on her Web site.
Maxim also featured one of her styles, but she said, “With SI, we definitely get a bigger response. It sets the standard. People don’t think of the other issues as annual events.”
Another recent newcomer to SI is Quiksilver. Last year’s issue featured the company’s Silver Addition’s board shorts on several athletes in a special section.
This time, SI heavily spotlighted Quiksilver’s Roxy label in an editorial feature about surfer Kelly Slater. The fashion pages featured Roxy’s red swimsuit top and a wet suit in fashion shoots.
“I have just made a big effort and sent every single bathing suit to the editors,” a Quiksilver spokeswoman said. “I will do whatever it takes.”
When SI’s editors requested a surfing board, she mailed it for next-day delivery.
Pecci added that Quiksilver always gets some exposure in Maxim, but she “savors SI.”
“I love the new changes, particularly the 3-D photography,” she said. “I show it to guys and their eyes pop out.”