DESIGNERS AND MAKERS ARE FLOCKING TO THE BEACH FOR EXPOSURE AND INSPIRATION.
Byline: Georgia Lee
MIAMI — This city’s reputation as a melting pot of fashion is drawing more international manufacturers, and inspiring local designers to target a broader, more upscale clientele with innovation and creative design.
South Beach, in particular, is attracting swimwear designers, who say that living on the beach is a constant source of inspiration. A strong South American and European tourist contingent blends with the affluent segment of residents to give Miami its multicultural, fashionable style. What’s more, as a gateway, Miami offers easy access to South American and Caribbean markets.
Parisian swimwear designer Tomas Maier, for example, lives here six months of the year and will soon open a South Beach showroom. And Miami-based firms like Twins, Earth & Sea Wear, and Ritchie are expanding into the contemporary market.
“We have around 350 days of sunshine and beachgoing,” said Maier. “It’s eccentric, an international crossroads, and the best place to be for fashion.” Miami will become Maier’s company headquarters, with production centered in France, he said.
Maier, formerly a designer with Hermes and Sonia Rykiel, gets his inspiration now from Miami’s climate and ambience. He said he designs “poolwear,” which includes Italian Lycra spandex swimwear and luxury coverups in silk cashmere, jersey and cotton. Details include paladium metal closures and engraved signature toggles. Bikinis are a specialty, with a variety of tops and bottom silhouettes.
With suits and coverups wholesaling from $60 to $400, the line is carried in Barneys, select Saks Fifth Avenue stores, Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman. It also is merchandised at designer boutiques such South Beach’s Absolutely Suitable and Flash in Miami’s Bal Harbour Shops. The designer’s Web site, which offers a small collection with merchandise deliverable in 24 hours, will soon expand to include more styles.
According to Andrew Preston, president, Maier is intentionally a well-kept secret, with little advertising, promotion or participation in trade shows.
Designer Elena Pompei, a native of Rome and a former partner in the line Letarte, has lived in Miami for seven years and now is launching Pompei Beach at the Cruise 2001 swimwear show. The new fashion-forward line includes print-driven swimwear and matching sandals. Another division, Nvy, features a collection of mostly solid-color separates and includes coverups.
The 40-piece Pompei Beach collection focuses on geometric, tie-dyed, plaid and animal prints, often with details such as sequins, ruffles and rings, at an average wholesale price of $44. Nvy, which emphasizes textures with more constructed cups in a 30-piece group, is slightly more expensive, with wholesale prices averaging $50.
Pompei will produce the line through the same Colombian contractors used by Letarte. Meanwhile, Letarte will continue under Pompei’s former partner Lisa Cabrhina.
Pompei compared her new line, which has already received early editorial coverage, to Malia Mills and Karla Colletto. She projected a first-year volume of $300,000 for the total company.
Brazilian-born designer Gloria del Rio, manufacturer of an eponymous swimwear line, moved to Miami last year and began production here. She had been based in New York; however, del Rio said she has found Miami more conducive to manufacturing than New York. In Miami, labor for detail and handwork is easier to find, she explained, and contractors are more open to small orders. Miami also affords easy access to Caribbean and South American specialty stores, such as Calypso, a key 10-store account for her in St. Bart’s.
Her line, which wholesales from $24 and $125, is heavily influenced by Brazilian style, and includes thongs, string bikinis and Brazilian cut bottoms designed to be worn topless.
“The Miami customer, like the Brazilian woman, is more open and less shy about showing her body, no matter what her age,” remarked del Rio. Still, while a Brazilian cut bikini is a perennial bestseller, the majority of American customers usually want more coverage, she added.
The Gloria del Rio line is sexy and colorful, with animal and other exotic prints. Coverups include sarong scarves and oversized linen shirts. With an annual volume of around $100,000, del Rio said she hopes to expand business through sales on her Web site, created in 1998.
Miami is the U.S. headquarters for the Satison Group Inc., Italian manufacturers of the Le Foglie and Free Voogue lines.
The Le Foglie line comprises 200 styles. It includes a junior-oriented, print-driven group and a misses’ group of solids and textured looks, as well as coverups and accessories in rayon knits, linen and cotton. The line is produced in European company-owned fabrics, with print design capabilities. Swimsuits are high-end, with wholesale prices from $37 to $99; and accessories selling for $19 to $49 wholesale. Free Voogue, the more moderate of the two divisions, wholesales from $22 to $49.
The Italian company also produces lingerie. Its annual sales, including Europe, Japan and Canada, total about $20 million. The Miami operation, in business for five years, has U.S. sales of more than $1 million.
Miami-based manufacturers are offering more sophisticated styling, as well as unique novelty looks targeting specialty stores. Frivole, a Miami line launched in 1998, is experimenting with woven, one-piece swimwear, similar to techniques used in seamless pantyhose, as well as fused or molded seams.
“We’re exploring the eradication of the sewing machine,” said Marc Roche, designer and owner of Frivole. “We’re avant-garde in an accessible way, that brings forward styling to the masses.”
Styles include halter and string bikinis with asymmetrical cuts and gems and crystal embellishment, in both shiny and matte finished tricot. A separates line includes transparent metallic treated organza coverups. Wholesale prices range from $18 to $55.
Ritchie, a 16-year-old Miami swimwear line, is growing up and evolving beyond its history as a junior-oriented line designed strictly for hard bodies. The Ritchie line now focuses on better European fabrics and textural interest, rather than the latest trends, and offers more variety in coverage and fit. Pan Dulce, a Brazilian-inspired division, targets a younger customer and concentrates in South American, Mexican and Puerto Rico markets.
“In the past two years with the Ritchie line, we’ve gotten beyond the juniors stigma and are targeting more of a cross section,” said designer Ritchie Berger.
Berger lives on the beach and spends times observing local trends. “I’ve grown up with the customer. Today, there’s so much crossover between juniors and contemporary that true categories don’t even exist.”
Currently, one trend that is crossing lines is consumer demand for interesting fabrics, he said. The strength of the dollar and a lack of minimums have made European fabrics more accessible and attractive to a small manufacturer, said Berger, while sophisticated printing processes are also creating interesting looks. Berger is mixing textures, such as crochet with shiny tricot. Pareos, which once appealed primarily to an older customer, have drawn wide interest this season, along with sheer dresses.
“People want simple shapes, such as a tie-bottom or triangle top, but they want new fabrics and textures,” he said. Speaking of textures: A $250 Ritchie suit, covered in Swarovski crystals, was featured in the coveted Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue last year .
With a wholesale volume just under $6 million, Ritchie goes after specialty stores rather than department stores. The company has around 300 accounts. Berger tests trends in five Ritchie retail stores throughout south Florida.
“We’re playing the style game rather than the numbers game,” said Berger. “We’re going for newness and innovation rather than deals with big stores or mills.” Although labor is cheaper offshore, Berger said he is manufacturing in Miami, to ensure better quality control.
Earth & Sea Wear, formerly a junior-only line with the label Cover Style, is moving into the contemporary market. The Miami-based manufacturer launched Moonsplash, a young contemporary line, three seasons ago, and the line now accounts for 30 percent of total sales.
Fabric and texture are key for the new division. It uses velvets and sheer layers over nude Lycra and iridescent treatments, as well as bustier or lingerie-like silhouettes.
Cover Style and Essentials by Cover Style target the junior market with surf-inspired swimwear and sportswear. The line has a feminine touch, with ruffles, flowers, ties and bohemian-influenced trims and beads. A velvet animal print and a string bikini with daisy appliques are current bestsellers at specialty stores such as Gadzooks, according to Lourdes Swarez, sales manager and designer for Earth & Sea Wear.
Twins, one of the more longstanding swimwear manufacturer in Miami, is also updating its image from juniors to contemporary. The two owners, Gillian Mitchell and Jackie Baird, are identical twins from England who performed in song-and-dance reviews before settling in Miami in 1965 to open a bikini shop.
“We came to Miami in its heyday, saw it go down, and then right back up again now,” said Mitchell.
Expert Cuban seamtresses have been a powerful plus for the factory, which now employs more than 90 people. Its sales volume is $3.5 million.
The original Twins junior swimwear line has been transformed into a 50-50 mix of junior and contemporary, all in separates.
For the contemporary customer, the fit and coverage is adjusted for a lower leg and higher waistline. Twins offers better Italian fabrics in brightly colored Versace-inspired prints, and more tricot and novelty fabrics, particularly for private label accounts, which make up more than half of sales. The manufacturer has a private label business, which affords more experimentation and engenders less price resistance than wholesaling, said Mitchell.
Wholesale prices range from $11.25 to $20.50 for bras and $11 to $16.50 for bottoms.
With consumers hot for better fabrics and more novel, unique looks, Mitchell said bestsellers can often be surprising. For instance, a metallic glitz fabric called “Electric Sea,” which was added “for a joke” last season, became a bestseller, said Mitchell.
“Our retail customers want everything, in ever-more unique looks,” said Mitchell. “It’s harder work than ever for manufacturers, but the creativity is fun.”