Byline: Georgia Lee

The climate here is perfect for high-end swimwear sales — and it’s not just because of the heat.
Always an important international hub, Miami’s stylish image and cachet is stronger than ever. The sizzling popularity of the South Beach neighborhood as a destination for many of the ultrahip is a major factor in Miami’s current status as an “It” town, and the city is luring an increasingly affluent, worldly customer willing to pay top dollar for the best European and U.S. designer swimwear looks.
Classy new hotels are going up; a Ritz-Carlton and a W hotel are set to open soon. The opportunities for retail are also continuing to grow. South Beach these days is hotter than ever, thanks to the energy there created by the models and fashion types who visit often because of Miami’s burgeoning fashion business, and the town’s growing attraction to affluent, hip tourists. And in contrast to the California scene’s emphasis on active, athletic looks, Miami swimwear is all about sex and fashion.
Locals are gushing with enthusiasm.
“Swimwear fashion is born in South Florida,” said Ritchie Berger, designer for the Ritchie swimwear line, who also has five retail shops here, including one located next door to the legendary News Cafe in South Beach. “This crowd, the international jet set, is not price-driven. They want the latest, greatest names, like Versace or Dolce & Gabbana, and they want to be seen, rather than to play sports.”
It’s definitely not just about getting wet or playing in the sand. Especially in South Beach, swimwear is a streetwear uniform, worn either alone or with minimal coverups.
“We have a beautiful, hard-body customer who’s not afraid to try any new look, or to mix and match for their own unique style,” said Cheryl Hoffmeister, owner, X-Isle Surf Shop, a 15-year-old South Beach specialty store catering to a young clientele. “Our customer knows fashion, has a swimwear wardrobe and probably puts on a bikini everyday.”
Swimwear retailers here say the city is chomping at the bit for more designer names, regardless of price.
One store called Absolutely Suitable opened in January 1999 had billed itself as South Beach’s first “designer only” swimwear store. The 3,200-square-foot store, at 16th and Collins Avenue, is a spinoff of a smaller store located in The Breakers hotel in West Palm Beach.
With a ceiling simulating a rolling ocean wave, the store houses 14 designer swimwear lines for both men and women, including best-selling Shan, a Canadian line, as well as Calvin Klein, Moschino, La Perla, Dolce & Gabbana and Jean Paul Gaultier. A wall of designer hats displays names such as Eric Javits, Kokin and Helen Kaminsky, while another wall features Chanel, Gucci and Armani sunglasses. Upscale hair accessories, a key category given Miami’s humid climate, include artful styles by Tarina Tarantino and others.
Not surprisingly, bikinis, thongs and Brazilian bottoms are bestsellers, in beach colors such as orange, red and yellow. Prices range from $80 to $500, with an average price of $150. For 2001, the store projects sales of $1.7 million. John Zoller, vice president, retail operations for The Breakers and a former manager of Neiman Marcus’s Beverly Hills, Calif., store, said the timing is right for the continued growth of the upscale swimwear business here.
“We’re part of a retail evolution in South Beach,” Zoller said. “As new hotels raise average room rates, it’s attracting better-price retailers.”
Last year, Absolutely Suitable kicked off with a live fashion show at Bash, a South Beach night spot. The event was broadcast on the Internet, drawing 1.5 million hits over a four-month period. More recent promotions include in-store events with Miami-based fashion and culture magazine Ocean Drive and shows at the local nightclubs that attract stylish Latin Americans.
A bit farther north at Bal Harbour Shops, another new swimwear boutique, Flash, opened last year with an offering mostly of European lines at prices from $80 up to $478. Flash owner Lisbet Ghilardi also owns Flash lingerie, a high-end lingerie boutique also at Bal Harbour Shops, along with partner Enrique Garcia.
Ghilardi said she shops Europe four times a year, both for better-known lines such as Moschino, Dolce & Gabbana and La Perla, as well as lesser-known lines such as Parah, Donne di Piera, Anti-Flirt and Pin-up. She also carries domestic lines such as Carla Colletto and hybrids such as Miami-based French import Tomas Maier.
Suits at Flash are often embellished with beading, crystals and lattice work and can also be worn as bodysuits. Flash has even offered mink bikinis and can sell them, according to Ghilardi, who researched the market for a year before opening.
“Everything we carry is intended to get a ‘wow’ from customers,” Ghilardi explained. “It’s not uncommon for a customer to spend $400 to $1,000 on a swimwear wardrobe. We often buy with specific customers in mind.”
Longtime local independent swimwear retailers, such as Swim ‘N Sport and Alice’s Day Off, also noted increased demand for designer and name brands in the last few seasons. Brands are now a major portion of the 30-line mix for Swim ‘N Sport, a Miami-based swimwear specialty chain with 22 current stores nationwide and five more planned openings by yearend. Swimwear represents 60 percent of inventory at Swim ‘N Sport, with related items, including resort sportswear, as the remainder.
“The designer category used to be just a few labels, such as Calvin Klein,” said Mark Sidle, second-generation owner of the chain, which has been around since 1954. “Now there’s been an explosion of names — Nautica, Polo, Adrienne Vittadini, Liz Claiborne. And customers love it.”
Sidle added, however, that while designer brands have exploded, they can’t afford to rely on name alone.
“Designers can’t just have a big name and charge big bucks without the innovation and creativity needed to keep the customer’s interest,” he said.
According to Sidle, Nautica has been a bestseller in branded business so far this year, while Anne Cole and La Blanca also have been good early summer performers.
With an ongoing expansion that has doubled the number of stores over the past five years, Swim ‘N Sport projects a volume of approximately $20 million in 2001. Sidle is convinced that the chain, which has become a year-round swimwear business, has benefited greatly from increased travel nationwide, and particularly growth in tourism in Florida.
“Twenty years ago, you had to have water and hot weather to keep a swimwear store open,” said Sidle. “Now, everybody travels, and swimwear can sell year-round, even in the Northeast.”
Designer labels and brands have become the number one focus for Rick and Joni Cohen, owners of Alice’s Day Off, a 13-year-old Miami-based swimwear specialty store with five south Florida locations that vary in size from 1,800-to-3,600 square feet. They said that brands appeal particularly to the large Latin American contingent that constitutes the operator’s customer base. With lines such as Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Nautica, the Cohens also carry BCBG Max Azria, Rampage Esprit and XOXO for younger customers and will add the new DKNY swimwear collection this summer.
“The non-resident Latin customer looks for brands they know, such as Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren,” said Rick Cohen. But they don’t stop there. “These customers are affluent, and they shop for others while they are here.” What’s more, local customers are also responding strongly to higher-priced brands.
“We’re inching up in price, pushing the envelope,” said Cohen. With an average retail price between $70 and $80, the store now sells suits up to $160.
The brand craze has been both a blessing and a challenge for the Cohens, who have had to adjust buying patterns to compete with bigger retailers.
“Every retail channel has brands now, which is great for consumer awareness. But we’ve had to learn to bring it in early and get out of it early, to avoid competing with markdowns from department stores and discounters,” explained Rick Cohen.

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