Byline: Katherine Bowers

PORTLAND, Ore. — In Jantzen’s case, a picture is worth more than a thousand words. Consider the tale of two catalogs.
Last year, the swimwear maker’s catalog featured a woman frolicking in a series of floral tanksuits with modestly cut legs and style names such as “Sunny Days” and “Jellybeans.” The ambience was mom-of-three-vacationing-at-Disney World.
This year’s catalog tells a different story. Models in their 20s, skin gleaming and hair flying, wear as many two-pieces as maillots. One model, wearing “Eclipse” — a Pop-Art print swimsuit in teals and limes — lunges forward against a darkened sky. The image will run in InStyle magazine and other glossy titles as part of Jantzen’s newly launched ad campaign.
The swimwear company, headquartered here and owned by Greensboro, N.C.-based VF Corp., hopes this fashion overhaul and a “portfolio” approach — strengthening in-house brands as well as taking on licenses — will help it recover a market share that has eroded from 17 percent to 10 percent in the last three years.
“We felt with the [declining] market share situation, we certainly needed to revive the brand,” said Stephen Fritz, Jantzen’s president. “We took a cue from VF that we needed to do better and could do better.”
Jim Corbett, who left Jantzen in the mid-Nineties for a corporate post at VF, returned last year as vice president and general manager of the Jantzen brand to lead its revitalization. He blames softened revenues on stuffy fashion, although he declined to be specific about numbers.
“We just didn’t stay competitive from a fashion point of view,” he said. “The marketplace changed and we did not capture younger women.”
Plans for the fix are aggressive and wide-ranging. In the last year, the company has stepped away from its sportswear business, launched the Tommy Hilfiger swim line and injected more fashion into the Jantzen brand and the Nike line, which the company has licensed for the past five years.
But the top priority is fixing the Jantzen label, which accounts for 72 percent of the company’s roughly $120 million in annual revenues, according to Corbett. Nike brings in 20 percent of the company’s revenues and 8 percent comes from a private label program with J.C. Penney.
Corbett said he’d like the brand to reclaim the fashion cachet it enjoyed through most of its 90-year history. The halls of Jantzen headquarters, still in the original but oft-expanded 1929 Art Deco building, are lined with illustrations from prominent artists of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties. There are delicately ruched swimsuits with ribbon ties and spreads from Look magazine and Vogue preserved behind glass. In the Fifties, a young Hubert de Givenchy designed the line’s French license.
“He was the most recognizable young designer in Fifties and they got him to do a collection. That’s how powerful the brand was,” Corbett said.
But making Jantzen meaningful to today’s young woman is a tall order. In focus groups, executives discovered that the brand isn’t even on the radar for women age 24 to 35, the customer Jantzen wants to recapture.
“[The younger woman’s] perception of Jantzen was not good and not bad. It was like this big blank canvas, for the most part,” said Brian Murphy, Jantzen’s director of marketing. “She had this distant memory of, ‘That name sounds familiar, but I don’t know why.’ “
The company called in trend services and sent executives to Europe to gather impressions. They compiled hefty, picture-filled books to help veteran sales reps — accustomed to focusing on fit and function — sell the fashionable side of Jantzen.
The resulting line abandons Crayola brights and safe silhouettes in favor of deeper colors such as wines, ruby reds, deep teals, browns and blacks. There’s also a greater variety of silhouettes, including ones that flirt with cleavage and higher leg cuts, but also keep basic coverage. One example is the “tri-kini,” which is a red, zip-front burn-out maillot that layers over a black bandeau and bikini bottom. The line stands at 65 percent maillots and 35 percent bikinis, Corbett said.
The company has also upgraded the line’s fabrics, with matte tricot as the baseline, instead of raschel. Wholesale prices remained about the same, though, range from $38 to $42.
The Pop-Art print Eclipse suit — offered in a maillot, triangle and underwire bikinis, and tankini styles — leads the brand’s revitalized image. A short skirt and sheer, printed shirt are merchandised as coverups. According to Murphy, buyers are also responding to a grouping called “Me Jane” that has suits with keyhole halter tops. Also strong is “Hooked on You,” a sleek black grouping with brushed silver fastenings. One of the best Hooked pieces is a sinuous monokini that echoes asymmetrical trends in eveningwear.
Also important to the new Jantzen: obsolescence. Both Corbett and Murphy admitted the company relied too heavily on recoloring prints that sold well and sending them out for a new season.
“We got a little redundant,” said Corbett. “We’re going for planned obsolescence. We want our customer to walk in and say, you know, I spent $84 for a suit last year, but this is a whole new look and I’ve got to have it.”
The company hasn’t thrown the baby out with the bath water, though. Fit and construction remain consistent, which industry sources say has always been strong for Jantzen.
And the line does contain a few references to the old Jantzen: a couple of jazzier high-necked maillots with engineered florals. Corbett said keeping some of the flavor of the past was a deliberate part of the transition.
“We’ve asked ourselves, “How far and how fast,”‘ he said. “Because one thing we don’t want to do is disorient the retail trade and more importantly, we don’t want to disorient our current customer base.”
The strategy seems to be working.
Orders for the line will be up 5 percent from the previous year, said Corbett.
“If you can get through a major transition and grow 5 percent, it’s a strong indicator that the transition is running well,” he said.
Denise Ferretti, Federated Department Stores’ corporate swimwear merchandiser, said buyers for individual Federated stores were “basically bullish on the new direction.”
“Jantzen was a pleasant surprise at [the] Miami [swim show],” she said. “I think in print direction and use of color they’re much more daring than they’ve been in the past.+There were many suits in the line I would not have guessed were from Jantzen.”
Jantzen hopes to continue initial momentum with a print ad campaign, and a limited TV campaign that will air in the New York metropolitan market, breaking in March and April for spring.
Once the brand has built a following among younger customers, Corbett said the company intends to relaunch sportswear for that younger woman.
“Going back into sportswear will increase our ability to be a powerful brand, rather than just be a category player,” he said. “[Stepping away from sportswear] was a difficult call, but strategically it was necessary, knowing that we’re going to get in sync with a ready-to-wear product that maps to our swimwear.”
But the quest for fashion cachet doesn’t stop there.
The company has also launched Rivera, an ultra-vintage line aimed at specialty boutiques and high-end department stores. The line retails from $182 to $320, and although the company hadn’t collected any orders as of press time, Jane and Cosmopolitan magazines had pulled the suits for editorial use — and that’s a lot of the point, Corbett said.
“[Rivera] is very much image-focused. Everything that flows behind it is elevated for having a high-end line,” Corbett said.
The company is also making e-progress. Jantzen.com, which launched e-commerce in February, is netting about $1,000 per day in sales and is already profitable, said Murphy.
“It’s beating our expectations,” he said, admitting that the initial projections were “very modest.” He said he was pleased because returns were running lower than industry averages of 30 percent.
The company is also in the process of giving the rest of the Jantzen business a tune-up. The Jantzen brand “umbrella” houses five subcategories: Jantzen; Classics by Jantzen, a misses’ line; Jantzen Electric Beach, a junior line; Jantzen Girls, and the new Rivera collection.
According to Murphy, Classics by Jantzen will keep traditional misses’ silhouettes — like tank sarongs and skirted tanks — but will get more fashionable prints. Zen Garden, a gold-toned floral on a taupe background is more fashionable and is booking well, Corbett said.
Corbett said Electric Beach, the company’s junior line, is next up for revision.
“We want to be faster and trendier,” he said. “We’re going to be taking the Electric Beach [line] younger than it has been, with the focus going toward a high school and early college consumer.”
Fritz estimates that a comeback — for the Jantzen business as a whole — will take two years.
“If you’ve had a deterioration, it’s at least two years back, because you’ve got to do well once and then you have to follow it up,” he said. “To be realistic, I think retailers are uncomfortable giving all that share to one brand. That’s why we’ve made a conscious effort to take a portfolio approach, to add Tommy and Nike. That’s the way we’ll grow overall Jantzen Inc. market share.”
The Nike license has shown itself to be a slowly and steadily growing business. The label hit $25 million in sales for fiscal 1999 and expects to reach $28 million this year, partly because of new, fashion-oriented pieces unveiled at the Miami Swim show in July.
“At our fashion show [in Miami], we got a lot of oohs and ahhs and ‘Oh my God, Nike’s doing fashion.’ It was great,” recalled Mark Anderson, vice president and general manager of the Nike license at Jantzen.
Currently, the Nike line encompasses competitive swim offerings, including the Lift bodysuit, a solids program and approximately six new fashion groupings.
The fashion groups, priced from $49 to $79, have more prints, a more discreet swoosh and a color range that leaves competitive swim primaries behind. Anderson said “Tamesis,” a Gothic scrollwork-inspired print offered in Baltic blue and Glaze, a burgundy and green combo, is doing well. New silhouettes include halter, bandeau, underwire and triangle-top bikinis.
Nike has also kicked off a reversible, solid separates program, which is expected to do $1 million at retail, according to Anderson.
The decision to boost swim fashion is in step with Nike Inc.’s corporate strategy to place more emphasis on the design and merchandising of women’s apparel. Still, Anderson said, the swim line will stick close to its athletic heritage with predominantly “clean and modern” looks.
Jantzen’s other license, Tommy Hilfiger, is also staying true to brand form with a healthy dose of Americana.
Jim Gerson, vice president and general manager of the Hilfiger license, said he and brand manager Kristine Lebow relocated to Manhattan in order to take design cues directly from Tommy Hilfiger designers and merchandisers.
The line, which breaks into a junior separates program and a contemporary line, includes plenty of Hilfiger’s signature red, white and blue palette, as well as tropical prints and retro references to Eighties prep.
Gerson said he’s pleased with initial reaction to the line, which is projected to hit $15 million at retail.
“Because there was a limited launch, we had to turn some doors down. So we have more demand than doors we can [fill] — which is a good situation,” he said.
Gerson said he believes the Hilfiger brand is solid, despite well-publicized sales slumps and the fact that the New York-based company’s stock is trading close to its 52-week low.
“I really don’t have a fear at this point,” he said. “Tommy Hilfiger sales are picking back up. There has been an uptick in women’s apparel. There are a lot of positives to the brand.”
As for Jantzen’s own rebound, executives in Portland know bookings are good — but retail sell-through is proof. And so they wait, and plan Jantzen 2002.
“We need to perform, and then we need to come back next year and be consistent with our point of view,” said Murphy. “It’s not going to be a one-season miracle type of thing. We’re in this for the long haul.”

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