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Swimwear continues its voyage toward becoming a year-round category.

Swim vendors are wading through stormy economic waters cautiously.

With the busiest swimwear-buying months past, the group at WWDMAGIC this week, tiny compared with its August equivalent and its apparel counterparts, is mainly relying on tested swimwear styles to drive revenues before the busy cruise season hits. Manufacturers remain confident that they can open new retail doors despite economic jitters, as the momentum carrying swimwear from a single season business to a year-round category continues.

The niche industry’s recent history gives vendors reasons to be both optimistic and worried. The swim company graveyard keeps filling up. The Warnaco Group shrunk its Southern California-based swim division by selling Anne Cole, Cole of California and Catalina for $26 million to In Mocean Group in January. Last summer, Warnaco also announced it is exiting private label, Michael Kors and Nautica swimwear to concentrate on Calvin Klein and Speedo.

Warnaco’s troubles don’t seem to reflect a broader slowdown in the swim market. In fact, according to the latest data from The NPD Group, women’s swimwear sales climbed 6 percent to $2.83 billion in the year ended December 2007 from $2.67 billion the prior year. At the same time, the average price for a women’s swimsuit rose slightly to $24.41 from $24.07.

Summer collections, although small compared to cruise-spring, are gaining in importance. Five years ago, Ron Russell, president of the AVI Design Group at Apparel Ventures, said the Gardena, Calif.-based swimwear company wasn’t making summer swimwear collections at all, whereas today they constitute 20 percent of Apparel Ventures’ overall business. Apparel Ventures’ swimwear portfolio includes Sessa, 2 Bamboo, La Blanca, Playa by La Blanca, Ralph Lauren, Lauren by Ralph Lauren Collection and Ralph Lauren Blue Label.

Data supplied by The NPD Group suggests that bringing in fresh swim merchandise for the spring and early summer months may increasingly pay off. In 2005 and 2007, the research firm asked women what time or times of the year they buy swimsuits. Reports of spring purchases went to 50 percent in 2007 from 45 percent in 2005, and reports of early summer purchases jumped to 53 percent from 48 percent. In contrast, reports of mid- to late-summer swimwear purchases declined from 29 percent to 19 percent from 2005 to 2007.

This story first appeared in the February 12, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Ellyce Zolt, a partner in Ronnie & Ellyce Sales Showroom, which represents Jessica Simpson, True Religion, Bare Assets, Martini Sol and Endless Sun, indicated that summer collections aren’t the meat of her enterprise, but swim vendors and retailers pay attention to them nonetheless. “Most of our lines just carry through the whole year, they just add a few pieces,” said Zolt, speaking of the brands’ summer selections.

At WWDMAGIC, retail buyers are scouting standout swimsuits regardless of the seasonal collection. Russell stressed that Apparel Ventures mostly exhibits its top sellers, singling out magenta-colored suits in its La Blanca assortment and bright pastel suits in Lauren by Ralph Lauren.

Zolt pointed out that recognizable brands are especially crucial to buyers given the uncertain economic climate. “People are asking us if we have Jessica Simpson,” she said. “They are looking at name lines, and they are looking at price points. That is what the trends are because of the economy.”

Recession or not, young brands are still attempting to get a foothold in the market for swim and swim-related goods. In addition, established brands are eying retail avenues where they have been unavailable and are launching products to reach untapped audiences.

Canadian company Beach Essentials hasn’t shied away from unleashing two inventions in the U.S.: a cover-up dubbed a Saress, because its somewhere between a sarong and a dress, and a beach bag that transforms into a towel called the Itsa. The Saress wholesales from $14.95 to $16.95, and the Itsa retails for around $50.

“When they [retail buyers] go to shows, they are trying to look for something new and our product fits that,” said George Muzaic, president of Beach Essentials. He added that next year Beach Essentials is planning to introduce swimwear that matches its Saress assortment.

Initially focused on junior-oriented styles, two-year-old swim brand Skinny Dip, which is owned by City of Commerce, Calif.-based lingerie firm Leg Avenue, has retooled its swimsuits to target college-age customers. The current emphasis is on nautical and retro-inspired designs, many with embellishments, according to sales manager Maria Santilena.

“It is not active swimwear. It is more pool swimwear and lounging swimwear,” she said, adding that Skinny Dip is aiming to expand its distribution to swim specialty stores from its base of lingerie stores and tanning salons.

Flip-flop brand Havaianas is spreading further into department stores such as Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom, and boutiques that don’t specialize in footwear, according to Kerri Sengstaken, marketing director for StyleWest, the U.S. distributor for Havaianas since 2000.

Apparel Ventures is moving into spa wares with a collection from La Blanca of bottoms that wholesale around $29, shirts for $16 to $17 and jackets that average $45. “It is an extension of our business. It is about fit; it is about stretch fabric; it is about a lifestyle,” said Russell. “We are going to be working with the best spas and resorts around the country.”

The economic situation may be tenuous, but swim manufacturers aren’t disheartened heading into WWDMAGIC.

Russell is encouraged by Apparel Ventures’ booth relocating from the Hilton, where swimwear makers have been placed for several seasons next to accessories, to the bustling North Hall amid apparel brands. “We are thrilled,” he said. “We just loved it when we were right in the middle of sportswear. Our customer would not like to go far to buy what is for them a limited item.”

The weak dollar is giving hope to swim vendors, as well. Anna Kenney, swim director for Hot Tuna International, which will be housed in the progressive streetwear section of WWDMAGIC, believes it may help boost the brand’s swimwear sales outside the U.S. “There are international people coming to MAGIC from Japan to Singapore, [and] swim is blowing up in Canada,” she said. “We are doing really well in the U.K. and in Australia.”

And there have been signs at retail that the swim segment is healthy. While some department stores saw disappointing fall and holiday sales in several categories, Russell said business at swim specialty stores was robust. “We were getting reorders every week,” he said. “All you really need at any given time is a small percentage of the population going on vacation and wanting a new suit. It doesn’t take a lot to drive the swim specialty business.”

After business crawled in November and December, Zolt said sales at her showroom are perking up. “All of a sudden it is going better. I think it is going to pick up,” she said. “Weather has been a big problem. It has been cold everywhere, and that is not a good thing.”

When the weather is warm, Beach Essentials’ Muzaic argued that swimwear and related goods are at least somewhat recession proof. “When people go on holidays and they go to the beach, whether the economy is bad, they are still buying their swimwear,” he said.

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