NEW YORK -- Retailers are buoyed by hefty sales increases in swimwear this year, with some reporting gains of up to 20 percent.
Such figures come as a welcome relief for the category. According to data developed by The NPD Group for the American Apparel Manufacturers Association, the women's end of the business posted a 3.7 percent decline in 1993.
Business this year got a fast start from the brutally cold winter, which inspired many women to pack new swimwear to take on southern vacations, while lots of warm weather in May kept the action perking in many parts of the country.
Retailers also gave a nod to manufacturers for supplying a host of saleable trends, translating them from the sportswear and lingerie markets.
"It's been a wonderful, profitable season," enthused Beverly Anderson, swimwear buyer at J.C. Penney, adding that the retailer has done well across the board with junior, updated misses and conservative styles. Sales for the Plano, Tex.-based chain are up more than 10 percent.
Despite the fact that retailers in the New York area and some other spots around the country marked down their goods in late May, about a week earlier than last year, they said it was not a sign of general weakness. Rather, they claimed, it was a case of having to meet competition from one or two stores fast with the red pencil.
"If our competition hadn't taken markdowns, we would not have had to do it because our business has been excellent," said Susie Welton, divisional vice president and merchandise manager for swimwear and sportswear at Barneys New York. She added that swimsuit sales, which are 20 percent above plan this season, have outpaced last year's figures.
She said the regular-price business is as strong as that in markdown goods. Currently, about half of Barneys's swimsuit inventory is on sale.
Several retailers, including Bloomingdale's and Macy's East as well as Barneys, have bolstered their swimwear departments, in particular the designer areas, and it's proving to be a smart move, they said.
In a national spot check, WWD found that a number of styles -- from one-piece knits to constructed bikinis with push-up bra cups -- have been on this year's hit parade in many areas. The popularity of other styles, like the string bikini, appears to be regional. However, the wide exposure given such skimpy styles in fashion magazines and elsewhere has spurred demand for two-piece suits generally.
Overall, stores said they've had success with:
Textured fabrics, including waffle weaves, sheer mesh and ribbed knits.
Constructed looks, like push-up bras.
Earth tones like hunter green, as well as neon colors like tangerine.
Lingerie looks, including sexy lace-like straps.
In the New York area, swimsuit sales at Macy's were up by a double-digit percentage over last year.
"Customers are looking for newness in style and design," said Benny Lin, fashion director at Macy's, which unveiled its beefed-up swimwear department in May, expanding the area by 15 percent and doubling the number of designers. "And if we provide them with the right styling, they are willing to pay the additional money."
Some of the best-selling looks include athletic-inspired suits, and two-piece suits in neon colors and metallics.
While the string bikini is a big seller among the store's contemporary customers, Lin noted that it "is not taking off among the designer customers."
A lot of designer customers are very conscious about their bodies and don't want to show any flaws, he said.
Bloomingdale's executives also noted that sales gains were in double digits, lifted by an expanded selection of Calvin Klein, Gottex, Karla Colletto and Anne Cole.
Elizabeth Jones, swimsuit buyer, said some of the hot sellers include athletic styles by Anne Cole and the skimpy bikini by Calvin Klein. Other top styles are skirted and sheered looks, as well as suits that feature double-strap detailing in the back, she noted. Barneys decided that this season it would "aggressively go after the swimsuit business," Welton said. "We had a strong presentation starting in early October and November and built strong magazine editorial around it." As part of the strategy, Barneys New York stores and five of its branches enhanced its collection of such lines as Dolce & Gabbana and Liza Bruce.
At Barneys, the best-selling color is black, with white a close second. Top sellers include black string bikinis by Calvin Klein, black or white one-piece and two-piece suits with mesh overlay by Liza Bruce, one-piece textured knit suits by Laura Urbinati and Lycra blend boy-leg suits by Robin Piccone. String bikinis are doing well with younger customers, she noted.
On the West Coast, officials at I. Magnin, the 12-unit upscale chain based in San Francisco, noted that textured suits are among the bestsellers, especially those in water shades such as green and blue. Dark prints with metallic streaks are also reported popular, as are African-inspired tribal prints.
The best-selling vendors at I. Magnin include Calvin Klein, Anne Klein and Gottex. The store also is doing well with the athletic-style Anne Cole swimwear collection.
At Splash and Flash, a specialty swimwear boutique in La Quinta, Calif., one-piece suits have been the strongest sellers this year. Calvin Klein's green one-piece tank and Gottex's brown and beaded one-piece suits have been the bestsellers. Cotton fabrications have been good, and gingham, plaid and striped patterns are popular.
In the Washington, D.C., area, Woodward & Lothrop has had a significant increase in swimwear sales this season, with the trend more toward "sophisticated" and "mature" than skimpy, said Patty Dillon, senior buyer for the department store chain.
Most of W&L's growth has been in contemporary, which accounts for about 25 percent of women's swimwear sales.
The misses' customer accounts for 50 percent of sales, while the junior customer makes up 25 percent.
"Our swim business has been excellent all season, starting with cruise in November and December," said Dillon, who attributed the growth to a broader selection and an updated contemporary assortment.
Textured Lycra blends and crochet are the most important fabrications for W&L this season.
Black crocheted swimsuits by Sessa are the top seller in Washington's Bikini shops, although skimpy thongs and bust-enhancing styles are also big this year.
Colleen Corrigan, owner of the city's two Bikini Shops, said she's had to reorder the black crocheted suits three times this season. Other colors such as tan and brown are also popular in crochet style.
Neiman Marcus has had such a strong swimwear season that as of mid-June -- in contrast to many stores -- it hadn't marked down any goods and expects that less than half of its remaining inventory will be sold at a discounted price, according to a company spokeswoman.
Textured styles have been top performers, including waffle-weave thermal knits, ribbed knits and sheer mesh layered over solid fabrics. Other popular swimsuits include horizontal and vertical stripes in both one- and two-piece styles, skirted suits and athletic looks, including scuba and racing-back styles.
Tanks have continued to outsell two-piece styles, and customers have been especially interested in utilitarian suits that swim well. Among bikinis, high-waisted styles with push-up bra tops remain popular.
Matching coverups have done extremely well, particularly hooded vests and shorts sets, rompers and pareos.
Neiman's biggest swimwear resources are Anne Continued from page 14
Cole, Calvin Klein, Gottex and Keiko.
Conservative suits by Maxine that have shirring and other figure-flaw-disguising details did especially well.
At J.C. Penney, Beverly Anderson said, "A lot of stores walked away from that conservative business, so we're getting a lot of it."
In juniors, customers went for gingham and print bikinis and styles embellished with daisies. Popular updated misses' looks included bustier, surplice, color-blocked and back-interest styles by Mainstream, Robby Len and Jantzen.
"The whole bustier look has been really important," Anderson pointed out. "We've also been selling a lot of skating-skirt suits. At market now they're showing a lot of young, perky skaters, so we'll show them next year, too."
In the Midwest, swimwear sales have been strong, with stores reporting solid sales gains fueled by good weather and customer demand for a variety of looks, including crochet, plaid and mesh.
At Jacobson Stores, Jackson, Mich., May swimwear business was ahead of last year by almost 20 percent, according to Ann Kim, buyer for active sportswear and swimwear. Kim attributed the increase to having the right inventory in the stores -- in contrast to being understocked earlier in the season.
She said the best-selling style is an Anne Klein tank with the designer's logo embroidered on the front, at $46. Also selling well is a jogger silhouette by Sirena at $68.
"It's a great silhouette for walking on the beach, but you can also wear it elsewhere with a jacket or blouse on top," Kim said.
Other strong trends at Jacobson's are crochet, texture and anything with metal applique, including two-piece suits by Baja Blue, $70, and La Blanca, $65, she said.
According to Debra Aldredge-Remme, senior buyer of women's swimwear at Dayton's, Hudson's and Marshall Field's, business at the Minneapolis-based department-store chain is ahead by a double-digit percentage so far this season.
She said volume was particularly strong in March from spring break and vacation customers, and also showed strong gains in the second half of May.
"Plaid is driving the business for juniors and contemporary," Remme said. Best-selling styles include a gingham two-piece suit by Rebel Beach by Beach Patrol, retailing at $50, which has sold several thousand units, and both two-piece and one-piece looks in madras plaids by Jantzen, at around $55.
Also doing well at DH & Field's is a chlorine-resistant line, Aquacize by Robbie Len, retailing for $50 to $55, Aldredge-Remme said.
Textured looks are popular, especially open weaves and crochet looks, sheer and mesh, she said.
Greg Hightower, president of Liquid Assets, a chain of three swimwear stores in the Chicago area, said business was "much better than for a long time," with sales running ahead of last year by about 10 percent.
He said one of the strongest looks was an underwire top in both one- and two-piece suits, paired with high-waisted bottoms in the two-piece styles.
A few, more sophisticated customers are also getting a taste for mix-and-match two-piece suits, and Hightower said he expects that look to be much bigger next year.
As for the string bikini, it doesn't seem to be much in demand at Midwest stores.
"It's not something women want to be s Hightower said.