Sea Change

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

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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.
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