High-waist bikinis were a solid bright spot in a spring-summer swimwear season bogged down by cool rainy weather that lingered into mid-June in most of the country.

While strong sales very early – in March or April – provided a cushion against the soggy May and early June, many stores expected sales gains to be in the single digits for the year. “Retailers hate to say it, but the product is so seasonal that it it’s not warm, the consumer feels no need to buy,” said Beth Elliot, swimwear buyer at Thalhimers, Richmond, Va.

As Al Engleman, assistant buyer at Younkers, Des Moines, Iowa, put it, “If there’s a break in the weather, sales should really start taking off.”

In the meantime, stores decided not to wait for hot, sunny weather to boost sales. Despite plans, they broke their clearance promotions in early June – at the same time or earlier than last year.

Lord & Taylor in Dallas cut prices 25 to 50 percent on June 4. Macy’s and Rich’s in Atlanta dropped prices 20 to 50 percent on June 7. B. Altman, Bonwit Teller and Lord & Taylor in New York advertised markdowns June 8.

In Los Angeles, the markdown season opened a full week earlier than last year, with all the major retailers taking ads on June 15 except The Broadway, which was not expected to maintain its original break date of June 6.

The sale prices excluded preview suits. Many stores agreed with Missy A. LoMonaco, vice president and director of fashion merchandising at Bonwit’s that the sale ads served to “invite the customer to come into the stores to buy our preview `90 swimwear, which is being sold at regular price.”

As of June 16, stores in the Midwest were holding onto full-price policies, despite earlier price breaks from Bloomingdale’s Chicago unit.

Throughout the country, the high-waist bikini and two-piece suits in general turned into the surprise misses’ hit of the season. The new fashion-forward constructed suits were coming on strong in many areas, and both neon and neoprene showed more strength than expected, retailers said.

“There has been a huge success of the two-piece suit,” said Tracy Rasmussen, national swimwear buyer for J.C. lot of that is due to the higher waists and longer tops. A lot of customers who wouldn’t ordinarily wear a two-piece will wear the two-piece that provides a little more coverage.”

At Marshall Field’s, Chicago, bikinis account for 15 percent of total swimwear sales, compared with 12 percent last year. At Altman’s, “Bikinis used to generate 3 percent of our swimsuit business, but this year they are running at 10 percent,” said Ellen Kamowitz, divisional merchandise manager.

“The biggest surprise is the trend of the two-piece suit; it has been much stronger than originally planned,” said Paul Roth, senior vice president for merchandising at Macy’s South/Bullock’s in Atlanta. Two-piece suits, planned at 20 percent of the total, were 30 percent by early June.

“The two-piece business is now 21 percent of our total sales, which is remarkable since we are a traditional department store. That classification was more like 3 percent when I started, eight years ago,” said Elliot at Thalhimers.

At Bonwit’s, “bikinis were selling at the same rate as tanks, and they’re usually behind tanks,” LoMonaco said. “We purchased more bikinis this year, including several new resources like Half Moon.”

She stressed that the bikinis are selling to women older than the junior customer, noting, “Our tank business was big last summer, but even then we saw the bikini body guide business starting to take off.”

Nancy Pressman, swimwear buyer for Barneys New York, said she bought more bikinis than one-piece suits, with bikinis selling better at the beginning of the season and one-piece models catching up toward the end.

“Suits have gotten very sexy,” Pressman said. “Designers are using more sheer fabrics, and there is a lot more skin showing.”

Barneys was one of the stores that planned to hold off price promotions until early July. Pressman said she planned to do the most swimwear business in June, and planned to do it at full price.

With the exception of the English Liza Bruce line, all of Barneys’ swimwear comes from domestic sources. Pressman had to reorder from Bruce due to the popularity of the designer’s three-piece crinkle and lace bikini and skirt which, at $140, is the store’s most expensive.

But the season’s best-selling model was a windowpane tank from Body Glove. By the first week of June, 80 units had sold at $65, which was shaping up as the average price of the store’s suits this season. The store has also done well with Keiko, which Pressman described as “romantic, toned-down and not as sexy as some of the others,” and suits by Ellen Ann Dobrovir, especially a sexy one-piece halter loincloth in poppy.

Best-selling price points at Altman’s range from upper-moderate to better, but Kamowitz said the customer is giving less weight to price and more to whether a suit looks right, to its newness and it degree of prettiness.

The customer buying bikinis, Kamowitz said, is not a junior, but someone in her 30s or 40s. This same age range is also buying shape-builder suits from resources such as Robby Len and Jantzen. Other top-selling suits overall were La Blanca and Gottex.

At Bullock’s, Los Angeles, bikinis were about one-third of misses’ sales. The Broadway, Los Angeles,bikinis went from 21 percent of misses’ sales in 1988 to approximately 26 percent this year.

“Figure enhancement and camouflage was the name of the game this year,” commented Anne Eberhardt, misses’ swimwear buyer at The Broadway. “Anything with a tummy control panel or a soft cup did well.” She said the best gains have been with updated suits and moderate-price misses’ suits that enhance the figure.

Eberhardt narrowed her resource structure, intensifying with 16 vendors; the biggest volume line was Catalina. The fastest-turning line in misses’ was Too Hot Brazil.

The Broadway planned to hold off on price breaks until July 6. “Our feeling on breaking price is that it doesn’t do any good to have the sale if it isn’t summer weather yet, and that doesn’t come until late in the season,” said Eberhardt. “It doesn’t matter if you put a $4.99 price on all the suits if it’s 50 degrees and raining.”

Business at Bullock’s was dominated by the underwire suit in bikini and one-piece styles. Other important silhouettes were tank suits, bandeaus, the sarong and skirted suits. Ruffling at the hip and cummerbund treatments were also good sellers. Neoprene has jumped into misses’ as an accent and neon colors have been important in misses’. In juniors, suits in mango papaya have been explosive.

Bullock’s junior customer, a spokeswoman said, is buying two suits: a sparse, often high-cut suit for tanning and a second suit – often with a crop top and little pants – for beach volleyball or aerobics. In shape builders, Esther Williams had a successful debut.

At Splash & Flash, a four-store chain in Los Angeles, two-piece suits have been dominant, with Take SlimSuit, Too Hot Brazil and La Blanca all having good seasons, said Jean Zalkins, owner.

In the Southeast, volume was coming from the high-waist bikini and the updated constructed suit, with most suits retailing at $40 to $60.

At Macy’s South, said Roth, top performers are Cole, Rose Marie Reid, Catalina, Jantzen and Bill Blass.

Because they offer more coverage and represent a trend toward more fashion styling, the two-piece suits have made a “decent” showing with more mature customers, Roth said.

At Rich’s, Carol Greer, general merchandise manager of women’s ready-to-wear, called the season “tough for two reasons: one – we’ve had no warm summer weather normal to Atlanta [through mid-June], and two – there hasn’t been a new silhouette.

“The skirted bikini has been good and we’ve done well with the figure-flattering constructed suit, but overall there’s been no hot breakthrough item. Cotton-Lycra [spandex] has been very disappointing,” she said.

She cited Catalina, La Blanca, Rose Marie Reid and Anne Cole as top vendors, with intense brights, florals and dots the hot color stories.

At Hess’s, Allentown, Pa., the “one-piece was leading the pack,” said Cindy Schneider, general merchandise manager of women’s ready-to-wear.

“We do unbelievable business in swimwear,” she said. “The two-piece is stronger than it was last year and it currently represents about 27 percent of our business.”

Schneider said cotton-Lycra was holding its own against its extraordinary growth last year. She named Rose Marie Reid, Jantzen, Mainstream, La Blanca and Bill Blass as strong resources, while black accented with neons and brights was making the strongest color impression.

At McRae’s, Jackson, Miss., “The key silhouette has been the bikini, with the new St. Tropez styling – a short tank top – being a real strong item for us,” said Pat Priebe, director of fashion information.

“The customer seems to be reacting to the newsness and excitement in the updated silhouettes in the body-shaping suits as well,” Priebe said.

The constructed suit, she said, was selling well to a wide age range of women. McRae’s is doing best with Catalina, La Blanca and Bill Blass, with blacks, brights and neons hot.

At Thalhimers, Elliot attributed the growth of high-waist bikini sales to 30- to 35-year-old women who look better and feel better about themselves than their counterparts from a few years ago. Top vendors include Jantzen, Rose Marie Reid, La Blanca, Catalina and Mainstream.

“We’ve definitely seen growth in structured suits. About 31 percent of our business is constructed suits and 35 percent is unconstructed,” Priebe said.

At Penney’s, prices range from $20 to $62, and major resources are Wior Corp., Catalina, A&H Sportswear, Daffy Beach Patrol and Jantzen. The largest percentage of Penney’s swimwear is private label, Rasmussen said.

Along with the high-waist bikini, a private label tank suit in eight colors, retailing for $20, is popular. “Anything with zipper treatment has also been phenomenal,” she added.

In the misses’ market, she said, “Whether it is inner paneling or shirring or underwire bras, customers are looking for something to enhance the figure. We’re even starting to see inner paneling in some high-waist bikinis.”

Neon lime, hot pink, orange and lemon punched up the palette this season, but there was still a market for popped-up pastels and basic solids like black, royal and purple, she said.

In fabrics, “the whole Body Glove influence, with Lycra combined with neoprene, created a real surfer type of look that was strong.”

Ron McCullars, president of Just Add Water, Dallas, planned his price break for the July 4 weekend. “June is our best month at regular price,” he said. “Unfortunately, some stupid competitors started too early. But breaking their prices early doesn’t hurt our business at all.”

The bikini, which rang up 15 percent more sales this summer, is the best-selling category in his eight specialty stores, he said. High-waist styles are particularly important.

“An awful lot of women have gone from the unconstructed maillot into the high-waist bikini in the last couple of years,” he said. The average price of a bikini is $50, and major resources include La Blanca, Half Moon and Body Glove.

Classic maillots and T-back tanks, with an average price of $50, still have strong appeal. Bestsellers include suits by La Blanca, Too Hot Brazil and YSL.

Shape-builder suits gained in sales, primarily because manufacturers offered more styles, said McCullars. Catalina, Sirena and Rose Marie Reid are major resources for the constructed suits.

At Sakowitz, Houston, unconstructed silhouettes with higher-cut legs did better this year, while the market for constructed suits diminished, said Donna Keeney, buyer of weekend leisure apparel.

“I think the reason is primarily the remodeling of our flagship store. Swimwear now hangs in the contemporary sportswear department, and probably has a more contemporary customer than when it was upstairs in an area that catered to the more conservative, traditional customer.”

Suits by Gottex, YSL and Cole in the $55 to $75 price range were bestsellers.

Bikini sales jumped 7 percent over last year. Prices range from $45 to $75 from resources such as Hot Coles, La Blanca and Ann Coles.

In the Midwest, one-piece suits that camouflaged problem areas were early winners while the two-piece waist-riders attracted baby boomers looking for extra coverage. Best-selling colors included bright colorblocks, florals, polkadots and basic black.

At Field’s, waist-rider bikinis were fueling strong two-piece sales. Mariella Holoubek, buyer, said, “Skimpy bikinis don’t sell well. This is the Midwest. The customer wants the feel of a two-piece suit, but wants the coverage.”

Prices range from $39 to $80 with suits around $50 selling best.

At Halls Swansons in Kansas City, Barb Elcock, vice president and merchandise manager, said, “We reanalyzed our vendor structure this year and brought in more mature suits for the average customer base. A lot of our growth is due to that.”

One of the retailer’s new resources, Body I.D., has been a strong seller, with some styles getting a 53 percent sell-through. “The suits have a 4-by-6 inch hang-tag that says what type of body looks good in that suit,” Elcock said. “The customer finds it easy to shop that way.”

Other top-volume vendors include Bill Blass, Sun Club and Catalina. Adrienne Vittadini suits at $60 to $70 also had a high sell-through.

Popular styles include two-piece “tankinis” while brights on black are hot colors. Prices averaged between $50 and $55.

“We had a better bikini business this year,” Elcock said. “Last year everything was French cut. The tankini made that volume grow again.”

Two-piece suits account for 35 percent of swimwear sales this year, up from 20 percent a year ago.

At the Dayton Hudson Department Store Co., Minneapolis, trends driving designer swimwear include florals and dots, said Valerie Mathison, buyer. Lemon-lime was the best-selling color early in the season, followed by fuchsia and mango.

Sales of two-piece high-waist suits have more than tripled since last year, Mathison said, with tank bottoms and bandeau tops the bestsellers. “Bikinis remained constant with last year, while tanks took somewhat of a dip,” she added. “And the cutouts are virtually nonexistent this year.”

Dayton Hudson planned to break price on July 6, its first sales promotion this year.

At Younkers, according to Engleman, constructed one-piece suits sold best, followed by high-waistbikinis, polkadot suits by Jantzen, colorblocking and black. Best-selling resources included Catalina, Robby Len and Mainstream with $40 to $45 the most popular prices.

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