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In Swimwear, the Hottest Thing on the Beach Is Raisins

August 24, 1986|BRUCE HOROVITZ | Times Staff Writer

When Lori Jones visits her brother in Newport Beach every summer, more than a sibling reunion draws her here.

The 28-year-old resident of Longview, Wash., heads directly for the local swimwear shops. "California is the only place I can find a decent swimsuit," she said.

And, when Jones recently walked into a summer swimsuit sale at Sky Stone, a Balboa Island swimwear shop, she was soon choosing among three bikinis made by Raisins, a San Juan Capistrano manufacturer that has quickly emerged as one of the hottest in the business.

In Orange County, regarded by many as the nation's swimwear-making capital, industry executives say Raisins is quietly influencing the look and design of women's swimwear. The styles of its swimsuits, shorts and tops are being mimicked by companies 10 times its size.

And, since 1984, it has evolved from just a swimsuit maker into a manufacturer of complete beachwear outfits, known in the industry as "active wear." While a Raisins swimsuit costs $32 to $48, an active wear outfit--including a swimsuit, top and shorts--can easily exceed $100.

And to promote year-round sales, the beachwear firm recently took the unlikely step of also making women's sweaters, and it enjoyed early success in that arena by selling out of its entire line last year.

But in order to maintain its image as a trailblazer and to avoid manipulation by department stores, Raisins sells only to specialty shops--shunning such retail giants as Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom that keep knocking at its door.

The competition is keen, with an estimated 100 women's swimwear manufacturers in the $1-billion-plus women's beachwear marketplace. But in less than 10 years, Raisins has emerged as the market's largest maker of swimwear for specialty shops. The $10 million worth of beachwear that Raisins expects to sell next year is 50 times the sales it posted just five years ago.

Phenomenal Growth

Raisins' growth record has been phenomenal--even in an industry where fast growth and fast demise is the byword. Between 1982 and 1984, the company's sales grew 400%. A decade ago, it had two employees; today it has more than 30.

Some industry executives credit Raisins' startling success to its unique tropical designs and its unusual use of pastel colors. Others say it is the company's knack at appealing to both the younger and older beach-going set. Yet others say that, unlike competitors that drastically revamp their lines each year, Raisins' designs evolve from year to year and attract a strong customer base by that continuity.

But Pat Lingo, the 39-year-old president of Raisins, said the company's success formula really is not all that complicated. The industry has grown a lot since the Cal State Fullerton graduate started the company in a Laguna Beach garage in 1973. Consumers' demands, however, are basically the same.

"There just weren't many suits around that a beach person really wanted to wear," she said. So, she began designing her own swimwear while at college, and picked up spending money making custom swimsuits in her spare time.

"I knew I'd hit something," Lingo said. "The stores were all calling me and asking me for suits."

The name Raisins is a quirky label that Lingo devised at a time when other manufacturers, such as Apple Computers, were naming their companies after foods. She stuck with it--despite the advice of industry peers--and even coaxed one of the hottest surf shops around, Hobie Sports in Dana Point, to stock the brand.

Retailer Wasn't Sure

But the store's owner, Hobie Alter, who had never before stocked women's swimwear, made Lingo promise that she would buy back anything he did not sell. She made the promise, but never had to live up to it. The suits soon sold out.

"A few years ago, no one knew the Raisins name. Today, everyone does," said Laura Lee, swimwear buyer for Hobie Sports. Last year the store tripled its sales projections for Raisins swimwear, she said.

Industry experts are not surprised by Raisins' success. "That little group at Raisins is composed of the most creative, twinkle-in-the-eye executives in the industry," said Steve Lewis, co-publisher of Action Sports Retailer, an industry trade journal in South Laguna. Raisins' management team is also composed of Lingo's husband, Tom, who is chief executive and executive vice president, and Hugh Blue, the company's vice president of finance.

But Raisins has run into some ruts over the years, and right now the company is facing a slowed growth picture that concerns some industry analysts. Raisins executives, however, claim the numbers do not faze them. The company's annual growth rate is expected to fall to 40% next year from a peak rate in 1984 of 152%.

That could eventually force the company to change its marketing strategy. "You can only sell to so many specialty shops," one industry executive warned. "Raisins will eventually have to sell to the majors (department stores). That's where they eat you up and spit you out."

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