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Suited for Success : Despite aging baby boomers and lackluster market, swimwear maker Authentic Fitness of Van Nuys keeps outlapping rivals.

March 14, 1995|PATRICE APODACA | Times Staff Writer

VAN NUYS — It's coming. That dreaded time of year is right around the corner--in April, to be exact.

No, not tax season. Sometime within the next month, this summer's line of swimsuits will hit the stores. Women of America, prepare for an onslaught of products that promise to lift bust lines, slim hips, flatten tummies and camouflage those not-so-flattering assets--all without having to go under a plastic surgeon's knife.

That's not all. Swimsuits are coming in a wider array of colors, fabrics and designs than ever before. Leg holes run from high to low on the hip. Necklines are all over the place. There are metallic prints, netting and sheer, frilly skirts. There are plaid, tie-dyed and even velvet swimsuits.

So how do swimsuit manufacturers figure out what consumers want?

"The first thing is, you don't guess," said Linda Wachner, chief executive of Van Nuys-based Authentic Fitness Corp., which counts Speedo, Anne Cole, Oscar de la Renta, Cole of California and Catalina among its brands of swimwear.

"It's a science," Wachner declared.

If so, Wachner, 49, is increasingly regarded as a whiz in the swimsuit lab. As swimsuit sales nationally have slipped during the past few years, Wachner has kept Authentic Fitness growing at a fast pace.

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Authentic Fitness is now one of a handful of large swimwear manufacturers clustered behind market leader Jantzen Inc., and is vying to be the Avis Rent A Car of the swimwear business, while the rest of the industry is populated by mostly small companies. But in a few years Authentic Fitness could be "the largest swimwear company in the United States" because of Wachner's aggressive marketing push, said Laurence C. Leeds Jr., managing director of New York investment firm Buckingham Research Group.

Last year, total U.S. adult swimwear sales were flat at about $1.4 billion, and down 4% from $1.45 billion in 1992, according to NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y., market research firm. Alan Millstein, editor and publisher of the Fashion Network Report newsletter in New York, blamed the blase market on aging baby boomers--as people get older they buy fewer swimsuits--as well as skin cancer fears, weather trends, a consolidation among retailers and relentless price discounting starting early in the selling season. "Most women would rather admit their age than admit they bought a swimsuit at full retail price," Millstein said.

Nonetheless, Authentic Fitness has shown strong growth. Its profit for the six months ended Dec. 31 was $6.52 million, compared with a year-earlier loss of $594,000, while revenues grew 44%, to $93.9 million from $65.4 million.

Wachner expects total company revenues in the fiscal year ending in July to jump to about $250 million from $179 million in revenue a year before. And analyst Catherine DePuy at Smith Barney in New York predicts that Authentic Fitness' profit this year will hit $19 million, more than double the $8 million in net income in fiscal 1994.

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When Wachner took over Authentic Fitness, she inherited the old Speedo swimwear brand, known for its athletic swimsuits. Since then, she's been on a buying spree of more classic, fashion-minded swimsuit labels. Authentic Fitness got a big boost from its October, 1993, acquisition of the Cole of California and Catalina swimwear lines. Both well-known and popular brands, they had languished in bankruptcy court, the victim of a leveraged buyout that didn't work. Wachner snapped them up for $45.7 million--a fire-sale price, industry insiders say. Wachner now estimates the two lines will add about $60 million to Authentic Fitness' revenues this year.

But observers also credit Wachner's keen marketing sense for Authentic Fitness' fast growth. Women's swimsuits account for more than 80% of total adult swimsuit industry sales--and Wachner said she knows exactly what women are looking for.

"Women are more attentive to themselves and how they look in terms of their underwear and their swimwear than ever before," she said. "It's just as important to have the right swimwear as it is to have the right jeans, the right T-shirt, the right pair of cotton khakis. It's all attitude and the way people feel about themselves."

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Although swimwear manufacturers are now shipping the bulk of their product to stores for the selling season that lasts through August, production on the year's line of swimsuits actually began about 18 months ago. That's when companies began testing fabrics, after which they chose colors and designs.

For this year's crop--priced from about $28 for Authentic Fitness' Sunset Beach brand for juniors to about $80 for top-of-the-line Speedo, Oscar de la Renta and Anne Cole suits--Wachner said she is largely mirroring trends in apparel and underwear. And for that, she had to look no further than her other company, Warnaco Group Inc., the New York lingerie and menswear giant.

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