FASHION : Water Worthy : Women: Construction that flattens tummies, lifts busts is sending swimsuit prices through the beach umbrella. Shoppers buy discount--or not at all.


After three years of doing without a new swimsuit, Marla Clarke decided it was time to take the plunge. But her resolve lasted less than 15 minutes.

"I walked into the department store and saw I couldn't find anything for less than $58 and walked right back out again," recalls the Riverside school teacher. "There is just no way I am going to spend that much money for something that is just going to get covered with sand and beach tar. It's absurd."

Swimsuit sticker shock has hit--big time--this season. With prices skyrocketing nearly 30% over the last three years--nearly double the 15% rise in women's apparel and sportswear--the average suit now costs almost $65 at full department store retail.

And women are balking.

According to the Market Research Corp. of Bridgeport, Conn., which tracks consumer trends, swimsuit sales have remained stagnant in the last decade, despite a population increase of about 25% in the key group of female consumers between 25 and 54. And a growing number of those women buy suits at discounted prices at department stores, off-price centers and outlets.

You can attribute the rising costs to everything from sophisticated construction to expensive new fabrics.

"Bust detailing is a very, very important look this year," says a sales clerk at Canyon Beachwear in Santa Monica.

That detailing--whether in a '40s-style maillot (one-piece suit) or bandeau (strapless style) or a Madonna-influenced bustier--is going to cost plenty. Materials cost more, and manufacturers are incorporating more metallic fabrics and top stitching in their designs. They are also sewing more tummy-tucking, fanny-flattening and bust-enhancing panels into their suits.

Indeed, the single largest reason for higher prices may be the increasing amount of "construction" needed to create the tight, hard-body styling that has become fashionable among the trim, younger set--and a necessity among less-than-firm aging baby boomers.

According to Robert Klein, vice president for women's swimwear at Portland, Ore.-based Jantzen, until 18 months ago simple unconstructed suits, such as tanks and bikinis with a triangle bra, outnumbered their constructed counterparts 2-1. Today, constructed suits account for about 55% to 60% of all suits sold. And the numbers are growing.

These constructed suits include tummy-control panels--also called power nets--that strap in sagging muscles; fitted, hard-cup and soft-cup bras, many of which have uplifting underwires and separate pieces of padding, and cummerbunds to camouflage excess inches across the midriff.

The most obvious of the constructed models don't try to hide what they offer inside. With names like "Slim Suit," (made in Los Angeles by Carol Wior) and "Miracle Suit," (a division of A & H in Easton, Pa.), these suits promise to trim pounds and inches from a woman's silhouette.

But they need more spandex and more labor to live up to their promises.

A Slim Suit is almost two suits in one. On the inside are the tummy panels and bra; on the outside, a decorative layer that betrays little hint of the supporting role being played by the inner liner.

In all, says Wior, the Slim Suit contains about 20% spandex, compared to about 10% in the average suit. The Miracle Suit, Ruben says, contains about 40% spandex, the highest percentage now on the market.

As the use of spandex has increased, so has its price. DuPont, the main supplier, has raised prices several times over the last few years, most recently imposing an 8% hike in March. These jumps, say suit makers, have given fabric makers who weave spandex directly into suit materials an excuse to increase their prices as well.

At the same time, manufacturers say they are seeing increasing consumer interest in more fashionable fabrics, such as the metallic foils associated with the Gottex line. They can cost up to $3 to $4 per yard more than simple knit goods, says Wendy Manasse, designer of women's swimwear for Catalina in Los Angeles.

Constructed suits take more time and labor than suits of years past. Teresa DeBruno, the chief operating officer of Apparel Ventures, whose lines include Sassafras, Citrus, Sessa and Too Hot Brazil, says constructed suits can require up to 50% more labor than their unconstructed cousins.

According to DeBruno, a simple bikini with a triangle bra will cost an average $36 at retail, while a constructed suit of the same fabric will go for about $49.

"Construction can add up to 35% to 40% of the cost of a suit," DeBruno says.

And it doesn't necessarily end there.

DeBruno says decorative frills, such as skater's skirts, criss-cross straps, and hook-and-eye detailing--whether on unconstructed or constructed suits--only increase the complexity of the sewing and assembly process and the costs.

As the swimsuit industry tries to push its goods as alternatives for traditional evening wear for cruises, beach parties and pool-side gatherings--all events where the suit is virtually guaranteed to remain dry--suits are becoming even more fancy and expensive. Some are adorned with sequins and holograms; others are made of crushed velvet. Some of the most expensive versions on the market, from the Italian manufacturer La Perla, cost about $325.

And at that price you wouldn't want it to see a drop of saltwater or chlorine.

There is still another, less visible reason for the rising prices.

As the number of suits sold at discount--rather that at full retail price--increases, manufacturers and retailers fight to get as much cash as they can before summer markdowns, which typically begin in late June.

"The prices at the front end (full retail) are driven up to cover the markdowns at the back end (the sales)," says Jantzen's Klein.

So customers like Clarke turn to discount stores, warehouse clubs, and outlet centers for off-price, marked down and mass-produced goods. Others give up entirely and make do with what they have for one more season.

"I think we can justify our price increases so far," says Jantzen's Kline, "But we'd be delusional if we thought we could get away with this indefinitely. We hear more and more that customers are resisting the prices."

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