Any surfer who has tried to catch a wave will tell you that timing is everything. And Sundek — the once-iconic ‘70s surf brand known for the rainbow stripe arching across the seat of its swim trunks — seems to have caught a killer curl on its way back to U.S. beaches.
Founded in San Francisco in 1958, Sundek was an early sponsor of surfers and became known for its trademark multi-stripe and triple-stitched, two-ply nylon shorts, created specifically for surfing. While the label had faded quietly from the U.S. market by the mid-1990s, it lived on in Europe, licensed by Florence, Italy-based Kickoff SpA, where its American and surfing heritage roots and trimmer cut were a draw.
Two and a half years ago, buoyed by an infusion of investment funds, Kickoff secured worldwide distribution rights and decided to bring the brand back to the U.S. And just over a year ago, Sundek shorts were in U.S. stores for the first time in a decade and a half.
With sales in the $571-million U.S. men’s swimwear market dropping 9% in the 12-month period ending March 31, according to market research firm NPD Group, and the average price paid for a pair of men’s swim trunks hovering around $16.50, that may seem like a less-than-optimal time to jump in the pool. Especially given that the strategy was to move out of the surf shops and into high-end boutiques and high-end department stores. But Sundek USA Chief Executive Agostini Magni says otherwise.
“At the end of 2010, we had done $1 million at wholesale in the U.S.,” Magni said. “And we’ve already done that in the first three months of this year.... We launched for spring-summer 2010 with 45 [outlets], and right now we’re up to 220.”
And they’re not just any outlets either: Sundek shorts can be found at department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys New York, Nieman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman and boutiques like Atrium in New York and Ron Robinson and Kitson in Los Angeles.
Magni attributes appetite for the Sundek shorts — which have been tweaked slightly (they now have a swimsuit lining, for example, and the shorts have a lower rise than they did back in the day) — to a couple of factors. One is the price tag. “We think there’s an empty niche for guys between the $49.99 to $69.99 sport-oriented board shorts and brands like Zegna Sport, Etro Sport and Vilebrequin swim trunks that are $240,” Magni said. Sundek is priced at $120 to $165. Another factor is the appeal of a heritage brand that’s been around for more than half a century (“We’re older than Vans,” he points out).
But retailers say it’s also because Sundek keys in on the prevailing trends in men’s swimwear. "[It] is definitely in that cleaned-up trend that we’ve seen in menswear overall,” said Nick Wooster, former director of men’s fashion for Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman. “That translates as cleaner silhouettes, slimmer leg openings and not a lot of excess fabric.… It’s a cleaner, flatter look.”
Tom Kalenderian, general merchandise manager of men’s at Barneys New York, concurs, noting that the baggier, wildly printed board-short style had held sway for so long, it was time for something fresh.
“Sundek changed the silhouette,” he said. “It had a flat waistband instead of the gathered drawstring, and a shorter leg. The length of the trunks [at 14- and 17-inch lengths, they end just at the upper thigh] is very appealing. It’s cleaned up in that sort of ‘Mad Men’ way.”
“The nylon is very important,” Kalenderian added. “It’s quick-dry, and there’s been more interest lately in the more technical [functionality]. It reminds me of another line. Orlebar Brown [which] has a different look — almost like walk shorts — but in a technical fabric with a zip-fly closure. You could wear [a pair of Orlebar Browns] swimming and then throw on a blazer and go to lunch.”
Apparel industry analyst Marshal Cohen of the NPD Group says that dual functionality stokes demand. “The consumer is looking at these nylon shorts and realizing they can be worn as either a swimsuit or a short. And not only are they buying to get a two-for-one, but then they’re wearing and wearing and wearing the daylights out of them, which means the frequency of purchase cycles much faster than the two- to three-year
cycle for a typical men’s bathing suit purchase.”
But, after sitting out the last decade and a half, Sundek isn’t about to wait out even a single bathing suit cycle. Last month, the label rolled out the first of a several-season collaboration with Milan-based fashion designer Neil Barrett, known for the kind of razor-sharp, slashed and color-blocked black-and-white club wear favored by the Euro cool contingent. Magni hints that based on the response, other such fashion-forward partnerships may be in the offing.