For as long as women have flipped through swimwear catalogs or cringed in a dressing room at their winter body in a new bikini, they have wondered: What makes a few pocket-size pieces of triangular fabric more expensive than a pair of midprice jeans? Or a nice hoodie? A Victoria’s Secret marabou-trim teddy?
The answer, it seems, has partly to do with advances in swimsuit “technology” — that is, fabrics that are weatherproof and hold the wearer in place like a girdle — and the advent of mix-and-match, which lets customers choose one size on top and a different one on the bottom. This is good for the consumer and costly for the retailer.
Obsolescence is another factor, said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at the NPD Group. “This year’s swimwear is rarely used again next year,” he said.
And people seem to be willing to pay whatever the stores charge, he said. A bikini that costs $5 to manufacture can easily sell for $100, he said.
In terms of breathtaking prices, J. Crew’s bikinis barely register on the whoa! continuum. A two-piece from the finely honed boutique collection of the New York City designer Malia Mills may cost $340.
And yet H & M sells a suit that is less than the price of a movie ticket: $4.95 for each piece. (But those bargain suits sell out quickly; the standard price of an H & M swimsuit this summer is $27.90, or $14.95 a piece.)
Shayna Kulik, a trend forecaster and consultant in the East Village, said that while mix-and-match separates were first offered as far back as the 1970s, they have only recently become the norm. “It’s more cost effective to sell them in sets,” she said. “It affects everything from packaging, to tags that are used for each suit.”
Mr. Cohen agreed that the separates business created higher prices. “A $50 suit has turned into a $70 suit,” he said.
Ms. Mills, a frequent defender of her industry, said, “Swimwear gets a hard knock when it comes to pricing.” She pointed out that the humble panty — which is priced far lower than its swimsuit-bottom counterpart — doesn’t have to stand up to such rigorous wear and tear (and look presentable at the pool club snack bar).
A bikini “has to keep its shape and look good when it’s been exposed to sunlight and sand, and saltwater and chlorine and sunscreen and body oil,” Ms. Mills said. “It’s a little tiny piece of fabric, but it has to really perform.”
For a designer like Ms. Mills, who makes her suits in American factories and buys small amounts of fabric from Europe, the cost of producing swimwear is higher than a mass retailer. A company like Target, with 1,740 stores in 49 states, can “negotiate better prices for the fabrics that we use,” said Joshua Thomas, a Target spokesman.
Then again, those inexpensive swimsuits may not make it to next summer, said Ms. Kulik, the trend forecaster. “A lot of my friends?” she said. “They said their J. Crew bathing suits last forever.”