By Kathryn Wexler
Young women who rock bikinis for a living are about to get busy.
Swimsuit-clad models will hit runways Wednesday through Sunday at the Raleigh Hotel as Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Swim returns for its fifth year and with its biggest lineup yet. The five-day, invite-only production draws glossy magazine editors, department store buyers and boutique owners, most of whom are already in town to attend the massive, annual trade show by the Swimwear Association of Florida at the Miami Beach Convention Center.
With sleek productions and free cocktails, Fashion Week Swim offers a glitzy counterpoint to the cramped booths a few blocks over ' and hopefully a way for a designer’s swimsuits to float above the oceans of Lycra.
‘‘With all the editors in town,’’ said Miami Beach swimwear designer Red Carter, ‘‘you have a message and you are making a statement [at the shows]. I think there’s nothing like it.’’
Fashion Week Swim is produced by sports events and entertainment giant IMG, which carries considerable prestige in the fashion show industry worldwide. Still, the shows have struggled to achieve a definitive identity since they began, with much fanfare, in 2005.
The event again will lack a neck-craning headliner, unlike 2007, when Jessica Simpson attended, or 2006, which featured Rosa Cha, the Brazilian line known for spectacular productions. But Fashion Week Swim arguably remains Miami Beach’s most important fashion event and has few parallels in the resort-wear industry. The production company continues to score notable talent; this summer, there is buzz about Mara Hoffman. And despite the squeeze imposed on designers by the economic downturn, the number of runway shows grew to 19 this year, up from 15 in 2008.
‘‘This is the biggest season we’ve had in five years,’’ said Christina Neault, senior director of fashion and events for IMG’s fashion division.
In earlier years, well established designers jumped aboard. Carmen Marc Valvo, Gideon Oberson, Norma Kamali and the Badgley Mischka duo all made appearances at the Raleigh. Those boldface names were replaced over time with brands of more mass appeal, like Ed Hardy Swimwear, Tommy Bahama, Diesel and True Religion. Smaller, foreign labels that have yet to gain much retail traction also have long been a part of the mix.
So have fledgling designers. This year, New Yorker Crystal Jin Eley is one of those hoping to make waves with her first collection.
‘‘In terms of exposure, we decided [Fashion Week Swim] was probably the best way to go to get the line out there and in eyesight,’’ Eley, a former designer with Proenza Schouler and J.Crew, said of her new namesake label.
To Elizabeth Walker, director of public relations for Tibi, a clothing line that launched its swimwear line last year at the shows, the relatively small number of participants is a plus.
‘‘It’s not mayhem ' it’s really kind of a fun, intimate event,’’ said Walker, who will be putting Tibi swimsuits on the runway again this year.
‘‘We like the fact that aren’t a ton of designers competing for all that press.’’
For more information and show schedules, check out mercedesbenzfashionweek.com.
Photo: Nils Erik.