I was watching the Olympic trials for the U.S. swimming team last Sunday on my new HD TV. And maybe it was because I hadn't gotten such a clear, up-close glimpse before of top swimmers competing in all their glistening glory. But I was struck by the similarity of most of the competitors to space-age dolphins, as they poised by the pool in their Speedo LZR Racer bodysuits. I found myself coveting one of the suits, even though I might be thinking about a different aquatic mammal if I tried to squeeze myself into one and found myself faced with a merciless mirror.
My husband mentioned that several athletes had set new records in their LZR Racers, and that some even attributed an edge to wearing the streamlined, body-compressing suits designed with help from NASA, the space people. I perked up because Speedo is licensed by Warnaco Group (WRC), a company whose stock I've owned before, to my benefit (I don't own it now), and which has survived the slowdown in consumer spending better than many apparel companies (its popular "intimate" apparel brands, Olga and Warner, appear to be recession-proof). But the current stock price is well below analysts' price targets. My interest got even keener as we watched Michael Phelps set yet another world record in his spiffy LZR Racer (the waist-to-calf version). I love the fact that Warnaco started out in the 19th century making corsets, and Speedo began in Australia making woolen longjohn-style swimwear in 1928. Progress!
Always looking for stock-boosting trends (versus pump-and-dump fads), I checked out the special Speedo Web site for their LZR products and placed a call to the company to get more information. I learned that I can't actually get my hands on one yet, but that I could place a special order, with the suit to be delivered in October. My enthusiasm flagged when I learned the price for a woman's full-body suit: $475. (The men's is $550.) I watched a video in which "international journalists" with appropriately exotic accents actually tried the suits themselves, with apparently positive results. One journalist with a vaguely Slavic accent said the suit made him feel like a torpedo.
According to a Reuters article, the LZR is even causing a sort of aquatic divide between the haves and have-nots in Olympic contention. Japan's Kosuke Katajima, who won the 100-meter and 200-meter gold in the breaststroke at the Athens Olynpics in 2004, apparently forced the Japanese team to jettison its contract with Mizuno and others and allow its team members to go LZR. Even the Italians succumbed to speed over home style, allowing its athletes to abandon Italian brand Arena in favor of Speedo if they pay a fine.
Speedo executives think that the LZR has already given their sales a boost, creating a sort of "halo effect" for the brand. Speedo's market share in performance swimwear this year, through June 14, was up seven percent, at 61%, while Nike fell nine points to 11%, according to SportsOneSource.
So will a LZR-boosted Olympics make a difference to a brand already known for being THE brand for serious swimmers? My husband was a varsity swimmer who wore Speedos when he thrashed and splashed in vain against Mark Spitz in California back in the Dark Ages when male swimmers wore the briefest of swimming togs. He was competing well before Speedo launched the swimming world's first "fast suit" at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, followed by the shark-mimicking FASTSKIN at the Sydney Olympics and subsequent upgrades.
I think the "Speedo" effect depends in part on whether Phelps et al. continue to win. Athletes have been willing to do all sorts of things to boost their performance, including amateur athletes who get no benefit other than a winning buzz, and the LZR edge is legal, whether it's "real" or a placebo. It may be no more than Dumbo's feather, a kind of physical fetish to believe in. But if Phelps and company keep setting records, I think there are many tri-athletes, wannabe competitors and would-be strivers like myself who are going to be thinking Speedo. And that can only help Warnaco, contemporary corsets and all.