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Suit Yourself

At North Avenue Beach this summer, wade in the classics

By PAMELA DITTMER MCKUEN
    A wave of contemporary classicism splashes this year’s swimwear season, resulting in a style that is reminiscent of another time while perfectly in place today. Yesterday’s looks are guided by the world we live in: admiration for First Lady Michelle Obama, a growing international consciousness and the uncertain economy. It’s a political statement in a bathing suit.
    “Women who become colorful or influential set the trends,”
says Alegra Torel, an international fashion consultant and stylist
based in Boston. “It used to be Jackie Onassis and Audrey Hepburn.  Right now it’s Michelle Obama. People want her class and grace, and that’s starting to show up everywhere.”
    What’s showing up on beaches and at poolsides are one-shoulder styles, as was the First Lady’s inauguration gown by Jason Wu—that and other sophisticated necklines such as halters, sweetheart scoops and strapless. They can make funny tan lines, but you shouldn’t be in the sun that long anyway.
    “Swimwear often takes its inspiration from evening gowns,”
says Michele Casper, swimwear spokesperson for Lands’ End in
Dodgeville, Wis. “It’s all about framing the face. Elegant
necklines are flattering, whether in evening wear or swimwear.”
    It’s not a stretch to imagine that the Obamas, with their ties
to Hawaii and active family lifestyle, could influence swimwear
trends even further, says Lynne Koplin, president of Tommy Bahama’s women’s division in Los Angeles.
    “She likes to wear color,” she says of Michelle Obama.
    The femininity theme flows in and out of the water. Retro is
big, particularly from the pin-up girl era. And shirring, smocking and ruffles. Tiny ruffles trim an edge, while larger ones are skirty and flirty.
    “Ruffles have a two-fold purpose,” says Casper. “They add a
touch of femininity, but can also add an illusion to help camouflage an area. A row of little ruffles creating a vertical line down the center will make a woman appear taller and longer.”
    Another major trend is internationally inspired. Patterns and
prints show off their batik, tribal, safari and Old World
connections. Colors are rich and deep; and decorative accents are
organic materials, like shell, wood and coconut.
    “It’s very earth-feeling,” says Casper.
    Overall, there’s a conservative air, an acknowledgement of the
recessionary climate. Ostentation has all but disappeared. Torel
hasn’t seen a thong all year, and the highly beaded and jeweled
swimsuits are heavy and water-averse. Save the bling for your sandals or bag, she says.
    “We see lots of cut-outs, like a one-piece bathing suit with
slashes,” Torel says. “It’s revealing. but not risqué. Even the
bikini is much more reserved. A lot have crop tops and high-waisted bottoms. People are covering up more.”
    “We’re seeing a return to a fuller coverage pant, maybe with
a sash or belt detail,” says Koplin.
    Color palettes are more thoughtful. For Lands’ End, Casper
reports rich brown, navy, dark red and olive in addition to black. As for brights, think sherbet rather than neon.
    “We get inspiration from the environments we’re involved in,
the islands,” says Koplin. “We tend to use the colors in nature.
Everyone is talking about yellow right now. I don’t know anyone who looks good in a bright yellow swimsuit. They either look like the chicken or the egg.”
    Designers and manufacturers have increasingly expanded their
separates options and engineered their sizing to ensure good fit and repeat customers. Lands’ End has a swimsuit fitting hotline
(800-675-4853). Active lifestyle retailer Oakley goes beyond
sunglasses with reversible mix-and-match bikini tops and bottoms (priced in the $30s). A top seller at Tommy Bahama is the Sunkissed convertible collection in seven subtle solids. The halter underwire bra top ($90) and skirted hipster ($69) team up for a retro look, but other combos speak athletic or trendy.
    Another idea on the rise is swim shorts—board shorts and
trunks. Debbie Kuhn of Cleveland launched her line of Girltrunks this year, which are two-piece swimsuits that pair a patterned tankini top over a black Bermuda bottom. She got the idea a few years back when she was invited to go tubing and needed a new swimsuit for the occasion. After several frustrating try-ons at an upscale department store, she grabbed a pair of men’s trunks. They weren’t the greatest fit, but the coverage was good and they dried almost immediately. Her website, mygirltrunks.com, sells tank tops and halter tops at $79 and trunks in two lengths at $59.
    “I so acutely remember thinking, ‘I am in a grocery store, in
my swimsuit, without a cover-up,’” Kuhn says. “What a liberating moment.”
    Mary Beth Klatt, a freelance writer from Chicago, sews her own suits. She’s been doing water aerobics three times a week for several years, and the chlorine is hard on a swimsuit. Rather than buy a new one every few months, she gets out her sewing machine and favorite racerback tank pattern.
    “The same suit would set me back about $60 if I were to buy it
new,” Klatt says. “I need a suit that accommodates my long waist
or I get a wedgie.”
    “At the end of the day, it’s all about practicality,” says
Torel.

Published: June 07, 2009
Issue: Summer 2009 Urban Living