Monday, January 02, 2006

Lifestyle: Weekend FT, The Dental Floss of Swimwear Reigns Supreme

By Julie Earle-Levine
Jul 30, 2005

When the time comes for women to strip down to bikinis, their swimwear choice has a lot to do with geography. So, for instance, if you go to Rio de Janeiro, women will be likely to show off their rears in barely-there, high-cut bikinis.

In Bondi, sleek one-piece bathers rule - they are ideal for tanning both ocean and poolside and for doing laps. In St Barths, women prefer tiny Italian knitted bikinis for lazing on a yacht, and in the Hamptons it's all about bold, sporty designs for volleyball on the beach.

But in spite of this, summer swimwear does have a common design thread. The Brazilian bikini, or as it is often known, "the dental floss" of swimwear, reigns supreme. The style was first made popular in the Nineties when Brazilian bombshell supermodels like Gisele catapulted the country's fashion into headlines, but it has since traversed all cultures, and it can be spotted on beaches from Sydney to St Tropez.

Even though there are more restrictive beach-attire rules in the US - skimpier styles and topless bathing on the wrong beach can lead to arrest - the Brazilian bikini has become popular with many American women, according to leading stylists and retail buyers.

Even British women, perhaps once more readily associated with pear-shaped figures and Fifties one-pieces, have fallen prey to the flimsy style that requires not only a lithe body and plenty of bravado but also a devotion to that other Brazilian export, the bikini wax.

According to Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, women's choice of swimwear can tell you more than grid references; it can often reflect that country's culture.

In Brazil, for instance, a "physically positive society", women play sport, rollerblade and take the city bus wearing bikinis and high-heeled sandals. "Brazilian women are beautiful, but some have butts that are three-feet wide. They wear skimpy bikinis because men in Brazil are very interested in rears," she says.

So are American and British women also fulfilling the same interest in buttocks? Steele thinks not. That, she believes, is more of a fashion trend than a fetish. "America is still a very puritanical country. It's not quite ready for the complete waist-down exposure that Brazil has."
So what many American women are actually opting for is the "export" version of the Brazilian bikini, which has a fuller back and is definitely not thong-style. They do, however, still expose plenty of one's derrière, so be prepared.

Colleen Sherin, fashion market director for Saks Fifth Avenue, says their top selling Brazilian swimwear brands are Salinas, and Rosa Cha by Sao Paulo-based Amir Slama. Both offer designs that range from barely-there bottoms to boy-cut, hipster styles, and one-pieces. As women know well, one style does not fit all.

Sherin believes that tiny swimwear really can have a slimming effect, even though there is obviously less fabric on offer to cover one's behind. "You can look good in these, even if you are not stick thin, " she insists. "The best string bikinis, triangle-style are Pucci. Some of these are better-suited for lounging." But can you swim in them? "Sure, but maybe not go water-skiing."

Americans also favour sporty swimwear that can take them easily from the Hamptons, the playground for the rich in summer, to sporting events.

So this summer, take a cue from the Hamptons lifeguards who will wear sporty, preppy swimwear by Nautica, or from the staff at Hotel Gansevoort's rooftop pool in New York's Meatpacking District who will also wear that label. And it is worth noting that designer Diane Von Furstenberg's first swimwear collection that launches this summer offers women both Brazilian and the wider American cut bottoms.

On the other side of the pond, British swimwear culture is conservative, but changing, according to Heidi Gosman, co-owner of Heidi Klein in London and St Tropez. For example, unlike the Italians and Spanish who take two bikinis for each day on holiday, British women tend to take only one or two and wash them each evening. It's that "making do" mentality.

Klein says British ladies also favour "sexy" two pieces, with smaller bottoms, but not "nothing there" bottoms - so some Brazilian styles can still work. "British women like good support on the bust. We like hidden boning and halter neck styles which really enhance your boobs without looking too underwired and supported."

But small changes in swimwear preferences are beginning to show through. Women are buying different swimwear for holidays and at home: a sexy bikini for St Tropez and a fuller, more practical one-piece for a diving holiday. Black, brown, and white are popular and so are "mix and match" bikinis, and the shop has even sold a lot of red-sequined bikinis by Capucine.

In terms of pattern, it seems swimwear is following the important Indian and African fashion trends for summer, with strong ethnic prints and embellishments such as sequins and beads featuring strongly.

As for Europe, Nicole Romano, an Italian designer based in New York, recently returned from the Amalfi Coast where she found plenty of inspiration for her spring/summer 2005 collection.

"The rears there were smaller but not the teeny Brazilian cut," she says. And women accessorized their bikinis with short-shorts and big, chunky arm bracelets. And heels.

Further afield, Elizabeth Charles, who stocks Australian and New Zealand designer swimwear in New York, says that Australian swimsuits also tend to have more coverage in the rear - although Brazilian bikinis have been popular in Sydney for some time, mainly on models at the city's Tamarama beach, known as "Glamourama," next to Bondi. That is because Australians need to be able to body surf in the rough ocean, dive into a pool, swim laps, and eat at a barbecue without fear of exposure. So designs offer "more coverage, but are not boring".

New Zealander designer Karen Walker's chocolate-coloured bikini is a good example with a low-slung belt; Australian designer Jaclin Chouchana has eye-catching cut-outs to highlight the décolleté and hipbone; Lisa Ho from Sydney sprinkled a turquoise bikini with rhinestones. And Zimmerman, a trendy Aussie label, has some sporty bikinis that boast sexy mesh inserts.

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