The New Swimwear: Dynamite Looks On and Off the Towel

Times Staff Writer

When it comes to swimsuits this year, there are different strokes for different folks.

Designer Norma Kamali sees women in athletic-looking suits made in heavy black or gray ribbed T-shirt cotton. "They're the kind of suits you could really work out in--that's the mentality," Kamali says.

Anne Cole's swimsuits, on the other hand, are as jazzy as a Greg Louganis reverse somersault twist. "The mood is a little show-offy," the designer and executive vice president of Cole of California allows. One suit, in cobalt blue with a plunging black cowl neckline, looks like a pool-side cocktail dress, but still doesn't reveal much. "It suggests nakedness," Cole says. "It's a tease."

And for his collection, Michaele Vollbracht pointed his sketchbook in the direction of Las Vegas. His two-piece black cire suit is cut high on the legs yet covers the stomach to give the illusion of a longer leg, "just like the showgirls' costumes," Vollbracht explains. "If you want to swim, " the designer cautions, "I'd get a really good tank suit, but I'm talking about either getting a tan or picking up a man. Some women never get in the water, but look dynamite on the towel."

Towels aside, it is the more-is-less approach that continues to dominate the swimwear scene. "There's a trend back to sweet sex," as Cole puts it. "Ladies will be back by summer. You can only show off the leg so much until you've reached the neckline, and then you have to head south again."

Two-piece suits are now available with bra tops that don't expose all and bottoms that hide the navel. Some of the most versatile suits have convertible bottoms that the wearer can roll up or down to the desired degree of modesty. The look started last summer on Brazilian beaches and has now migrated north.

But it is the ubiquitous tank suit that still occupies center lane. "Whether the Olympics contributed or not, the body-conscious movement has been significant to the staying power of the tank suit," Robinson's Chris Serafin says. Tanks, especially when made in cotton and Lycra, are not only as comfortable as a leotard, but can be worn in place of one.

Now styled with T-backs and either high leg holes or lower, more conservative ones, the tank is available in brighter, hotter colors than ever before, such as Schiaparelli pink, yellow, turquoise and apple green, often juxtaposed with black trims. Many come in an array of prints that make the traditional swimsuit florals wilt in comparison.

Bold black graffiti, scribbles and squiggles, random letters and numbers are slashed across suits. Then there are the animals, from Vollbracht's tame escargots to Jantzen's wild elephants, giraffes, antelopes and rhinoceroses.

"It really is a season to do things you've never seen in swimwear," Jantzen's Catherine Nielsen says. "The key is a touch of whimsy. We felt things were getting a little too serious and boring."

If that's the case, a new swimsuit called the Magic Suit should liven things up. Made in children's sizes by Sasson and in junior sizes by Dunk-is, it is solid when dry, but when immersed in water, a pattern appears. One of the Sasson prints sums up the mood of swimwear this season. On a neon-colored background, bold graffiti spells out: "Fun and Sun."

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