For many women, buying a new swimsuit is one of the more miserable reality moments.
Not for Barbara Montez of Garden Grove. Swimsuits are to Montez what shoes were to Imelda Marcos: an addiction.
Montez and other swimsuit addicts love to shop for suits year-round to add to their collections. They follow an unwritten credo: You can't be too thin, and you can't have too many swimsuits.
Although she has drawers filled with bikinis, Montez says she buys 10 to 12 new suits each season. "I'm a sun worshiper. I was raised in Huntington Beach and was always running around in a swimsuit," she says.
The 29-year-old mother of two was such a good customer of Yvette's Bikinis in Seal Beach that she recently started working there part time to help support her habit.
"When I'm on vacation, I bring more suits than I could ever wear, even when I go skiing in Mammoth, because there's a Jacuzzi. It will be freezing, and I'll have three bikinis," Montez says. "A lot of my friends think I'm nuts."
Lori Wright, manager of 23 West swimwear in Newport Beach, has seen plenty of people with swimsuit fetishes.
"They say they have 30 swimsuits in their drawer, but they'll come in and buy three more," Wright says.
Not only do swimsuit fanatics want a variety of suits for every occasion, but they also have to have the coordinating sarong skirts, terry cover-ups, sandals, beach totes and hair accessories.
"It's important to have the matching cover-up, especially when you're on vacation. You can't walk through the resort lobby in an old T-shirt," says Pamela Hubbard, owner of the Persimmon Tree in Balboa Island. "We're all busy watching what the other person is wearing."
You don't have to be slender or wealthy to succumb to a swimwear addiction, but it helps. Most women who are compulsive about swimwear can afford a lot of expensive suits, and they like to show off their figures, say swimsuit retailers.
"Usually it's because they have a beautiful body. The other ones come dragging in," Hubbard says.
Collectors of bathing suits usually also have a lifestyle that supports their habit: They travel to a lot to tropical locales, take frequent cruises and have a pool in the backyard.
"It's not unheard-of for a customer to buy 12 suits for a vacation," says Yvette Perdue, owner of Yvette's Bikinis.
Barbara Walz, a 50-year-old Newport Beach resident, has about 30 suits, many custom-made according to her preferred style, size (6) and fabric by Margie Webb Swimwear of Laguna Beach.
"If I find a suit that fits me, I'll have it made in three or four colors," Walz says. "I like to be unusual."
Often the swimsuit aficionado has no intention of wearing her suits in the water. Some buy suits just for tanning. Some buy them for the deck of a cruise ship or a hotel pool chaise. Some buy them for purely decorative purposes.
Docia Drake, 49, of Huntington Beach constantly refurbishes her supply of a dozen or so suits--and she doesn't even know how to swim.
"I'm enhancing what I have left," she says.
To her, suits are like any other fashion.She would never show up on vacation wearing the same suit two days in a row.
"I'm a clotheshorse," she says. "I have the sarongs and coordinated cover-ups. It's important to me to look good whether I'm half-naked or clothed."
Drake is typical of buyers who treat swimsuits as part of their wardrobe.
"To them, swimwear is apparel. They wouldn't be caught dead wearing the same suit twice any more than they would wear the same [business] suit to work five days in a row," says Cheri Wilson, west coast district manager of Everything but Water, with stores at Crystal Court in South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa, and Brea Mall.
To be the best-dressed by the water, some will spend as much on a swimwear ensemble as others do on evening wear. An elegant swimsuit such as a jewel-embellished Gottex can run $100 to $200, and matching cover-ups can cost $100 to $200--or more.
"To spend $300 or $400 on a Gottex cover-up is nothing," Wilson says. "Often they won't buy the suit if they can't find the whole outfit."
One customer planning a 10-day vacation in France bought five bathing suits. She wanted to show off on the beaches of Europe wearing only American-made suits because she finds that they're brighter and richer-looking than European styles, Wilson says.
The largest single purchase in Everything but Water's corporate history: $3,300.
That's a lot of bikinis.
To Wilson, a complete swimsuit wardrobe calls for a sexy suit to wear only in front of a mate, a revealing one (a thong, perhaps?) for tanning, another one for water sports and an elegant one, possibly a shimmery metallic maillot, for cruises and resorts. Gottex makes a $170 suit designed by Oscar de la Renta with rhinestones and a sash--everything for winning the swimsuit competition but a tiara.
"You'd picture yourself wearing that to a dinner party," Wilson says.