Sun and Surf: A Perfect Fit
They’re the queens of the deep: Three Orange County women, Jill Williams, Sheila Ottman and Jamie Jung, are making a splash as leading swimwear designers.
Drawn by the county’s coastline, surf culture and a laid-back lifestyle, they’ve migrated here to pursue their passion for creating some of the brightest bikinis on the beach. While each designer has her style, all share a love of both fashion and the water.
“I’ve always been in a bathing suit,” says Williams, who works out of her Newport Beach home designing swimwear for Sunsets Separates in Torrance.
Williams, 38, worked as a model from 1979 to 1986 with the Wilhemina Modeling Agency in Los Angeles, appearing regularly in ‘Teen magazine and once posing as the Coppertone girl. She traveled to beaches around the world showing off swimwear; her picture appeared in Vogue, Elle and Harper’s.
In 1986, Williams decided to design swimwear instead of modeling it. She wanted to leave her nomadic model lifestyle and fulfill a longtime dream to become a designer. She taught herself to sew in the fifth grade and by junior high she was making most of her clothes.
“I was known as the girl who dressed weird,” she jokes.
Williams graduated from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles and helped start Jag and Roxy swimwear before joining Sunsets Separates in 1992. The line has since grown to 1,000 accounts, primarily in the United States, and Williams is working on another swimwear line called Blink that will feature edgier suits.
“What I love about designing swimsuits is that it’s a way of tailoring clothes where you’re really working close to the body,” Williams says. “You’re pushing and pulling it into different directions.”
Ottman, the 37-year-old owner-designer of Heatwave Sunwear in Laguna Hills, took a different route into swimwear. She’d loved designing since she was a child making Barbie clothes. Yet unlike most girls who dressed their dolls, Ottman actually packaged and sold her Barbie fashions to toy stores.
A native of Canada, she fantasized about California and hit the beaches as soon as she moved to Orange County after high school.
“In Canada it was always a real search to find a suit I liked,” she says. “I always looked for California suits because they were the hippest.”
During her formative “beach-going years,” Ottman lived in Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa and wore the California suits she loved. She started her swimwear line 16 years ago, after getting her degree in fashion design from Brooks College in Long Beach. Her parents mortgaged their house so their daughter could launch her business.
“I spent the first few years cutting out swimsuits on my kitchen table,” Ottman says. “We started really tiny.”
Today Heatwave has more than 1,200 accounts.
“I’m known for prints and the use of novelty fabrics,” Ottman says. “We don’t like to do basics.”
Jung, 40, grew up in Santa Barbara and has been the designer-owner for 20 years of Point Conception, now in Rancho Santa Margarita.
“I used to surf a lot, and I was always crocheting bathing suits for myself and my friends,” Jung says. “It’s something I’ve done since I was 11 or 12.”
Jung has seen swimwear trends come full circle, from unconstructed triangle tops and skimpy string bikinis in the ‘70s to the hard-cup, bust-enhancing suits of the ‘80s, and back again.
“Girls are a lot more athletic now than they used to be. Suits have to be functional,” Jung says. “You don’t have as much underwire and padding. Suits have to be more comfortable. There’s a demand for active suits.”
That’s why Jung has been designing suits with sports-bra tops and halters, as well as boy legs and hipster styles that afford more coverage than V-shaped, thigh-baring Brazilian cuts.
Jung gets ideas from movies, vintage fabrics and “what’s going on in the market.” Her ’98 collection features vintage Polynesian prints, retro florals and solids with athletic striping. Contrasting binding adds interest to the tonal prints and solids.
“It’s not a big mishmash of color,” Jung says. “Prints are more tonal. You’ll see different shades of blue or red, and also two-tone prints, especially red and white, blue and white or black and white.” Point Conception (including Jung’s Point Sol and Kechika labels) is carried at the Beach Club in San Clemente, Girl in the Curl in Dana Point, and Diane’s at MainPlace/Santa Ana.
Williams, too, sees swimwear heading toward long and sleek silhouettes versus the hourglass shapes of the ‘80s. More women today surf and play other sports; they want athletic tomboy looks instead of froufrou swimwear, she says.
Her Sunsets Separates ’98 collection features small florals such as happy " Dating Game’ flowers” and daisies printed in bright orange or blue tones on textured ribbed or double-knit fabrics with lots of piping trim. The line is carried at Everything but Water in Brea Mall and Costa Mesa, Nordstrom, Barely There and Diane’s. She sees color washes, tie-dye and Indian motifs, as well as girly floral prints, going forward in swimwear.
Ottman’s Heatwave collection emphasizes textured fabrics such as crepes, pique, embroidered daisies, puckered spandex and “funky double-knits.” She favors Missoni-inspired prints, retro Polynesian paisleys, ‘60s-inspired mosaics and eye-popping zigzag stripes. Her geo-floral “Surfer Girl” print was inspired by a pair of vintage surfer trunks. Prints come in bright clear colors such as hot yellow, orange, aqua, Caribbean blues and brown.
Her tops range from unconstructed drawstring styles to push-up underwires. Some retro-inspired styles have plastic ring and tie fronts. Bottoms come in all fits, from thongs to hot pants, with hipsters being especially hot. The line is carried at Paradise Wear in Mission Viejo Mall, Persimmon Tree on Balboa Island and other specialty stores.
All three designers consider Orange County a prime testing ground for swimsuit styles. Beach-goers here are quick to trot out the latest swimwear looks.
“Orange County is progressive. If it will sell anywhere, it will sell here,” Ottman says. “Swimwear is one area of fashion where we’re definitely the leaders.” The local swimwear industry has grown both crowded and competitive in recent years. The Raisin Co., Roxy, Rusty and Quiksilver’s Girl Star are all in the same pool, trying to grab a piece of the hot juniors swimwear market. Together they’ve made Orange County as much a player in swimwear as Los Angeles, Hawaii and Florida.
“Orange County’s an old surf town. We have Huntington Beach and Newport Beach. It attracts people who love nature, who are athletic and want to be outside all the time,” Williams says.
That description fits Jung, Ottman and Williams. They like that they have fast-growing swimwear lines, but all three say they wish they had more free time to do one thing: Go to the beach.