A swimsuit that defies burger-belly bulge


Photo by Dean Alexander

Pity poor swimwear designers who are limited by the very nature of their itsy-bitsy products. How creative can one be with a yard of Lycra?

Ever since women peeled off old-fashioned bathing costumes — the ones comprised of wool bloomers and tunics — designers have been bound by the ever shrinking yardage they have at their disposal.  The bikini certainly made creativity tough. Then in the 1960s, Rudi Gernreich had the audacity to try to popularize a topless swimsuit — as if designers weren’t challenged enough already. Oh, and those nude beaches! A pox on those swimsuit-less stretches of sand!

Up against such odds, designing a swimsuit whose lines don’t  mimic every other swimsuit on the market is a particular challenge. There are bikinis and maillot, and the confounding hybrid known as the tankini. The end.

Swim brands are mostly left to distinguish themselves with color, print and technology — the greatest of these is technology. The promises of newfangled fabrics and inserts?  To help an elite athlete shave a tenth of a second off her freestyle. To help a weekend mermaid trim a few centimeters off her waistline. To create a more buxom bosom and supermodel thighs.

But occasionally a suit comes along that captures the imagination or, at least, puts a smile on your face. In 2001, for instance, when Stella McCartney was designing at Chloe, she gave consumers a giggle with swimsuits printed with large pineapples in strategic places. And now, a little cross-pollination between a swimwear designer and a graphic artist has resulted in a sporty-sexy suit that will debut at the Miami swim show later this week.

Swimwear designer Karla Colletto, who has been in the business for more than 25 years, began working with graphic artist Pum Lefebure about 10 years ago. Lefebure, co-founder of D.C.’s Design Army, was charged with shooting Colletto’s lookbook, the multi-page marketing handout filled with photographs of the collection.  Their relationship eventually evolved from client and artist-for-hire to collaborators, with Lefebure’s ideas about how and where to photograph the collection inspiring the collection itself.

The Karla Colletto line, based in Vienna, Va., is wholly manufactured in the United States, a point of pride for the brand and the inspiration behind the new capsule collection “Swim At Your Own Risk.”

“We tried to create an idea around Made in the USA. What does America look like? Route 66. The signage. We came across a photo of a ‘Swim at Your Own Risk’ sign. We thought maybe we could do a suit with that wording on it,” Lefebure says.

The centerpiece of the collection, which also includes a sweatshirt, rash guard and bikini bottom, is a one-piece suit with sexy, 1980s “Baywatch” lines. The graphics are striking for their blunt, utilitarian lettering. As Lefebure began playing around with how to replicate the old-fashioned sign on a swimsuit, she kept deleting elements until the sign itself was gone and all that remained were the words and a stick figure captured mid-stroke amid two stripped down waves.

“For the typography, we tried like 50 different fonts,” Lefebure says. “This is Trio Grotesk from the early 20th century. It has a mechanical look and feel.”  She and Colletto experimented with a more compressed, bolder font but worried that after a few beach-side burgers and beers, the swimsuit would start stretching across a well-fed tummy: “The compressed font would become an expanded font,” Lefebure laughs. The words are also all located above the waist — so the eye stays up high, where it can admire the decolletage, instead of zeroing in on the belly.

The simplicity and spareness of the graphics, which are laser cut and appliqued on the suit,  provide the visual punch. To make that gesture as strong as possible, the collection is only offered in black and white. Lefebure gave the one-piece a test run during a recent trip to Cannes, where it — and she — received approving comments. Retailers will have their first chance to order the swimsuits in Miami. If they bite, the suits will most likely be priced in the range of $300.

Robin Givhan is a fashion critic and writer, covering fashion as a business, as a cultural institution and as pure pleasure.
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