From retro to maillot, thoughts of swimwear help ward off the big chill BEACH DREAMS


No better time than now to talk bathing suits. Reading travel sections and planning some beach time can make sliding through drifts of ice and slush more tolerable, even as we gain first-hand understanding of the wind chill formula.

The lucky ones among us have booked quick island getaways or a Florida week with gran. Funny, how in the cold months we really miss family who had the prescience to invest in a retirement condo near the beach.

But the island and beach vacations are far more accessible now than they were once upon a time when only the idle rich wintered in southern comfort. The Palm Beach crowd shopped for the resort season and kept appropriate wardrobes for two climates. Average folks had to wait for summer at home.

Now, with the proliferation of affordable vacation packages, students, career singles and couples on a budget can work some sun time into the dead of winter.

"There have been some pretty good vacation bargains lately," says Marty Heires, corporate spokesman for American Express. "We're seeing a lot of college kids hitting the sun spots during spring break and they're even taking advantage of cruise line packages," he says. He notes that younger people are more widely traveled these days and a lot of them are using air time and credit cards to accumulate frequent flier miles.

Once they learn the sun routes in college, they take winter beach time for granted as they graduate to career and family.

So what are the hot beach looks? The hippest and coolest tropical dressing can be found in Miami's South Beach, the restored Art Deco strip that has become the mecca for the terminally trendy. Italian designer and dresser to the stars Gianni Versace has set up his American base there, which is heavy fashion clout for any neighborhood.

Tanya Nunnery, production manager at ACT Productions, which does support work for the burgeoning photo industry in South Beach, says fashion drives the area.

"This is where the fashion photographers swarm in winter to shoot the splashy spreads you see in magazines such as Allure (( and Vogue," she says, "and the scene is young, lively and international."

The one-piece suit rules in South Beach, but it's not the one-piece we know, but rather the bottom half of a bikini. "Toplessness is tolerated here because we have such an influx of European stylists, models and photographers," says Ms. Nunnery.

What South Beach wears when clothes are worn, however, is what makes the trends.

"There is a retro look to the way the beautiful people here dress. For example, the high-tech sunglasses are out and vintage-look cat's eye shades are in. In footwear, it's '40s-looking cork platforms as an option to combat boots. And the hot sneakers are old-timey Converse high-tops or nerdy Adidas stripe suedes," says Ms. Nunnery.

The one thing all the women, and some men, are wearing over a bathing suit is a pareo. Ms. Nunnery says the international crowd boasts of finding these sarong scarf wraps in foreign boutiques, but they are the hottest accessory in stateside shops too.

As for color, black is hot, she says, but earthy neutrals in natural colors are very strong. There may not be much color to just a bikini bottom, but even that bit counts in South Beach. "Neon is totally dead," says Ms. Nunnery. "That's for the Fort Lauderdale crowd."

So much for the beautiful people, but what about the rest of the bathers out there? They're getting a little more help from designers and manufacturers who know that not all bodies are created equal.

"Bathing suit cuts are staying pretty close to standard," says Bridgett Quinn, assistant manager at Water, Water Everywhere at Towson Town Center. "The big difference this year is the padded bra top called the power pad, where the entire cup is padded for a smooth flattering line," she says. "The push-up pad is now integrated into most suits to boost the cleavage and some suits even feature both."

She says the news in fabrics is texture, with crochet suits in two-piece and one-piece designs showing up in almost all swim collections.

"There is lots of velvet, a fabric you wouldn't expect to see in swimwear," she says, "but the crushed velours and suede finishes look very sleek."

In the misses lines -- translate that as suits for baby boomers who are too smart to bikini or thong -- retro looks are strong.

"Many manufacturers are showing skirted models, in one- or two-piece versions which look like old Hollywood styles, but very new right now," says Ms. Quinn.

And the newest way to show some leg is not a waist-high cut, but a suit with a hint of leg like a tap-pant or little boy short. Some designers are even showing flat-front panel maillots, which haven't been seen since the '50s.

For the few women who dare to bare some cheek, but are not quite ready for a thong, there's what's called the "training thong" by Citrus. The fanny band features a flutter of little ruffles for an illusion of modesty.


Photos by Patrick Sandor

Styled by Suzin Boddiford

Hair and makeup by Jill "Blue" Turnbull for Etches Salon

Modeled by Susie for New Faces

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