By M. Clarissa Fong | Photos by Cambrae of Daniel James Productions
At the bottom of every dresser lies the inevitable reminder that summer is here: swimwear. Unlike staple items that most shoppers buy by the armful, the perfect swimsuit is a seasonal nightmare for those who live under perpetual cloud cover. Finding the ideal blend of Lycra and spandex can truly be an exhausting, frustrating search and many would rather forego the beach or pool altogether in order to avoid the hunt.
Fortunately, Portland offers a plethora of options for anyone hoping to brave the sun and sand this year—with a bit of retro flair. This season is all about flirty, fun swimwear styled with details from the past that suit both the teens and 40-somethings of today. Don’t know the difference between a tankini and monokini? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered (figuratively, of course).
As a general rule of thumb, think about your figure before you shop (and be honest) to fully accentuate the positive. Developing a shopping strategy in advance will minimize the fitting room meltdowns. At Popina’s Swim and Sportswear (4831 NE 42nd Ave., 282-5159, popinaswimwear.com), the hourglass shape of the female form is celebrated with ’40s and ’50s finesse. Owner and designer Pamela Levenson was inspired by the influence of days gone by but with the modern convenience of today’s fabric innovations and bathing suit construction. Popina offers pieces for both the active girl and the beach bum. “With swimwear, it’s about variety,” says Levenson, who complements her own designs with specialty vendors such as Perry Ellis, Tommy Bahama, Swim System and L*Space. If you want to de-emphasize your rear-end, consider Popina’s solid plum drawstring boy shorts paired with colorful geocentric retro halters to highlight your best assets. To dress up the staple one-piece, add a scarf tied bandana-style at the waist or cover up with a printed wrap, both of which are offered at this “delicatessen of swimsuits.”
Continuing this trend of old-school modesty, Seattle-based designer Heidi Fish (206-938-9927, heidifish.com) combines wild animal prints with basic black to craft a charming silhouette reminiscent of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. Fish’s philosophy of taking elements from one era and transforming it into something new was inspired by her grandmother, who was a head designer for Saks Fifth Avenue during the height of the retro revolution. The Honey Bea Collection capitalizes on the trends of the season, including tropical themes, iridescent hues and bold color block patterns. Fish’s red and white polka dot halter with faux wrap-tie bikini bottoms compliments curvy gals. For petites bodies, try tops with ruching, ruffles, vibrant patterns or decorative hardware to build shape around the bust. Knowing how to incorporate clever detailing to draw the eye to the assets of a figure or to camouflage problem areas is paramount to great swimwear design, but if all else fails, Heidi Fish also crafts custom pieces as well.
Back in P-Town, Lille Boutique (1007 E Burnside, 232-0333, lilleboutique.com), known for romantic lingerie and sexy nightgowns, is one of a few U.S. retailers to carry a select collection by famed swimsuit designer Malia Mills of New York. Operating on the philosophy to “love thy differences,” the superior fit and fashion of these suits are guaranteed to last more than one season. For example, the “Dreamboat” is suggestive of the early ’20s and ’30s silent screen stars with its careful ruching detailing around the V-maillot design. “If the suit doesn’t fit properly, it’s the suit’s fault,” says Sarah Wizemann, owner of Lille. The boutique also carries swimwear by up-and-comers The Lake & Star, which plays with the brand’s iconic tongue-in-cheek sexiness with ultra-low necklines and high-cut leg-lines. Halter-top tankinis, some of which can be converted to strapless garments, have the added bonus of allowing sunbathers to lower the top straps to avoid weird tan lines. Lille also carries Hoff by Hoff Copenhagen, which offers a darling ruffle halterneck that is both comfortable and affordable to fit this bill.
For even more selection from this generation of glam, Jantzen Swimwear’s (multiple locations, jantzen.com) 2009 collection was born from the glamour of old Hollywood. Lisa Dixon, senior designer, wanted to mold an anthology that reflected the combination of classic vintage with contemporary detailing. Serving the Northwest since 1910, Jantzen’s current line includes retro inspired maillots, ultra-high waisted belted bottoms, tiny bandeau tops and ruffled corset-like tankinis. Jantzen’s “Vamp” swimsuit continues as the brand’s staple item, yet evolves into a two-piece with three different color stories this season (tropical, black and white, and bright summer), all with bold, exciting prints inspired by the archives. The new line pays homage to the company’s heritage and signifies the true meaning of “what's old is new again.” Just remember to wear a smile with that Jantzen.
If the sport of tanning is more up your alley, American Apparel (3412 SE Hawthorne Blvd, 231-0043 or 1234 SW Stark St, 721-0700, americanapparel.com) sells quality merchandise at solid prices. If you do more posing than swimming, then the belle of the pool would enjoy sexy bandage-style, suspender swimsuits and extreme cut-away monokinis that leave little to the imagination. Metallic bodysuits and taffeta swim trunks also grace the colorful catalog, but the must-have piece for 2009 is a stylish one-shoulder number from Portland Swimwear (600 SW 4th Ave, 228-7117). Taking the lead from toga-style dresses and asymmetrical necklines, this year’s single-shoulder swimsuits are both subtly sexy and sophisticated. An added bonus: the diagonal line narrows across the upper body to give you an extra shoulder to tan.
Retro is echoing in the men’s market, too. For guys, swim on over to Under U 4 Men (50 SW Broadway, 274-2555, underu4men.com) to peruse an international collection of more than 40 designer men’s underwear and swimwear brands. “We try to have a bit of everything,” says Manager Nicholas Cruz in regards to the stylish board shorts, snug bikinis, form-fitting trunks and square cut models that line the racks. This season, plaid, houndstooth and basket weave prints are popular with top swim brands such as Aussie Bum, Diesel and Andrew Christian. But shorter surf trunks, which hang loose at mid-thigh, are the essential cut and Sauvage’s “’70s” retro suit is the perfect example of elevated design, outstanding materials and attention to detail that offer an unparalleled fit and feel.
Finally, for a no-frills look that gets the job done, dive into JD Pence Aquatic Supply (10234 SW Parkway, 292-2346, jdpence.com), where competitive brands such as TKR, Reebok, Speedo, Finis and Dolfin have outfitted serious swimmers since 1978. Breakthrough technology in material and construction—seen in Speedo’s LZR Racer series of jammers and flyback suits—have propelled athletes to the heights of Olympic stardom.
But you don’t have to be Michael Phelps to enjoy some fun in the sun. All you need is just the right suite that makes you look and feel your best—and a little sunscreen, of course.