Swimsuit designer Anne Cole has been a personal witness to the whirlwind changes in the swimwear industry. Her father Fred Cole, a former silent film star, founded Cole of California in 1925 when women were wearing suits practically down to their knees.

She remembers the days in the 1950s when no self-respecting department store dared to display a swimsuit on a mannequin or even a hanger.

Later, she saw the arrival of the itsy-bitsy bikini from the shores of France, and listened to the brouhaha in 1964 surrounding Cole's Scandal Suit (a bikini joined by mesh material that looks modest by today's standards but made the front page of the Wall Street Journal back then).

For many years, Anne Cole worked in the sales department of Cole of California. But in 1982 she decided to start her own line, called Anne Cole Collection.

Cole, now in her 70s but filled with the enthusiasm of a 30-year-old, has started her own private swimsuit revolution. She is widely acknowledged as the inventor two years ago of the "tankini," a swimsuit that consists of a tank top and a bikini bottom. They now account for nearly 30 percent of all swimsuits sold, experts say. From the tankini, Cole went on to create the "camikini," a swimsuit with a camisole top and bikini bottom, and the "bandini," a swimsuit with an abbreviated tube top (known as a bandeau top) and a bikini bottom.

Cole of California and Anne Cole Collection are part of Los Angeles-based Authentic Fitness, which acquired the two operations, along with Catalina Swimwear, out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1993. The operations have stabilized under Authentic Fitness, with the Anne Cole Collection generating about $30 million in annual sales.

Question: Your tankini has become one of the hottest swimwear designs in years. How as it conceived?

Answer: Actually, it is a look that evolved from sportswear. We were looking at the magazines one May or April (in 1998) and we saw this short T-shirt cropped with skirts. Oh yeah, that might look nice in a swimsuit, we thought. So we whipped up one. And it was cute.

Q: Your intent was to market it to twenty-somethings. What was the reaction when you showed it?

A: I went to show it in New York at Saks Fifth Avenue in November. Then I went to Chicago to show it. I hadn't shipped anything to Chicago yet. And all of a sudden, at Saks in Chicago all these women in their 40s and their 30s and those who hadn't worn bikinis for a long time were squealing in the dressing room. "Ooh, look at me. I'm in a two-piece suit." They were taking in a rebirth of their youth. They asked me, "What is it called?" I said, "The tankini, like a tank top and a bikini bottom." That's just how it happened.


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