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.
It was like finding new life after death. I called home and said, “I think we have something here. I don’t think it is for whom we set out to get it for, but it will fit anybody.” We thought it would be fun for the young people who wear tank tops. In the last two years it has been the single biggest classification of selling, the “ini” family I call it. There is the tankini and the camikini, which has a thin lingerie strap, and the bandini, which is the bandeau strapless. And we made one called the in-betweenini.
Q: Over the last 50 years, how has the American woman’s body changed?
A: When I first went on the road, the average size was a 12 to 14. Women have completely evolved. They were bigger then. There were very few size 6s and 8s. What has happened is the exercise era. We are pumping up and working out. It has changed the shape of women in general. Now when I go to Bloomingdale’s, the 6, 8, 10 sizes sell out first, and then you are stuck with the sizes 12 or 14. Esther Williams was no small size. She was the only woman in America who had a 39-inch bust all in the back.
Q: Is your primary market for the tankini now the 30- or 40-year-old?
A: No, it’s everybody. In the conservative parts of America it’s a young person’s suit, too. What they do with them is, they take the tops and they become T-shirts, and wear them at night with their jeans. Right now the bandeau is the hot thing.
Q: What is the average price of a designer swimsuit these days?
A: They cost between $60 and $80 and are creeping into the $90 territory. The average price of a tankini is $38 for each piece. (Pieces can be bought separately, or the entire suit can be bought for $76.) Some (pieces) are $40 if they are made of a better fabric. Fabric dictates price more than anything else.
Q: People ask, how can two little pieces of fabric be so expensive?
A: The fabrics we use are $11 a yard, or even as high as $18 a yard. And that is as expensive as the fabric you use in a dinner gown. It is not cheap today. You can get cheap Lycra, but we don’t use it. When I started in swimwear, there were a lot more fabrics that were used than today. There were jerseys and cotton knits.
Q: How has the swimsuit industry changed since the 1950s when you started out?
A: It has completely reversed. You couldn’t show swimsuits on the counter on a mannequin. It was against department store rules, like Marshall Field’s in Chicago. At that time, the head director of the store had to come and see the fashion show before it was put on to make sure it was circumspect and not showing anything it shouldn’t show. And Seventeen magazine wouldn’t show bikinis. At the time, we had to deliver some of the suits in brown wrappers. They were kept under the counter. Marshall Field and other stores like that had a very high moral standard.
Q: You’re known for designs that have been called “buttoned-down sex.” Are you still doing that, and why?
A: When I started this line, there were principles I wanted to establish. At the time, all the swimwear companies were run by men and all the designers were a lot of men. And their idea of a sexy woman was someone who wore a suit that was plunged to the navel and everything hangs out. And I thought, “Women don’t really feel that way.” There are some, and I don’t mean to stand in their way. But women know they are sexy. They don’t have to wear a bathing suit that says, “I am sexy.” Woman should wear the swimsuit. The swimsuit shouldn’t wear them and take over.
Q: What makes a good swimsuit?
A: Fit is important. It has to fit the torso. We try to make them with the longer torso. We try to make them conform to the shape of the bra line. I used to say there is no such thing as a bad figure. There are just bad swimsuits.
Q: What’s going to be the next hot product, after the tankini?
A: That is what the president of our company asks. And I say there are more “inis” coming. Don’t worry. It’s a formula or an idea for a woman’s body. It will probably hang around. I think the shapes are going to change. People ask, “What can you do with 30 inches of cloth?” You change the silhouette as you do in clothing. First of all, Anne Cole is about color, so we will do some new colors. Some hot reds and yellows, some natural and some darks with a touch of color. Then the silhouette. There is always the tank and the lingerie strap.
Q: How hard is it to succeed in the swimsuit business?
A: Well, today it’s difficult because it takes money to arrange production. And today the retailer is not the sweet, genial old friend of the family. They’re tough. They want deals. You figure your cost and make your mark-up and then they want half of it in a kickback or half of it in off-price merchandise.
Q: Are people buying more swimsuits than before?
A: I think so. People are traveling more. They go to sunny climes, like California. We travel to where there is sun in the winter. And in California we go swimming in our backyards, if we are lucky enough.