Steve Estephanian stretches yellow Lycra primly over a mannequin's thigh. "I like it all covered up. It's more exciting," says the intense, 56-year-old designer who, after 30 years in business, still finds excitement in a swimsuit.
"I'd like to go back to 1945--or '50," he said. "To give women a very covered-up look--but the ability to be more exposed, if they wish."
Estephanian's modest streak isn't all that sets him apart in the immodest world of swimwear.
The Armenian immigrant also is the rare retailer who doesn't just want to sell you a swimsuit--he wants to alter it if it doesn't fit.
At his 22-year-old family-run store, Swim Fair in Pasadena, Estephanian will add lining, shorten straps or cut a different shape leg hole on suits he sells--no charge for minor alterations and about $20 for major work. And, acknowledging that real people's hips and torsos don't always match, the store sells bottoms and tops to two-piece swimsuits separately, in different sizes when need be.
Alterations are made behind the nautical-blue store, in the studio where Estephanian also designs a small portion of the 5,000 suits, priced $22 to $75, that are sold at Swim Fair.
"It's a moody sort of thing. When I'm designing, I'm very happy. When I deal with business, I'm unhappy," said Estephanian, who also reads the future in coffee grounds when the occasion warrants.
Fortunately, business is where his son steps in. Mark Estephanian, 29, calls his father a "chronic tinkerer," a "perfectionist" and an inventor at heart. The young business graduate of USC is the practical voice of the family and the force toward expansion: Mark encouraged his father to begin wholesaling his swimsuits to other retailers, which he plans to do beginning next year.
The elder Estephanian ran his own swimsuit firm in Beirut during the early 1950s, then moved to the United States to design for a series of companies in New York, Boston and Los Angeles. He opened Swim Fair in 1965 and later added a wholesale sportswear venture to the family business--Estephanian Originals--which accounts for more than half of the family's $1-million annual gross sales.
But swimwear, he says, "is my forte."
While his wife, Lucille, works with customers and Mark watches the bottom line, Estephanian pursues new variations on an old form.
In the studio, he's toying with a new tubular suit that will provide either a covered-up or bare look, according to adjustment; another has clear plastic straps and closures. He said customers this season are most interested in strapless tanks and swimsuits without an extremely high-cut thigh.
"A bathing suit doesn't have sleeves or a skirt length--things you have in designing dresses and skirts," he said. "The challenge is, how can you do many different things in that small area, and be successful at it?"