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Fashion 88 : Swimwear Designer Finds Neon-Bright Future in Neoprene

July 15, 1988|ROSE-MARIE TURK | Times Staff Writer

At 5, Robin Piccone was already taking chances. On the sly, she lopped off the bottom of her parents' living room curtains to make a jumpsuit.

While her mother was understanding about the curtains and her first pass at design, Piccone couldn't get into the suit, she recalled, "because I had sewn up the armholes."

The 27-year-old designer tells the story while sitting in a ramshackle building with peeling paint inside, the name of a linoleum company outside. "This place is a zoo," she said of her studio. "But it's an improvement over our old garage."

Both the helter-skelter studio in Venice and the makeshift business cards (an old number is scratched out, a new one penned in) signal that Piccone Apparel Corp., with $7-million gross sales predicted this year, has grown beyond her wildest dreams.

In less than two years, Piccone, designer of sexy, sizzling swimsuits and sportswear made out of neon-bright neoprene, has become the leader of a fashion revolution. Real success began when she linked with Body Glove, becoming one of the first designers to have a licensing agreement with the 35-year-old Hermosa Beach manufacturer of wet suits.

With her name on everything she designs, Piccone is in the limelight as the innovator who gave utilitarian neoprene (a synthetic rubber synonymous with wet suits, scuba diving and surfing) a fashion veneer. Her clean, graphic sports-related looks have covered the trendiest bodies coast-to-coast and the pages of Harper's Bazaar, Mademoiselle, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Time and Newsweek. Her fans say that not since Norma Kamali has anyone done so much with so little fabric.

In addition to a signature one-piece rubber suit with a big zipper up the front, she has created neoprene bikinis, miniskirts, bustiers, car coats, even a "girdle" with a long tulle skirt attached, which was in demand for nightclubs and proms.

Piccone confesses she never thought the rubber swimsuits would sell: "We did them because we thought they would attract a lot of attention."

But sell they did, along with Lycra suits trimmed in neoprene, all-Lycra suits and some extras, such as boldly striped cotton/Lycra leggings.

Explaining the we she so often uses, Piccone said: "I have a good creative mind. But you need so many minds." Her business is a family affair that succeeds, jokes a friend, "because everyone's name begins with R."

There is Robin's mother, Rita, who quit her job with the Beverly Hills school district to become a partner, chief financial officer and vice president.

Robin's husband, Richard Battaglia, who left his acting aspirations behind him to play national sales manager, with no apparent regrets.

And Robin's father, Robert, a building contractor, who is renovating two impressive real estate acquisitions: Robin and Richard's four-bedroom home in Hancock Park and a former post office building in Culver City that will be the corporate headquarters.

"Everything is happening at once," said Robin, adding "I'm three months' pregnant."

She wears her "uniform": a long duster, a blouse, cotton-knit pants and very high heels. Until recently, the 5-foot-3 designer was "a good Size 7."

Pregnancy, she explains, is changing the way she normally works: "I fit xxx

every suit on myself to see what's practical, comfortable and flattering. Not everyone has the same

figure, so I cross check on a lot of other people: my sister, my mother, friends."

Diane Tishkoff, a friend since their days at Beverly Hills High School, remembers: "Everyone else was doing teen-age things and we were sitting there drawing. I became an art director. She got much further. Everything she touches turns out well."

To friends, Piccone comes across as shy, intelligent, talented and a great cook. Tishkoff recalled that in high school her chum "had the wildest haircuts" and an unusual approach to time: "Once I wanted to meet her at 11, and she said it had to be 11:30, because she was sewing a three-piece suit for her boyfriend."

After high school, Piccone went to Los Angeles Trade Technical College, studied fashion design and graduated with "awards in every category I entered."

Her first industry job was at Cole of California, where she advanced from pattern maker to assistant designer. Next came a designer post with Bobbie Brooks in New York.

Eventually, she returned to Los Angeles to design for Daffy, a junior-swimsuit company, where she says her claim to fame was a Mickey Mouse suit.

At Cole, she considers her prize work a one-shoulder "cowboy" suit decked with fringe.

"It was the first time I did something that I saw coming and going at the beach," Piccone said. "It was a coup to get it in the line."

Gary Nickerson, now president of La Blanca Swimwear, was a vice president at Cole when Piccone worked there under designer Maggy Reese. "Robin takes chances. She's not afraid. I thought she was crazy to leave Cole. I told her to stay and get the fundamentals," Nickerson recalled.

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