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A Sporting-More Look : The bottom line: Women and girls with active lifestyles are getting in the swim with shorts that offer better function and coverage.

June 18, 1998|ROSE APODACA JONES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Anna Schisler stopped surfing in high-cut bikini bottoms more than a year ago--with good reason.

Riding the North Shore of Oahu, the world-champion surfer revealed more than skill before an audience of 50-plus photographers when the front panel of her bottoms surreptitiously shifted to the left.

No fewer than three surfing magazines splashed full-page images of the not-so-picture-perfect moment. This is, after all, a culture that uses the thonged backsides of gals to hawk sandals and is slowly getting over the token status of surfing women.

"It was sooo bad," said Schisler, 25, who holds the women's record for tandem surfing the biggest waves--from 25 to 30 feet. "Since then I've been wearing wider bottoms. The last thing you want to worry about when you're facing a huge wall of water is your swimsuit."

Count the San Clemente woman among the growing legion of young women and girls who've traded in skimpy swimwear for suits befitting their athletic lifestyles.

As more women join both the recreational and competitive ranks of surfing, in-line skating, volleyball, skateboarding and other outdoor sports, designers have retooled swimwear to serve the need. Declare it sartorial empowerment, but active women like Schisler call it a godsend.

Wider-cut bottoms in box-cut, boy-cut and hipster silhouettes that don't ride up or wash away have become staples in swimwear collections from such designer houses as Anna Sui to junior mega-brands such as Roxy.

So much so, in fact, that these new suits have taken away business from maillots, say retailers such as Diane's, whose 32 permanent and seasonal stores include shops in Brea, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Santa Ana.

"Customers are seeing these bottoms and figuring they can get away with wearing [bathing suits] like these," said Alison Johnson, vice president of Diane's. "It's become really important in the younger age group. It's a totally fashion-meets-function-driven trend that isn't going away any time soon."

Roxy, one of Diane's best sellers, was among the first to introduce a wider-bottom suit five seasons ago, in line with its mission to cultivate surfing and related sports among girls.

"It's great that it's carried over this far. It's really become a staple in swimwear collections," said Roxy swim and sportswear designer Julie Aversa. "Young girls love the more coverage. So do their mothers. It's functional but also flattering on all body types and all ages."

This latest look corresponds to two other trends that have impacted women's active wear in recent years: boardshorts and retro styling.

Men's surf boardshorts (a.k.a. trunks) tailored to young women's bodies have become such a part of female wardrobes that swimwear maker Radio Fiji has translated a pair into a backpack.

And if many of the new swim styles look familiar, it's because designers have picked through the '60s and '70s for direction. Distinguishing today's suits are better fabrics and cuts intended for modern workouts in the surf and on the turf.

As for a sign of the times, the wider bottoms certainly counter popular, more exposing shapes of previous decades--the '80s French cut or the '70s Brazilian.

Besides being athletic, young women today are less obsessed with sun worship, say designers such as Becky Virtue of Mossimo Swim in Irvine. "We're not laying out for hours doing nothing like we used to. Instead, we're using swimwear differently--running, riding bikes, kayaking, hiking."

In that way, the new suits also cross over into street wear. Bottoms resemble hot pants or exercise shorts, and halter and bandeau tops are paired with jeans.

The new coverage does not signal a neoconservatism among beachcombers.

"Depending on who's wearing it and how it's worn, it's really a sexy, active pant," said Anna Kenney, designer of GirlStar Swimwear, who likens her panty style to a tennis pant. "My customer, who's about 15 to 25 years old, feels more comfortable and confident in these bottoms. She's wearing it low on the hips if she wants. She knows she doesn't have to wear a thong to look great."

Not that the thong business is disappearing.

It's still hot, designers and retailers say. For those customers, the wider bottom has become a third piece to shimmy over a skinnier bottom when the time is right, said Leslie Tobia, who designs for Radio Fiji and Raisins and is working on the next evolution of the wider pant featuring details such as drawstrings and pockets.

"Its success lies in its fashion appeal. Girls who feel uncomfortable in a skimpy pant can still make a fashion statement and not look frumpy. And girls in a skimpy bikini can cover up when they hit the water."

For the ultimate bottom line on this issue, retailers and designers care only what surfers such as Shauna Coble, 13, of Capistrano Beach and Shelly Appleby, 16, of San Clemente think about the suits.

Said both girls: "They're totally cute!"

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