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At 75, still looking trim

August 27, 2003|Michael Quintanilla | Times Staff Writer

Angel VERA, a mechanic from El Sereno, doesn't look like your Speedo-wearing type. He admits his 36-year-old body isn't chiseled or cut like Olympic swimmers.

But here he is wearing a very brief navy blue Speedo at a very busy Rose Bowl Aquatics Center in Pasadena, comfortable and unafraid to parade a bit of a paunch. Hey, if Arnold Schwarzenegger can sport a tiny swimsuit and some love handles -- as seen in a recent paparazzo photo in People magazine -- why not other guys?

After all, they're in medal-winning company: At the Sydney 2000 Olympics, 83% of the swimming medals went to Speedo-clad athletes. Not bad for the little swimsuit created 75 years ago by an unknown Australian underwear maker and named by a former sea captain, a man known simply known as Captain Parsonson.

Parsonson, an employee with Mac- Rae Knitting Mills, which manufactured knitted cotton and woolen underwear and expanded into swimwear, won a staff-wide contest to name the swimsuits in 1928. His slogan, "Speed on in your Speedo," led to the company's name change as well.

For years, the company, now owned by the London-based Pentland Group, has been known for its male racing brief that, in turn, has become a generic name for a skimpy, stylized cut. Other companies, from high fashion houses such as Gucci and Bally, to the more mainstream Nautica, L.A. Sporting Club and Verge, have produced similar styles, but "Speedo" is the word that conjures up the look. And in the summer of 2003, the 75th anniversary of the tiny swimsuit, it's a look that fits within the larger trend of increasingly bolder clothing choices for men.

"I don't feel embarrassed in a Speedo," says Vera and then repeats his Speedo credo. "I'm not embarrassed." Like many other swimmers, he's a devotee because the brief doesn't drag him in the water and it dries fast.

Born in Mexico, Vera has lived in the Los Angeles area for more than 10 years, and, he says, "Let me tell you, almost all the guys wear Speedos in Mexico." At the aquatics center, Vera is joined by more Speedo-suited men, ranging from high school kids practicing with dive teams to hefty middle-aged dads.

At the beach it's a different story.

"It's too sissy, dude," says sun worshipper and part-time surfer Dennis Sandoval, 20, swallowed by low-rise, loose-fitting, to-the-knees trunks at Will Rogers State Beach. He wouldn't be caught dead in a brief. "A tiny swimsuit is not for the beach," he says.

But not everyone buys into the no-briefs-on-the-beach philosophy.

Sociologist Ruth P. Rubinstein, who teaches a clothing and society class at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology and is the author of "Dress Codes: Meanings and Messages in American Culture," suggests the swimming brief has a precedent -- of sorts.

"During the Renaissance a man was proud to wear a codpiece in public, which also equated to male economic success and individualism," Rubinstein says. "Wearing a Speedo spells out the same thing today because there has been so much body exposure with men showing off toned bodies."

Even the makers of the Speedo brand concede that the male racing brief isn't for everyone and constitutes only a tiny percentage of its $1.1 billion in annual worldwide sales. "It's such a small part of our business," reports Craig Brommers, vice president of marketing for Speedo USA, which is based in City of Commerce and manufactures beach fashions such as board shorts; equipment such as caps and goggles; and accessories such as underwater radios, cameras and watches.

"But, when someone says, 'Look at that guy in the Speedo,' you know what they mean. It's an iconic style," Brommers adds.

Today, Speedo's line of men's swimwear tops the bestseller list, according to Marshal Cohen, co-president of NPD Fashionworld, a market information company based in Port Washington, N.Y. Much of the brand's current popularity is credited to its association with volleyball players and lifeguards in Speedo trunks and board shorts.

Pro beach volleyball legend Karch Kiraly, 42, has been a longtime Speedo wearer. But when it comes to the briefs, he fudges.

"I wear the suit under volley shorts or other swimming trunks. Most all the volleyball players do that," Kiraly says. "When it gets too hot you take off the trunks and take a dip in the ocean in your Speedo. I've been doing that for 20 years."

Early in his career he practiced on the beach in the briefer cut. At that time, he said, other men and women "thought we were too weird. But hey, the men in Brazil wear Speedo [briefs] all the time."

Alan Flusser, designer and author of "Dressing the Man," is a beach lover and keen observer of what men are wearing. He agrees that the "Speedo [brief] is for racers or serious swimmers or for preening, but even then the majority of men literally don't fit into that skimpy swimsuit."

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