New York The first thing to remember when shopping for a new bathing suit this year is to forget everything you already know.
Big, splashy, colorful prints are everywhere while only a handful of sleek black suits are in stores; two-piece tankinis which made their first appearance at the pool only a few years ago are now the norm; and skirted suits are hip.
Fashion influences are obvious in the bohemian styles and textured fabrics.
"Women don't want to be told you can or can't do anything. It's almost a problem that fashion has become so democratic," says Lesley Jane Seymour, editor in chief of Marie Claire magazine. "You have to learn what looks good on you. You can't just buy a bikini because bikinis are in and blame someone else if you don't look good."
The only way to find the most flattering suit is to try them all on. Seymour advises grabbing 20 suits ("they're light") before heading into a store's dressing room and be sure some styles aren't the ones you always gravitate to.
Seymour says she gets the most compliments on a gunmetal gray, one-piece suit with an "evening-gown top" that is a far cry from the bright-colored bikinis she used to reach for.
"You know a winner once you've put it on," she adds.
Top of the line
Among the choices out there for summer 2002 are a tie-top tankini in a safari print from Liz Claiborne Swimwear that features a looser silhouette and drawstring waist; a floral sarong sheath from Rose Marie Reid Swimwear, which gets its name from the sarong-style fabric overlay that covers a woman's hips without looking dowdy; a white textured tankini top and "denim" bottom (made from Lycra, nylon and cotton) from Anne Cole, which when worn with its accompanying skirt looks more like a casual chic outfit; and funky tie-dye and geometric-print tank suits from Speedo that make the traditional swimming suit a little more fashionable.
"There's a lot more color. It's a print year," observes Steven Balit, vice president of merchandising for Maillot Baltex, which includes the Baltex, Body ID and Be Creative brands.
Black is a safe haven for women and there is a place for one black swimsuit in a woman's beach wardrobe, Balit says, but there should only be one.
"Beachwear is an expression of fun," he says.
Popular color palettes for this year include aqua, turquoise and jade, and red, coral and hot pink.
Bits and pieces
In a trend that began with the tankini, which is basically a classic tank swimsuit cut in half, manufacturers are breaking up one pieces into various full-coverage two-pieces, and tops and bottoms are being offered as separates so shoppers can mix sizes and prints to accommodate individual shapes.
"Mix-and-match separates is the biggest growing segment of the swimwear business," Balit says. The Be Creative line, for instance, features everything from one-shoulder tankini tops in a busy swirl print to a gold-color swim skirt with a sexy slit.
And breakthroughs in lightweight fabrics that add support, and in some cases acting almost as a body slimmer, have opened up a new world of styles to all shapes, Balit adds.
Even more than style or fabric, proper fit is what makes for a flattering swimsuit. Move around the dressing room to make sure things stay put, says Seymour.
Many of today's swimsuits are made for swimming, not just lying in the sun, she adds, so you can safely play in the waves and do laps in the pool without worry. "You don't have to swim only in a racerback."
Seymour points out that some of the sexiest suits might show a lot of skin but they're usually solid and sturdy at the top and bottom.
And sexy and skin don't always have to go hand in hand, either. Mesh and cutouts create the optical illusion of bareness.