NEW YORK — Instead of looking forward to retirement as most executives would after decades of work in a family business, Anne Cole hopes to steal a few secrets from her storied past.

Over the years, Cole of California, the firm her father founded in 1925, suited up starlets like Esther Williams and Marilyn Monroe. Anne Cole knew Christian Dior as a Parisian hired to design a swimwear line for the company and Ronald Reagan as a judge in one of the company’s swimsuit contests. She knew Sharon Stone and Rene Russo as Cole of California models before they were Hollywood actresses.

Guests at the 20th-anniversary bash for Anne Cole swimwear, an offspring of her father’s business, got a glimpse of Cole’s history. Cole dug up vintage swimsuits and blew up old photos to tout the brands’ roots. The Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage is reportedly interested in using these looks for a special exhibition next year.

The future of swimwear, she said, to a large degree can be found in classic styles with a dash of innovation. Instead of body-baring styles in bright colors, there’s a need for discretion, Cole said.

"I think swim has to go back to our roots. It sounds corny and everyone says it, but buttoned-down sex is where it belongs," said the woman who Barbara Walters once called "the first lady of swimwear." "I don’t like oversexed. Bare is good, but not bare with little taste."

For her signature line’s celebration, she had one request: to celebrate the milestone at the 21 Club, the same place she had her first martini on her 21st birthday. That’s just what she had Monday night after all the glad-handing was done.

Sharp-witted and at times disarmingly direct, Cole is not one for fanfare. Before giving a few quick words of thanks to the crowd, Cole recalled how a certain former company president was less than confident about what she could do with her own line.

"I’ve given her a line and in six months, I’ll get rid of the line and get rid of her," Cole quoted the unnamed executives having said.Today, the business is a $28 million operation. In January, Kathy Van Ness joined parent company Authentic Fitness as president of the designer division, and building the Anne Cole swimwear business is a key part of her game plan. Authentic Fitness purchased the Anne Cole and Cole of California lines in 1993. The Cole businesses are based inLos Angeles.

Early on, Cole was not as sold on the prospect of a lifetime of swimwear. She said she initially had no interest in getting into the family business when she was a young woman.

"I was a normal, rebellious daughter who wanted to be in theater, not business," she said.

But she eventually caved in to her father’s persistence and stuck with it.

As a youngster, she didn’t do any pool-hopping in the backyard of neighbors Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Rosemary Clooney and Ira Gershwin, but she did pitch in at her family’s Beverly Hills home when Cole of California fashion shows were held there. Not everyone was pleased with having a child in the wings. One time, Cole dutifully laid out swimsuits for Esther Williams and threw away what looked like tissue paper, but turned out to be the silver screen star’s falsies.

Even as a child, Cole wanted women to be themselves.

"I want women to look like what they want to look like," she said. "Nothing fussy, no frills."

During this week’s swimwear market, she planned to sit in on sales appointments to get a better idea of what’s needed and what’s well-received. This trip’s only indulgence would be a swing by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to take in the Gauguin exhibition and hopefully glean some inspiration for next year’s colors.

Cole’s knack for naming suits and shades has also helped make her line successful, said Stuart Levin, someone who has been a friend of Cole’s for 50 years and sells fabrics to her. Take the "Swoon" suit, something she named when Frank Sinatra was all the rave, or the "Scandal suit," a mesh number that was so risque in the Sixties that TV Guide published air times for its commercials. An updated version of the suit is expected to be seen in "Die Another Day," the new James Bond flick that bows this fall.Levin added: "She is innovative in what she picks. She would also rather pay a little extra more to have a better quality fabric."

Roger Williams, president and chief operating officer of Authentic Fitness, said: "We’re making a more concerted effort to return to what we were in the past. We want to give that consumer something more unusual than just swimwear. Now, we have some things women can wear with jeans and coverups."

But she’s always looking for a way to rework the past. Cole said: "We grew up in wool suits. We should go back to wool with a little stretch — for people who do cold water swimming in Alaska and Italy, but pretty."

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