ESTHER’S BOLD STROKES
Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg
NEW YORK — “The day is really rotten if I don’t swim.”
So says 67-year-old Esther Williams, who still spends at least 20 minutes a day doing laps.
From the early Forties through the late Fifties, Williams was one of MGM’s biggest stars, an actress whose talent on a sound stage or in a swimming pool had her splashing through 26 movies with such titles as “Bathing Beauty,” “Dangerous When Wet,” “Million Dollar Mermaid” and “Jupiter’s Darling.”
But now, Williams sees herself as more of a “swimwear historian” than a starlet. Gone are the sparklers from her elaborate movie headgear, but not her showbiz charm.
During an interview here Tuesday, she would stop midsentence to break into song, apply lipstick or pet her schnauzer, Charlie. Tonight she will be honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Academy Foundation, in conjunction with the Museum of Modern Art’s film department, for her lifelong achievement in movies.
Williams is no novice when it comes to business. She’s had a signature line of swimming pools since 1958 and first entered the swimwear business in 1988 with Excelsior, a Los Angeles swimwear firm.
In 1991, the pair parted ways and Williams signed with Rosemarie Reid, a division of United Merchants & Manufacturers. When the latter closed its doors in 1993, Williams took a break from the swimwear industry. But by 1994, she was back in business — on her own. She found a swimwear manufacturer in Burlington, Vt., and launched her company.
This year, The Esther Williams Collection, a 15-piece line, is expected to generate $2.5 million in sales — a 25 percent gain compared with 1996. A one-piece sheath, a bikini with a bandeau top and a boy-leg bottom, and a halter dress suit — styles Williams once wore on the screen — are among the bestsellers in the collection, which wholesales from $36 to $46.
In September, Williams, who lives in Los Angeles, moved production to Gardenia, Calif., in order, she said, to more closely monitor quality.
“Our operations used to be in an old fort overlooking rolling green hills and Lake Champlain. It was absolutely charming,” she said. “But whenever we wanted to make any changes, we had to get on a plane.”
Williams also keeps a close eye on her customers. Knowing that “What should I wear?” is the most common question from women who turn out for Williams’s in-store appearances, the company is taking a more aggressive approach to special events. There will be additional salespeople in swimwear departments at this year’s 10 scheduled in-store events, she said. While Williams signs autographs and offers swimwear advice, saleswomen will escort shoppers to dressing rooms with the recommended swimwear.
“I like to tell the women who come to see me, ‘God takes care of you from 14 to 22. After that, report to me — especially if you’ve had a baby,”‘ said Williams.
Williams’s appearances are hot tickets for her line. Last year, about 250 suits were sold at each of them, and stores reported that the category overall saw a lift during her events. Unlike most of her competitors, Williams has a long-term view of the business. Before her movie career, she was an Olympic-level athlete and had expected to compete in the Tokyo games in 1940, until those were canceled due to World War II. She’s a three-time national champion and a member of the Swimming Hall of Fame — titles not held by most swimwear executives.
Williams worked on her film wardrobe with Frank Cole, father of swimwear designer Anne Cole. During one design session, for “Skirts Ahoy,” Cole and Williams developed a cross-back swimsuit that replaced the Navy’s regulation swimwear for female enlistees.
“In those days, the government used swimwear made of a fabric that Calvin Klein wouldn’t use for underwear,” Williams said. “It was a droopy cotton lisle in gray blue. It looked like a limp dishrag, and you could see right through it. I told the secretary of the Navy, ‘It’s no wonder half the young women leave before finishing the program.”‘
After seeing the new suit, the secretary responded by ordering 50,000 units for the Navy, she said.
Williams also broke ground in other areas. As one of the first female athletes-turned-celebrity, Williams is credited with paving the way for athletes to endorse products. Athletes endorsing brands they are known for using is ideal, she said. Demonstrating how the business of endorsements has changed, Williams recounted a story of a 1983 interview she gave Barbara Walters during which she casually mentioned Coca-Cola.
Afterward, Williams received a phone call from the soft drink company’s president, informing her a thank you was en route. It turned out to be a framed Coca-Cola ad from the early Forties featuring a bikini-clad model. The executive said the sketch was copied from a photograph of Williams wearing a similar swimsuit.
“Are we talking remuneration here?” Williams asked.
“Yes,” he said, “that’s what the picture was.”