FIVE DECADES IN THE SWIM
Byline: Rose Apodaca Jones
LOS ANGELES — Fifty years is a milestone. It’s a big deal. It’s an anniversary to celebrate in grand style.
“It’s a long time,” huffed a smiling Anne Cole earlier this month inside the studio where she continues to design swimwear after five decades in the industry. “I guess it is amazing in this business — the rag business — where they consider five to 10 years a lifetime.”
As designer of the Anne Cole Collection, Cole will be honored on May 5 with the Otis College of Art and Design Fashion Achievement Award. The veteran is being recognized for her design innovation as well as a mentor to fashion design students at the school.
This is the second time Cole has won the award; she first received it in 1993. Otis alum Bob Mackie will present the accolade. Actor-artist Dennis Hopper and sculptor Robert Graham will also receive awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel gala next month.
The story of swimwear is as much the history of the beauty ideal, textile innovations and the sexual revolution. And it’s as much the tale of the eponymous Cole brand, first founded as Cole of California by her father Fred Cole in 1925.
The Lilliputian Anne Cole joined the company in 1951, after a brief stint in theater (“I was at the La Jolla Playhouse with Gregory Peck.”) and a few stabs at a nascent acting outlet called television. “Then I entered the family business and worked in the lowest bowels. But as I look back it gave me the strength to hang in there.”
The brand had occasion for Cole to hang in, including a string of owners. Cole of California and Anne Cole collection have thrived since Los Angeles-based Authentic Fitness acquired the companies out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1993. The activewear firm, which includes Speedo and Catalina, is a division of Warnaco. The 19-year-old Anne Cole Collection, with its namesake at the helm, accounts for $30 million in annual sales.
Cole, of course, has seen it all. But it’s what she’s done that ensures her legacy. There was the 1964 debut of the Scandal Suit by Cole of California, significant not only for the way it appeared to reveal more than it did but because it was the first time a swimwear maker incorporated mesh. Of course, now mesh is a mainstay not only at Anne Cole but industrywide.
More recently, in the late Nineties, the Anne Cole Collection is credited with ushering in the tankini, an athletic-inspired two-piece that lets budding surfers and self-conscious sunbathers alike to hit the waves secure their top could survive a wipeout. The combination tank top-bikini bottom now accounts for 30 percent of all swimwear sales.
Cole first devised the tankini for herself as a young girl. “I would wear boy’s trunk and a halter top that I bought separately.” Her father, however, who made glamour poolside suits available to Middle America, was not amused. “My father would say, ‘You sit down over there and don’t come near us. How could you do this with your father in the bathing suit business.’ It used to kill him. I’ve always been rebellious.”
But form actually followed function with the tankini, which was based on Cole’s own needs. “I couldn’t fit my bust line in most suits,” she said. “The most difficult thing is making a full-busted young person happy in a suit.”
In fact, Cole said, “I don’t think so much of the history of swimsuits. I think about bodies and about what women want to emphasize.”
Despite always pushing color, black remains a bestseller. “People think black is flattering. Of course, you’re getting nude on the beach and leaving everything to this little piece of fabric. It’s a little bit of a mind trick. But how many women really want to stand out? They want to show just enough to be interesting. They want to look good, but they don’t want to stand out — especially on the beach.”
For the record, Cole wears a tankini. She never wears black. And she never figured on having her own line.
“I have a hard time thinking of ‘Anne Cole’ as me. When you work for your father, you know you can’t be cocky about anything. I never wanted my own line. I really wanted to leave the company when Anne Cole Collection started in 1982. But I have to tell you,” she said with a grin as if the fun times at the helm are really some secret, “I’m having a tough time retiring.”