TESTING THE WATERS

Byline: Anne D’Innocenzio / Cassandra Nye / Holly Haber

It wasn’t even July 4, but swimwear was well into the discount season, with many suits already marked down by at least 25 percent. It was time for WWD to dispatch reporters from New York, Dallas and Los Angeles on a SECRET SHOPPER assignment, to search for the perfect suit — and at the same time, collect samples from which to gauge the state of selection and service in the retail swimwear pool. They find plenty of fashion styles, from plaid bikinis to hot pink tankinis, but competent, indeed any, sales help was hard to find. Judging from this honest, if admittedly random, sampling, it’s certainly rough going out there.

NEW YORK — With vacation looming about one week hence, I am in desperate need of a new swimsuit. The three suits I have are either fraying, faded or just plain frightening. My goal: to purchase a tankini, which would offer me some versatility in my vacation wardrobe. (The camisole can double as a sportswear top.)
My first stop is Macy’s Herald Square flagship, where I find the swimwear offerings plentiful, but the service and ambience dismal. The swimwear department, located on the fourth floor, features a number of styles, from big, floral, padded numbers to skimpy bikinis, many of them discounted by 25 to 50 percent. None of the sales assistants offer to help me, and so I decide to go through the racks myself, choosing three tankinis and one two-piece suit, from different vendors. It is not an easy task, since the suits are all over the place; it is definitely not a neat display.
Then, I have to wait about 10 minutes for a fitting room. Once inside, I note that the dressing rooms are abominable, with litter all over the floor. My stall also smells like a barn. I first try on a blue and yellow tankini, priced at $74, from Nautica. Both the top and bottom are too tight. My next suit is a $55 lime green tankini from INC, the store’s private label. The suit fits, but I’m not crazy about the color. I then try on a suit from Adrienne Vittadini — a blue and white striped number, priced at $60.75, from $81. The top is fine, but the bottom is too small. Just for fun, I decided to try on a gingham two- piece suit from Polo Ralph Lauren. I wasn’t surprised that it is too tight.
My next stop is Lord & Taylor, where I find the shopping environment to be so much more inviting. The swimsuits, located on the fourth floor, are neatly merchandised, and the fitting rooms are clean. I quickly pick out several suits, and go directly into one of the dressing rooms. Service, however, is nonexistent. No one checks on me to see how I am doing.
The first suit I try on is a forest green tankini with black piping from Anne Klein. It has been reduced to $49.12. I like the fit, but I decide the color is a bit too dull for the summer.
I grab for La Blanca’s bright blue tankini with mesh overlay, reduced to $57.99. The color really appeals to me, and the suit fits. I figure the top could make a great sportswear alternative. But still, I want to try others on.
Calvin Klein’s plaid tankini looks great on the rack, but definitely not on me. The suit, reduced from $111 to $82.99, is too slim; maybe, in a couple of months, when I am 10 pounds thinner.
My last suit is a tank from Jag — it is blue with white piping. The suit definitely controls my tummy, but I am still set on a tankini.
For my last stop, I decide to hit a smaller store with a focus on athletic suits. The destination is the Authentic Fitness store on Park Avenue at 39th Street.
The selection isn’t huge, but I am able to pick out three tankinis from Speedo. After a few minutes of picking through racks, I am approached by a sales woman who offers to take the suits I am carrying over my arm to the dressing room.
The first is a $72 blue suit with black piping. The top is fine, but the bottom is too small. My next suit is an orange, pink and purple tankini, at $78. I really like the color, and it fits me. That one is a definite maybe. The third and last suit is a multicolored purple, blue, and black suit that is too small on the top and bottom. The top comes up too short, and I can’t even get on the briefs.
After shopping at three stores, I decide that I am going to think some more about the suits I’ve picked out. I am definitely considering either the pink and purple number from Speedo or the bright blue tankini with mesh overlay from La Blanca. And I will think long and hard before returning to that Macy’s swimwear department.

LOS ANGELES — The last time I went swimwear shopping was one year ago; it was at an upscale department store and I ended up running out of the smallest, hottest, worst-lit dressing room I’d ever seen, sweating and on the verge of tears. So, I was wary this time when asked to go undercover and report on local swimwear stores.
The first store I visit is Beach Fever in Manhattan Beach. Owned by the Diane’s chain, the store targets a young market, has an edgy decor and spins hip tunes.
Most suits at Beach Fever are sold as separates. But my favorite is one of the only suits priced as a pair, the Pucci-inspired print bikini by San Sal at, $58. My enthusiasm changes, however, when I realize the low-cut bottoms had been damaged by a previous customer. I also try on a Hawaiian-print mix and match by Raisins, but the padding in the bandeau top, priced at $42, leaves me looking like a 12-year-old who has eagerly overstuffed her bra.
The dressing rooms are cute, with colorful curtains separating the not-for-the-modest “rooms.” The curtains do not close well, but the lighting makes you feel like you look so good that you don’t care about privacy. Small mirrors and minimal hanging space are unfortunate oversights.
Buoyed by my moderate success at Beach Fever, I enter Everything But Water at the Beverly Center in Beverly Hills. The store decor is calming, but I quickly become overcome with anxiety.
Suits are crammed on the racks. Several line the wall and extend to the ceiling. Sales clerks appear more interested in the music and each other than in helping me.
I try eye contact and receive no response. Finally, I get pushy and request to see a suit that is too high for my reach. I am treated coldly for my effort.
The dressing rooms at Everything but Water are the high point, with doors and walls made of opaque, frosted glass. They feature good lighting, over-size mirrors and paper panties.
However, an ill-fitting black Baja Blue two-piece with a smocked bandeau top and traditional bikini bottoms only brings me back down to earth. The waist pinches me in a very unflattering way and the top doesn’t pair well with the plain bottoms. Meanwhile, the salesclerks have apparently forgotten about me.
But my luck is about to change. At Canyon Beachwear in the Westside Pavilion, West Los Angeles, a salesclerk immediately greets me as I enter. She proves to be knowledgeable and extremely helpful, as she explains the store’s well-organized layout. I can clearly see the suits, and can reach almost everything.
Highlights include a leopard-print string bikini with lavender piping from TNA by Lisa L., $96. I also love anything by Delfina Swimwear. The fabric is incredibly soft and the clerk informs me the designer doesn’t use elastic trim, for a better fit.
I am usually very picky, so I am shocked when one of my favorites is a suit that she suggested. It is a teal, modified string bikini with a dark blue and maroon floral pattern by Margo Houston for Bondi Bros., $82. The clerk also brings me a cute matching pull-on skirt, $62. All in all, Canyon Beachwear’s well-organized merchandising and attentive service delivers my best swimwear shopping experience, ever.

DALLAS — I have an epiphany during my Sunday foray into swimsuit shopping: Even size fours have to try on dozens of suits to find a few that fit! What a relief. I had thought I was especially at a disadvantage with my curvaceous physique, but even women with slim trim bodies apparently hate the process.
Two companions and I scope out the massive selection of markdowns at Neiman Marcus, and after whipping through dozens of suits all together in one massive fitting room, we realize we have discovered the best way to shop for swimwear: Go with a friend or two on an empty stomach, and then head out for margaritas and steak afterward.
Too bad we don’t discover something equally great about the store itself, one of the chain’s highest-volume units, at NorthPark Center here. It would be most accurate to say that service is nonexistent. Although we spend well over an hour trying on suits, the associate who has initially unlocked the fitting room for us never reappears — even after I ask another employee to fetch her for me.
What do I try? Well, being a size 6 to 8 who has to gulp and venture into 10s and 12s when it comes to swimwear due to a long torso, I generally stick to the safety zone of one-piece gear. I am brave enough this time to try a Vivienne Tam black tankini with a touch of pink sequins and embroidery, but forget it — when it comes to tankinis, apparently only the tautest bods need apply.
Almost everything is marked down by 30 percent, and I do find plenty of styles by Gottex — discounted from $80 to $106 — that I like. My top picks are a laminated brown and taupe reptile-print tank and a textured black tank with a cross-cross bodice. I also try a glamorous silver Calvin Klein with a wide-strap halter top, but I would have preferred it in brown, which the store does not have in my size.
On to Dillard’s, which is holding fast on price and as of June 15 has almost nothing reduced. Dillard’s at NorthPark Center has a fair selection of styles by Liz Claiborne, La Blanca, Gabar, Jantzen, Cole of California and Gottex, among others. I pick six suits and head for the dressing room.
What a disaster! Only three fitting rooms are accessible as the hall is stuffed with messy racks of swimsuits. Merchandise is littered on the floor, packed on the racks and strewn about.
I try an $80 black La Blanca tank with a sheer mesh midriff. It is slimming and gives an illusion of wearing a bikini without those unfortunate bulges.
Next, I try a zebra-striped halter suit by Liz Claiborne, but the halter top digs uncomfortably into my neck. Claiborne also has a maillot in the same print, but it doesn’t thrill me. A $49 Cole of California navy and white floral tank with shirring on one side is OK, as is a copper and gold reptile print tank for $70 by Gabar. I also sample a brown and black animal print tank by Gottex that the sales associate admires, but I don’t love it enough to spend $100.
Many of the styles have little green tags labeled “Suitable Solutions” that advise whether the suit is cut for a full cup, bust maximizer, tummy minimizer or thigh minimizer. This is useful, and the claims are mostly validated when I try the styles on.
The haried sales associate standing nearby never asks me if I want help, but nonetheless I do insist that she tries to find a couple different sizes for me, but she comes up empty. On my second cruise through the department I spot a blue and green print suit by Jantzen that has a bikini bottom and a bra top topped by a fitted sheer mesh overlay. I think this is a great idea — similar to the La Blanca — but the suit is tricky to put on because the bikini bottom is sewn to the mesh only on the sides. And once on, it doesn’t look as good as the La Blanca.
I would prefer the La Blanca in the next size up, but there are no more on the floor and when I ask the sales associate at the register whether she could locate it at another store, she seems incredulous.
“I just started working here and I don’t know how to do that,” she shrugs. “Maybe the other girl knows. She should be back.”
Having already encountered the helpfulness of the “other girl,” I just buy the suit in the size available.
Next stop is Foley’s at Preston Center. Not only do I not know where the swimwear department is, but I can’t find a store directory or anyone to ask, so I ride the escalator up to the second floor and search until I find it.
Almost all the suits are reduced by 25 percent. I round up several black and floral tanks, noticing that styles by Roxanne Collection are tagged according to bra size only. Then I walk to the fitting room. No one is in sight. In fact, no sales associates are to be found anywhere near the department the entire time I shop.
I try a diamond textured black tank with silver metal hardware by Longitude for $48.99 but the result isn’t exciting. Next is a black Jantzen tank with a sheer striped waist for $54.99, but there are pulls on the netting.
Roxanne Collections has a navy floral number for $69.99 that is similar to the Jantzen at Dillard’s — it is like a bikini with an attached, fitted sheer overlay. Again, it is hard to put on, and it still isn’t as flattering as the La Blanca, which keeps looking better by the minute. Next comes a Mainstream black flocked floral tank with an openwork midriff for $53.99 that I like, but the cups are too small.
Well, that’s about as much swimsuit shopping as I can take. I decide I will stop by Neiman’s when they have the next markdown and see if my favorite Gottex suit is still hanging there.

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