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Bold Strokes

An Atlanta store specializes in making bikinis bearable, and Byron Lars gets ready to jump into the swimwear game.

An Atlanta store specializes in making bikinis bearable, and Byron Lars gets ready to jump into the swimwear game.

Byline: ANITA J. FINKELSTEIN / ANNE D'INNOCENZIO

GETTING PERSONAL


ATLANTA -- Linda McDougal doesn't believe in one-piece suits.


"I think almost everyone looks better in a bikini if it's made to fit their body," said McDougal, who owns two custom bikini shops called Barely Visible.


She opened her first shop eight years ago in Riverdale, an Atlanta suburb, after many frustrating attempts to find a bikini that fit. Her second location opened a year and a half ago in Smyrna, another suburb. "No one else in Atlanta does this," she said. "We get customers from all over. We've even shipped a suit to Alaska before."


Each of the two stores keeps 400 to 500 bikinis the firm has in stock at all times. Customers can buy these suits, retailing from $54 to $69, directly from the rack. However, the customer can also select a style and have it custom-fitted, for an extra charge of $10. "We don't alter suits to fit, we just make another one."


Customers can also bring in their own fabric and have suits made up according to styles in the shop. However, the cost is the same as if the store used its own fabric. Customers can have suits made from their own designs, or done as copies of their favorite bras and panties. This service, too, is in the same price range.


McDougal noted, "We name all our suits and many are just named after the customer who designed them."


The stores thrive on repeat business and keep every customer's personal pattern on file.
"If someone doesn't come in one season, it's usually because she's pregnant," she laughed.
The stores do the bulk of their business between February and July, staying open seven days a week; after July 4, they close on Sundays. Last year's retail sales topped $350,000.


The stores -- averaging 1,500 square feet, including production space -- also carry some coverups and sportswear from lines like Ete LA, HaHa, Ritchie, Miss California and New Wave by Toledo.


McDougal said the majority of customers are women who either have very large breasts or who have no bustline at all. She gets a lot of dancers and models, along with people who are just looking for something different.


"I never buy more than 30 yards of any fabric and when it's gone, it's gone. We don't want too many people going around wearing the same suit," she said.


McDougal and her daughter, Tonya Dossett, run the Smyrna store, and McDougal's sister, Wanda Stewart, manages the Riverdale shop. Six seamstresses sew all the suits. McDougal is considering opening a third shop in Gwinett, another Atlanta suburb, next year.


She said currently the Brazil bottom is the most popular style and stars-and-stripes fabric is still hot from last season. She also said a large floral print on a black background was doing particularly well.


She said there's definitely a need for custom swiwmear shops.


"Our customers get so dedicated that they'll request the same seamstress year after year," she said.

LARS TAKES THE PLUNGE


NEW YORK -- Byron Lars, who wowed the audience with his cheeky heart-shaped cutout swimsuits at his runway show last fall, said he plans to show some new swim designs at his next show, though his focus will be on functional wear.


"I think there's a void in the market for basic swimsuits, with no frills," said Lars, who added he was disgusted with the "horribly tacky swimsuits I saw on a recent trip to Jones Beach.


"I've seen some really hideous ones that were in a bronze color and were just the wrong fit."


But he emphasized that for right now, he's not aiming to make a big splash in the category.


"I just plan to do it in a small way, maybe sell it to a few stores," said Lars, who declined offers from clients and stores following his fall show. While he doesn't have any concrete ideas for his new designs, he imagines they will be in a soda-pop palette and expects to again introduce a lot of goggles and swim caps.


"The best place and the most free way to experiment is on the runway and see how it's received," he said. "I do see doing swimwear someday, but for right now I just want to flirt with the audience.


"I have too much on my plate right now," said Lars, who just started a hosiery collection and a leather and suede program. "But that doesn't mean I won't consider it seriously if all of sudden I get a great revelation."