Ah, beach season in Charleston. We rush the shores in April, enthusiastically testing the tepid waters. In July, we flee the city's sizzling sidewalks, seeking solace in the beaches' balmy breezes. By the time September rolls around, freckled and bronzed, we have wiped out at the Washout, lost our tell-tale heart at Poe's, and found ourselves drunkenly dancing at the Windjammer. The one constant throughout summer's sandy romps is the bikini, those critical two pieces of fabric cleverly designed to conceal and accentuate.
Love it or hate it, suiting up is an unavoidable aspect of summer in Charleston. Fortunately, local fashion designers have spent time at their sewing machines creating stylish and functional swimwear — at least when they're not on their surfboards. In recent years, Marysia Reeves of Marysia SWIM has taken Charleston swim style mainstream; her suits have appeared in the likes of Vogue and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. Today Cavortress designer Julie Wheat and Coral Custom Swimwear designer Liz Chirles share their secrets to creating chic and wearable swimwear inspired by Lowcountry beach culture.
Whether you're wakeboarding, surfing, paddle boarding, sailing, or dining seaside, summer is definitely a part of life here in the Lowcountry.
Wheat is a 2011 Charleston Fashion Week Emerging Designer and surfer who met her husband while riding the waves at Folly Beach. She designed her collection to accommodate the woman on the go. "Many Charlestonian gals spend the day at the beach and then head to a nearby open-air restaurant for a bite or cocktail without the time to stop by home for a change. Cavortress suits look great with a skirt or pair of shorts easily layered on top for day-to-night beach attire," she says.
Cavortress' swimsuits embody the glamour of 1940s and '50s swimwear. Wheat describes her Summer 2011 collection as "if Jackie-O had the moxie to dress like Marilyn." Feminine details like ruffled necklines and belts around the waist accentuate hourglass figures. From a classic black-and-white chevron stripe fabric reminiscent of the original Barbie doll to flirty, high-waisted briefs with anchor appliqués and ample butt cleavage, Cavortress helps today's woman look like a classic pin-up.
Despite the retro aesthetic, Wheat notes that the cut and fit of the garments satisfy contemporary sensibilities and are designed to flatter most body types. A fabulous swimsuit requires "a great cut, appropriate tension on elastic, and colors that don't make you look like you're visiting Daytona from Minneapolis," Wheat says.
Liz Chirles echoes Wheat's sentiments regarding the bikini-wearer's need for both style and function. "If the waves are big, you're just trying to get under them and paddle out. You really don't have time to stop and pull up your bottoms," she says.
Five years ago, Chirles, who is also an avid surfer, was fed up with fighting the surf for her bikini bottoms and took matters into her own hands, designing a swimsuit with staying power. Today, that one suit has grown into a mix-and-match collection with five top styles, four bottom styles, two dozen fabrics, and endless embellishment options. Each suit is one-of-a-kind, sewn to order based on the measurements and preferences of the individual client. "If I'm measuring someone, I'll have them put on a [sample] suit," Chirles says. And from there, they'll figure out what changes and additions to make to the suit. Sometimes that means a bit more is covered up. Other times more is exposed.
She adds, "Just an inch or two here or there makes a big difference on how somebody feels in the suit. We'll base the fit on that, and then they'll pick out the style and the fabric, and I'll make the suit."
Chirles, whose daily surf sessions are hard on her suit, says quality and material are essential to a great bikini. Coral Custom swimsuits are created and lined with a four-way stretch Lycra. All material used in the suits, down to the elastic and thread, is saltwater and chlorine resistant, making them durable against the elements and ideal for frequent use. The result of Chirles' meticulous work? Tons of fans, from a surf team in California to pool bunnies in the Palmetto State, who adore the style and unbeatable fit.
"I find Charleston to be a fun, classy, but still easygoing town," says Chirles, adding that whether you're at Folly Beach, Isle of Palms, or Sullivan's, "as long as you walk around with your head held high and enjoy yourself, you're going to look great in your suit."
She says, "I think that's probably the key: just going out there and having a great time."
Maggie Winterfeldt worked as a freelance consultant for Cavortress in July-September 2010.