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Specialty stores take torture out of swimsuit shopping

Luchyana Gonzalez makes a bikini top for a

Luchyana Gonzalez makes a bikini top for a fuller-chested customer at Crystal Water Collections. (June 21, 2011) Photo Credit: Nina Ruggiero

Sunshine, swimming pools, tropical drinks and sandy beaches -- the season you dream about all year long is finally here. There’s just one harsh reality holding you back from summer fun: Saying goodbye to cold weather means saying hello to your body.

Let’s face it, after six months of hiding, reuniting with your gut won’t be the most fun you’ve ever had. The thought of revealing your winter-white thighs might even be accompanied by a horror movie soundtrack in your mind.

But if you’re avoiding the beach because of your shape, it may be you just haven’t found the right bathing suit. Swimwear shopping can be daunting; even the thinnest among us share a hatred for the dressing-room mirror. When cute prints and ruffles just aren’t enough to keep your eyes off your self-proclaimed “problem areas,” it’s time to call in the experts.

“We’re grouped with the gynecologists and the dentists,” said Marna Hann, co-owner of The Jerrie Shop in Rockville Centre. “Bathing suit shopping is associated with a day of pain.”

Recognizing this issue, the swimwear industry has evolved to accommodate bodies that don’t fit the perfect bikini mold by selling tops and bottoms separately, expanding the range of styles and sizes offered, and making everything from adjustable straps to removable cups. Without the proper guidance, however, women who feel they must hide behind frumpy one-pieces or flowy cover-ups may not know how to use this to their advantage. All it takes is an open mind and one day at the right store.

At The Jerrie Shop, which Hann’s father opened in 1949, confidence is the goal. The staff starts by putting customers in one bathing suit and concocting a recipe for the perfect fit. All you have to do is make yourself comfortable in the fitting room and try on the options that are brought to you.

“We tell the observer what to look at based on the suit we choose for you,” said Hann, who is also the store’s buyer, along with her sister and business partner Amy Vogel. “We pick suits that accentuate the good stuff and diminish the bad stuff.”

While many customers come in with a certain demand (black only, tankini, halter top), Hann says they often leave with something they never would have picked out on their own.

“We’ll put someone in red who thinks she would never wear that color, but we know it’s the perfect suit for her. All of a sudden she feels like a vixen; you watch her eyes light up,” Hann said, “and I’m not just talking about the 20-year-olds.”

At a time when teenagers strut their stuff in barely there bikinis and neon brights, it also may come as a surprise that bathing suit shopping can be a family affair.

“We have everyone from grandmothers to granddaughters,” said Joel Weinberg, owner of Great Shapes in Roslyn Heights.

From one-pieces that ruche in just the right places to bikinis with underwire to lift and support chests that spill out of a double-D cup, Great Shapes aims to keep women of all ages and body types interested. The store carries more than 50 brands, including Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, Juicy Couture and European designs rarely sold in America.

Marching triumphantly out of the fitting room after making a perfect match, employee Rita Levy explained how the right suit can define body and mind. “A young girl who wears a size 18 just changed her opinion of herself instantly,” she said.

The dressing room is where the action takes place in this shop, as employees work with customers to find the ideal swimsuit even if it means pinning straps or making other alterations.

“We try to make a difficult situation more palatable,” Weinberg said. “A win is when a woman comes to the counter and says, ‘That wasn’t as bad as I thought.’”

Though they aim to make the shopping experience as pleasant as possible, the staff at Great Shapes won’t sacrifice the truth to make a sale. “Honesty is key,” said Christine Martiello, who has worked at the store for eight years. “It’s a reflection of us if our customers are walking the beach in something that doesn’t look right on them.”

Managing shoppers’ mindsets is one of the biggest challenges swimwear business say they face. Most people wear one size larger in bathing suits than they wear in clothes, Levy said, and that alone is a mental obstacle.

“The percentage of women wearing the wrong bathing suits and bras is enormous,” Levy said. “We just can’t see our own bodies the way they actually are.”

Though hearing the honest truth while stripping down might sound as enjoyable as a root canal, Luchyana Gonzalez at Crystal Water Collections in Bellmore manages to make customers smile even while she points out their love handles.

This spunky designer's colorful little shop radiates with a love for life. For the fickle shopper who just can’t find anything that fits or the fashion-forward diva who wants to be one of a kind, Gonzalez crafts original swimsuits from a wide variety of hand-picked fabrics and embellishments. She’ll recreate an old favorite that’s too small or transform an outdated suit into something new.

After earning a degree in fashion design from Parsons in Manhattan, Gonzalez got a job making clothing for a large company. She started her own shop seven years ago, creating not just custom swimsuits but gowns, jeans, jackets and more.

Building a swimsuit from scratch takes Gonzalez and her two employees 11 days, and customers must come for three fittings. This salsa-dancing, guitar-playing, multilingual master of many trades strives to celebrate the individual.

Girls have curves, and we are going to accentuate those curves,” she said. “When you feel beautiful in your own skin and you put on the right bathing suit, that’s when you feel like a model.”

If you go:

The Jerrie Shop

Locations: 290 Sunrise Hwy., Rockville Centre; 7913 Jericho Tpke., Woodbury

Phone: 516-764-0454; 516-364-4062

Website: thejerrieshop.com

Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday

Average price range: $80-$300

Alterations: yes

Plus sizes: yes

Custom: no

Great Shapes

Locations: 190 Mineola Ave., Roslyn Heights; 8025 Jericho Tpke., Woodbury; 2300 Merrick Rd., Merrick (Additional locations in upstate Hartsdale and West Orange, N.J.)

Phone: 516-484-4555; 516-364-1222; 516-867-7711

Website: greatshapes.dreamhosters.com

Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday

Average price range: $100-$320

Alterations: yes

Plus sizes: yes

Custom: no

Crystal Water Collections

Location: 2696-B Merrick Rd., Bellmore

Phone: 516-781-8080

Website: crystalwatercollections.net

Email: crystalwater19@optonline.net

Hours: Tuesday-Saturday (by appointment)

Average price range: One-piece bathing suits start at $130, two-pieces start at $185

Alterations: yes

Plus sizes: yes

Custom: yes

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