Fashion & Style

Swimwear That Doubles as Street Wear

IS IT A TOP or a bikini? Are those shorts or seaworthy boy-brief bottoms? When studying the spring 2017 runway collections, it’s often difficult to tell.

Indeed, the line between swimwear and ready-to-wear has blurred this season. Designers sent out aquatically inclined pieces tucked into pants or layered under tunics as if to say that water isn’t really swimwear’s natural habitat.

But is wearing a bikini as a top a faux pas? Not to Miuccia Prada who, for both her Miu Miu and Prada collections, tipped her swim cap to the dolce vita era with an offering of retro suits layered with blouses and skirts. Inspired by the look of swim, Joseph Altuzarra served up beachy ruffled bralettes with high-waisted skirts, while Tory Burch showed maxi skirts with bikini-like silk bralettes, which she later modified for retail into bona fide swimwear.

Translating the runway to the real world, however, can be tricky, but when done right, this trend can squeeze more value from your summer wardrobe. “I think that people like the multiple uses,” said designer Lisa Marie Fernandez, who has championed the concept since launching her swimwear and resort brand in 2009. “The bikini is no longer just a bikini. The one-piece is also a bodysuit.” She helped pioneer the idea of making bikinis and maillots from denim, seersucker and crepe, fabrics which easily transition from seaside to sidewalk. And yes, you can actually swim in them.

Elyse Walker, owner of eponymous boutiques in Newport Beach and Pacific Palisades, Calif., recommends wearing ruffled bikini tops—like those from Ms. Fernandez—with wide trousers or full skirts that are high-waisted enough to expose just a sliver of midriff. Scoopy one-pieces, meanwhile, are easily tucked into high-rise jeans. A customer “might buy a bikini for a trip to St. Bart’s, but then she can also [wear the top] to dinner in the Hamptons,” said Ms. Walker. Call it investment dressing. Her other favored brands for souped-up swim are Australian label Zimmerman and New York designer Jonathan Simkhai, who recently added bathing suits to his collection.

To find a swim top you can elevate to regular-top status, pay attention to fabric and silhouette. “I feel like the vintage-inspired styles really work best,” said New York fashion stylist Ann Caruso. Those 1950s-style fuller-cut tops and bottoms not only offer more cover, they’re also more fashion-forward. “You wouldn’t really do the string bikini top,” she added. Search out structured shapes in rich-feeling fabrics, and restrict swimwear made of very basic Lycra to the pool and shore, said Ms. Fernandez. She uses a substantial matte neoprene even for her simplest styles.

Another tip from Ms. Fernandez: Take care that you’re appropriately covered when taking your swimwear out on the town. “If you’re showing shoulder and you have a crop top, balance it with a trouser or skirt with a little length to it,” she said. The designer added skirts and dresses to her collection in 2015—taking some of the guesswork out of swim-to-street ensembles. If you really want a no-brainer solution, she recently launched a mini collection of coordinated swim-and-skirt/dress ensembles with e-commerce site Matches Fashion.

New York designer Joseph Altuzarra showcased other charming layering approaches in his collection, putting floral bikini-inspired bralettes under striped off-the-shoulder knit dresses so that only the ruffled straps peeked out. Elsewhere, he paired a cherry-print skirt with a matching bralette and finished it with a blazer. Result: a look both festive and almost formal.

Mr. Altuzarra advocates wearing swimwear with a silk shirtdress, either unbuttoning the dress from the neck to show off a bikini top or from the bottom to flash a pair of boy-cut briefs. Throw on a belt and wedge sandals to pull it all together. “Before, you’d have your city clothes then your holiday pieces on the side,” said Ms. Fernandez. “Now it’s more about lifestyle clothes. To just wear [swim] by the pool would be a disservice.”

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