Sun, Feb 05, 2012 - Page 11 News List

Brazilian bikinis burgeon to fit plus-sized women

Bikini-makers in Brazil are starting to realize that not all of their customers are built like supermodel Gisele Bundchen, and are slowly catching on to the growing plus-size swimwear market

By Jenny Barchfield  /  AP, RIO DE JANEIRO

Tall and tan and young and ... chunky? The Girl From Ipanema has put on a few kilograms, and for many sunbathers on Brazil’s beaches, the country’s iconic itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny bikini just doesn’t suffice anymore.

A growing number of bikini manufacturers have woken up to Brazil’s thickening waistline and are reaching out to the ever-expanding ranks of larger women with new plus-size lines.

That’s nothing short of a revolution in this body-conscious nations, where overweight ladies long had little choice but to hit the beach in comely ensembles of oversized T-shirts and shorts.

“It used to be bikinis were only in tiny sizes that only skinny girls could fit into. But not everyone is built like a model,” said Elisangela Inez Soares as she sunbathed on Copacabana beach, her curves encased in a black size 12 bikini.

“Finally, it seems like people are beginning to realize that we’re not all Gisele,” said the 38-year-old mother of four, referring to willowy Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen.

Clothing designer Clarice Rebelatto said her own swimwear-hunting travails prompted her to found Lehona, an exclusively plus-size beachwear line.

“Honestly, the problem went way beyond just bikinis. In Brazil, it used to be that if you were even a little chunky, finding any kind of clothes in the right size was a real problem,” said Rebelatto, herself a size 10. “And I thought, ‘I’m actually not even that big compared with a lot of women out there, so if I have problems, what are they doing?’”

Since its launch in 2010, the line has become a hit.

In brash leopard spots and flower prints not meant for wallflowers, the label’s 14 bikini styles aren’t what you’d normally associate with plus-size swimsuits.

The necklines plunge dramatically. Straps are mere strings. And while the bottoms provide too much coverage to qualify for the famed fio dental or “dental floss” category of Brazilian string bikinis, they’re significantly more audacious than the standard US cut.

“We’re working from the principle that bigger women are just like everyone else: They don’t want to look like old ladies, wearing these very modest, very covering swimsuits in just black,” said Luiz Rebelatto, Clarice’s son and director of Lehona.

He said that recent publicity of the brand and several other new swimwear lines catering to plus sizes has triggered an overwhelming number of calls and e-mails from would-be customers.

“They’re all excited and they say, ‘I’ve been looking everywhere for a bikini like that. Where can I get one?’” Rebelatto said.

Lehona is currently sold exclusively at big and tall specialty stores throughout Brazil. Its bikinis retail for about 130 reais (US$75) — a relatively high price-point in Brazil, but Rebelatto said sales have grown at a galloping pace, though he did not provide any figures.

It’s the same story at Acqua Rosa, a conventional swimwear label that added a plus-size line in 2008. Now, plus-size purchases account for more than 70 percent of the brand’s total sales, director Joao Macedo said.

It makes sense.

For centuries, large swaths of Brazil were beset by malnutrition and in 1970, nearly 10 percent of the population in the country’s poor, rural northeast region was considered underweight, according to Brazil’s national statistics institute.

However, the phenomenal economic boom that has lifted tens of millions out of poverty and into the burgeoning middle class over the past decade has also changed the nation’s once-svelte physique: A 2010 study by the statistics institute showed that 48 percent of adult women and 50 percent of men are now overweight. In 1985, those figures were 29 percent for women and 18 percent for men.

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