COLE OF CALIFORNIA





American swimwear company

Founded: Formed by Fred Cole from family knitwear firm in Los Angeles, 1923. Company History: Began collaborating with Hollywood costume designer Margit Fellegi, 1936; signed Esther Williams to represent the company, 1950; began producing swimwear from Christian Dior, 1955; purchased by Kayser-Roth, early 1960s; sold to the Wickes Company; launched Anne Cole Collection, 1982; signed licensing agreement with Adrienne Vittadini, 1983-93; company purchased by Taren Holdings, 1989; Juice junior line debuted, 1990; acquired by Authentic Fitness Corp., combined with Catalina to form Catalina Cole, 1993; Anne Cole introduced the "tankini," 1997; ultimate parent, Warnaco, filed for bankruptcy protection, 2001. Awards: Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce Golden 44 award, 1979. Company Address: Authentic Fitness, 6040 Bandini Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90040, U.S.A.

P UBLICATIONS

On COLE of CALIFORNIA:

Books

Lencek, Lena, and Gideon Bosker, Making Waves: Swimsuits and the Undressing of America, San Francisco, 1989.

Martin, Richard, and Harold Koda, Splash! A History of Swimwear, New York, 1990.

Articles

Sajbel, Maureen O., "Sea Notes: Anne Cole Takes the Plunge," in WWD, 28 July 1982.

Magiera, Marcy, "Swimwear Makers Aim for 'Older' Women," in Advertising Age, 21 April 1986.

Flint, Jerry, "Cover-Up: Cole of California," in Forbes, 2 May 1988.

Drizen, Ruth, "High Spirits at Cole," in Apparel Industry Magazine, (Atlanta, Georgia), August 1990.

D'Innocenzio, Anne, "Swimwear Dives, Hopes to Surface," in WWD, 10 August 1995.

Belgum, Deborah, "Swimming in a New Wave: Anne Cole," in Los Angeles Business Journal, 12 June 2000.

Robinson, Roxanne, and Rosemary Feitelberg, "Class of 75," in WWD, 10 August 2000.

***

The high-water mark of swimwear exposure was 1964: Rudi Gernreich showed a topless bathing suit that achieved awestruck attention, but sold very few copies. Then Sports Illustrated, the New York magazine, began its annual swimsuit edition. Cole of California, in the same year, produced the three-item "scandal suit" collection

Design by Cole of California, 1950. © Genevieve Naylor/CORBIS.
Design by Cole of California, 1950.
© Genevieve Naylor/CORBIS.
that likewise plunged to new exposure with an astonishing commercial success, typifying the long tradition of Cole's being the most provocative—yet commercial—swimwear manufacturer in America.

Ever since former silent film star Fred Cole had first hitched his company's wagon to the stars of Hollywood, Cole had been a trendsetter, P.T. Barnum style. Cole knew by unerring instinct, like his film producing confréres, how to be sensational and to sell to the American public without being overly salacious. As Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker described in their book, Making Waves: Swimsuits and the Undressing of America, "Cut extremely conservatively by mid-1960s standards, the Scandal suits put everything under wraps, at least theoretically. In practice, however, the vast expanses of see-through netting turned their wearers into sizzling sex goddesses."

If black mesh only made a plunging décolletage or midriff seem more radical and seductive in the tantalizing peekaboo of exposure or coverage, Cole encouraged the sensation in dramatic public events and publicity. Hence this American company was in the vanguard of what was already being described as a 1960s sexual revolution and

Cole of California, 1950: nylon satin swimsuit. © Genevieve Naylor/CORBIS.
Cole of California, 1950: nylon satin swimsuit.
© Genevieve Naylor/CORBIS.
seemed ready to bring all of its license to the beach. Fred Cole knew that going to the beach or pool was recreation, but that it was also a spectator sport.

Cole had three brilliant ideas, put into action step by step: first, he transformed the family's prosaic knit underwear firm into a swimsuit business; second, he seized upon California and Hollywood to bring glamor to the swimwear industry and specifically to the imagery of Cole of California; and third, he knew sex appeal would be determined in the middle and late years of the 20th century by public relations and popular opinion. The health and dress-reform issues of knitwear paled beside the excitement Cole brought to the swimwear industry. His conjunction to Hollywood, working with the ingenious designer Margit Fellegi, who was to the Hollywood swimsuit what Edith Head was to every other Hollywood film garment. It was a cunningly American ideal—sexy without being smarmy, a pin-up excused by the sun-drenched healthy lifestyle of California and linked to another persuasive product, the movies.

In the trio of great American swimwear manufacturers, Cole went to Hollywood while Jantzen emphasized family fun and healthy sport, and Catalina became associated with beauty pageants. More than any other American company, Cole connected fashion and swimwear. Fred Cole reshaped the wool knit swimsuit to define the bust and waist and introduced a sunny California palette of colors. With the popularity of tans in the 1930s, Cole progressively sheared away the bulk of the traditional swimsuit to provide more and more exposure.

Fellegi, the Hollywood costumer, began working with Cole in 1936 and, immediately utilizing rubberized and stretch possibilities of new fibers that could surpass the old wool knits, brought a body-clinging science to the sex appeal that Cole desired. When rubber was restricted in World War II, Cole created the "swoon suit," a two-piece suit that laced up the sides of the trunk and tied for the bra, still an enduring pin-up. After the war, Cole and Fellegi pursued fashion and Hollywood glamor with New Look-inspired dressmaker swimsuits and profligate details of sequins, gold-lamé jersey, and water-resistant velvets.

In 1950 Cole signed film/swimming star Esther Williams to a merchandising-design contract that created and promoted the most popular and glamorous swimwear of its time. In 1955, with the phenomenal success of Esther Williams secured in her film aquacades and romances, Cole entered into agreement to produce swimwear for Christian Dior, thus bringing the most famous fashion name of the moment to swimwear design. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Cole produced a variety of lines addressed to the increasingly segmented (principally by age and body type) swimwear market. In the early 1980s, Anne Cole, daughter of founder Fred, began designing her own line of swimsuits.

The Anne Cole Collection sustained the designer swimwear ideal; the swimsuits were beautiful, feminine, and quietly sensual. Anne Cole's sensibility was traditional elegance, and her swimsuits often recalled the 1930s beach scene as well the most elegant sportswear of Patou. Yet while Cole of California's swimwear lines thrived, the company itself endured a succession of corporate parents. Kayser-Roth was bought by Gulf & Western, then sold to the Wickes group of companies, which in turn sold the firm to Taren Holdings, Inc. In 1993, Cole of California, the Anne Cole Collection, and fellow swimwear producer Catalina were all rescued from bankruptcy and acquired by Authentic Fitness Corporation, a subsidiary of Warnaco.

The swimwear division of Authentic Fitness proved a snug fit for Cole of California, which was paired with Catalina to create the Catalina Cole unit. In addition to Catalina Cole and Anne Cole, Speedo and Oscar de la Renta made up the Authentic Fitness swimwear division. While many swimwear producers had poor results in 1995, Catalina Cole and Anne Cole both experienced record growth and profits. Two years later, Anne Cole introduced the "tankini," an instant hit and the must-have swimsuit of the season and beyond.

In the 21st century, almost 70 years after its formation, the Cole name has come to represent both Catalina Cole and Anne Cole. While each prospered under the ownership of Authentic Fitness, their future was once again in peril when ultimate parent Warnaco Group filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001. The quest, however, of Cole swimwear will not change—these suits were never merely for the water, but to not only be on the crest of the wave but to define and enhance bathing beauty.

—RichardMartin;

updated by NellyRhodes

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