Lounge: Let’s start by sharing swimsuit stories. Sumer, you spend most of your day in a swimsuit.
Sumer:I spend most of my time in a wet suit, not a swimsuit. When I was younger, I was not very fit and never liked to wear a swimsuit or go swimming. I’m in pretty good shape now, so I don’t mind. Good body or not, most people are a little inhibited about being in a swimsuit. You watch people get into a pool, or get out of a pool—they like having their towels close by.
Niharika: I constantly hear my thin friends complain about how fat they are and I look at myself in the mirror naked, and think, ‘oh god, look how thin I am’. I only wear bikinis. And it’s always a halter because I have to get my perfect tan lines.
Once I was with friends and I didn’t have a swimsuit, so I just took off my clothes and jumped into the pool in my matching underwear.
Lounge: Do a lot of Indian women mix up their lingerie and swimwear?
Dalbir: At the store, people look through what they think is the lingerie section, and at some point I have to tell them that it’s a bikini actually.
Shruti:As a model, I am uninhibited now when it comes to wearing swimsuits. I have been skinny dipping with my female friends, but I would never dare to wear a swimsuit in front of my dad. And even if I am wearing a swimsuit, I would wear it with knee-length tights. I come from a typical Agrawal family and a swimsuit must cover my thighs. If my dad is not around, I can wear a bikini.
Lounge:Dalbir, you’ve come back to India recently. What do you think of our attitudes towards swimwear?
Dalbir:It’s very interesting, because the swimwear buying behaviour here ranges between two extremes, from very sexy to very conservative. I have ladies saying to me, I want a swimsuit that’s like a wet suit, down to the knees. There was a swimwear exhibition in England recently, and they did a thing on swimwear as it used to be in the 1940s, and I thought, ‘oh my god, I saw that in Mumbai. It’s still available’. Or sometimes, someone will buy a sexy swimsuit and then they’ll say to me, ‘I am going to Reebok to buy a pair of cycling shorts to wear with it’.
That’s one extreme. The other extreme is women going for really, really sexy swimwear. I love it. We launched a new collection and we have a waiting list already. It’s virtually the skimpiest swimwear ever.
Niharika:Actually, I have no idea where you can buy swimwear in India.
Anaita:I’m constantly asked that question.
Sumer: A sari shop.
Lounge: Dalbir just has a new range, Puma has a line of swimwear, too.
Rajiv:We’ll be launching it in a month’s time. Marketing experience told us that we need to keep the 1940s as well as the 2000s collection. Customers want both. If you only keep the 2000s, then your cycling shorts go on the rack as well.
Anaita:I’ve grown up in a bikini, but I am still never comfortable in one.
Lounge: But, what bothers you? Is it a question of women looking at you, or men?
Anaita: It’s a question of comparison, not looks. It lasts the first half hour, and after that I don’t care.
Shruti: The more you wear one, the faster your inhibitions go away. In India, you go to the Pumas and Reeboks, and they have good stuff, but it’s too sporty. We need something feminine and nice for a holiday or a beach party.
Anaita: I would never buy a bikini here. One of the must-haves on most women’s shopping lists when they travel abroad is swimwear.
Sumer: 60% of Indian women who come to Lakshadweep wear saris to swim (even those below 40), and more adventurous people will wear T-shirts and shorts down to their knees. One in 15 or one in 20 will wear a really ugly one-piece with shorts or a frill skirt on top. Those are the worst things ever. Some Indian women are pretty slim, but they don’t have any fashion sense at all.
Shruti: It’s not about fashion sense, it’s the way we grow up. We don’t have a beach culture.
Lounge: You remember your first bikini?
Anaita: No, but I remember a few distinct ones while growing up. One was turquoise blue, with netting, from Marks & Spencer. Now I’m going through an acid phase. I have about 20 bikinis. Being a stylist, I need them. Every time I have a shoot, I pick them up.
Lounge: Like Aishwarya’s white and blue bikini top in Dhoom 2. Was that from your wardrobe?
Anaita: No, but I do have it.
Lounge: Tell us that story
Anaita: We were shooting in Rio. I bought most of the swimwear there. Swimwear in Rio is extremely small, no matter how large you are. Even grannies wear tiny bikinis, the whole purpose is to just cover your nipples, and bare your ass. It was difficult with our cultural baggage, so we had to customize a lot of things. So, if you see, even the white bikini top that Ash wears is two swimsuits put together, with a skirt worn over it. It’s layered.
Lounge: Do men feel conscious, too?
Rajiv: I am very conscious about what I am wearing. I’ve just landed from a holiday in Goa, and I was more conscious there. Because I was out with my friends and girlfriend, so you’re more aware of who’s around you. We were in a restaurant, and there was a guy in Speedos, having dinner with a bunch of people. That’s something I would never be able to do. I need to be dressed up. Sitting in a Speedo is just not possible.
Anaita: But once you pass that hurdle of self-consciousness, then you don’t want to get out of it.
Niharika: It’s so liberating.
Shruti: You can be conscious for half an hour, 15 minutes, and then you get tired.
Sumer: On the beach you’ve got to be free. You have to swim in the open sea, you can’t worry about how you’re looking. I try to encourage people to look beyond all this body consciousness and have a good time.
Rajiv:I think swimming pools should have certain rules, like you can’t jump in wearing a salwar kameez.
Lounge: What do men notice when a woman is wearing a bikini?
Sumer:I notice everything. Bikini line is definitely one of the things I notice. Especially when I take someone diving and the person is above me in the water. The Europeans who dive don’t care. It’s a cultural thing. They have no problem with hair.
Anaita: Brazilians like body hair. They think it’s sexy.
Niharika: What do you notice in men?
Sumer: I notice thin legs. And a man’s physique.
Rajiv:The first thing I notice, is whether it is in my collection. After that you notice hair and other things.
Anaita: Most men are very observant. They’ll remember that this is the bikini you wore the last time.
Dalbir: Many women buy swimwear with their men. These men are so involved and vocal, they say things like, ‘it’s not quite your colour’. I think a lot of women just buy to impress their men, so it’s important their guy like what they’re wearing. They want to look good, but they want their man to think they look good. If the guy says it’s not the one, they’ll never purchase it.
Niharika:I take my husband because I have no concept, he puts things in perspective.
Lounge: Sumer, tell us more about the days when you didn’t like swimming.
Sumer:When I was younger, I wasn’t well and was on steroids. It left me with a lot of stretch marks; I was very conscious. I wasn’t comfortable without a T-shirt. That’s probably why I notice things about other people. The solution is to get fit. When you’re fit, everything disappears. It’s a question of motivating yourself to be healthy.
Niharika: Do you still have stretch marks?
Sumer:Yeah, all over the place. But I don’t mind them at all. And surprisingly, now the opposite sex finds them attractive.
Niharika: What he’s saying is right. I workout every day, I do yoga and I run. I am always exercising. That’s the main tip to beat self-consciousness: Be fit.
Lounge: What tips would you give people when they’re purchasing swimsuits?
Dalbir: The most important thing is to know what people don’t like about themselves or what their problem areas are. All women have one part of their body they want to work on. We have swimsuits with tummy control panels, we have swimsuits which have a whole bra built inside them, shorts that cover a big bottom, skinny briefs that make your legs look longer. Finding out what you like and don’t like about yourself and then finding out what you want to look like on the beach is the first step.
Lounge: What are the season’s trends?
Rajiv: Puma’s collection is inspired by the Pacific Islands. Greens, yellows, bright pinks are the predominant colours. There are lots of prints. Palm trees, the sea, the sun.
Anaita: Retro is overdone. A bit of glitz is in. The look is not just athletic, but slightly bohemian.
Shruti: I have a chiffon bikini, which I would not wear in the pool, but to a theme party.
Anaita: Our whole culture is also about being around the pool rather than in it. The casually thrown on shirt, the little skirt, it’s all planned.
Dalbir: Globally the accessories market has become so much bigger—and it’s going to happen here in India as well. People will start dressing up swimwear a lot.
Sumer: The sarong is the ugliest accessory. It looks like you’re making an effort. That whole look of having the matching bag and the hat and the designer swimsuit, jewellery and then the triangular sarong—you walk on the beach and you look silly, you don’t look stylish, sexy, or any of that. And why wear heels on the beach? Even if a woman is attractive, she makes herself unsexy by trying too hard.
Dalbir: Women come to the store and they’re like, can we have the matching swimsuit, and the matching slippers and the matching sarong.
Sumer: Coming back to the earlier point, it’s not easy to find swimwear for men either. I went to a Speedo outlet and there were like three individual pieces and that too, with bad elastic. I asked the salesman if they had any other swimsuits, and he said, ‘no this is all we have’.
Dalbir: With the increase in disposable incomes, people are holidaying more than they ever used to. But still, Indians just don’t like to go out into the sun and get a tan.
Lounge: At any local pool you’ll always see the Indian women sitting in the shade.
Niharika: My daughter came to me the other day, she’s six, and I was lying in the sun, and she said, ‘Mama don’t do that, you’ll get dark,’ and I said, ‘I like dark’. And she said, ‘All my friends have told me that even if I go swimming, I have to stay in the shade.’
Dalbir: I tell loads of ladies to buy a halter neck so that they won’t get any tan lines, and people look at me like what do you mean, you think I am going to tan in this swimsuit? Indian women don’t buy a swimsuit to sunbathe.
Sumer: I think things are changing. Even in my business, many more people are signing up for diving. Previously, you had to really force an Indian to come diving. Now they’re lining up for water sports. It’s a positive change, especially among younger people.
Anaita: The youth is more comfortable with their bodies. I think that’s great.
Dalbir: Everyone is so fitness conscious these days. The swimming classes in my neighbourhood are chock-a-block. Women in their 40s are signing up, the next generation will swim a lot more.
Sumer: Many people in this generation didn’t learn to swim. Indians by nature are averse to water.
Niharika: And South Indians are not water people at all. When I went to Kovalam, I was the only one sunbathing, and everyone thought I was a foreigner. That happened in Puri, too. I said, ‘I’m Indian’, and they insisted ‘no, no, madam foreigner’.
Rajiv Mehta, 29,Managing director, Puma India
Before Mehta took over his present posting in August 2005, he was in business school. As the chief of Puma, he is currently involved in planning French 77, a collection of sports lifestyle clothing inspired by tennis champ Guillermo Vilas. Mehta aims to have 25 Puma stores in the country by end-2007. While usually in sporty casuals, for laps, he prefers a pair of white shorts with a colourful graffiti print.
Shruti Agrawal, 24, Model
She was the January and July girl of the Kingfisher swimsuit calendar 2006. Just three weeks ago, Agrawal graduated from Anupam Kher’s acting school, Actor Prepares, besides which, she is the face of Rocky S couture, Tanishq and Westside. You can catch her on the air in Ganesh Hegde’s ‘Mein Deewana’ music video. Her favourite swimsuit is a 1960s inspired acid green and blue-striped two-piece with boy shorts.
Sumer Varma, 32, Scuba diving instructor
Varma started out with adman Prahlad Kakkar as an assistant director. But for the past decade, he’s been in the diving business, running a school in Lakshadweep. He shoots underwater documentaries on the side. Varma splits his time between Lakshadweep and Mumbai, spending October to May there during the diving season, when his favourite swim gear, a classic pair of black shorts, gets a great workout.
Anaita Shroff Adajania, 30+,Fashion director, ‘Vogue’
In her other avatar as a stylist, Adajania took on the task of costume design for ‘Dhoom 2’ in 2006, creating popular fashion statements with pieces such as Aishwarya Rai’s cut-away swimsuit. Now with ‘Vogue’ magazine, Adajania never packs a suitcase without a swimsuit. The piece that’s always in is an orange string bikini that she’s had for years; now that it’s faded, she loves it even more.
Dalbir Bains, 30+, Retailer
Bains has been in the swimsuit and lingerie business for 16 years, first in her role as a buying agent for a UK-based fashion conglomerate, and for the last one year, as the owner of Mumbai’s leading lingerie store, Boudoir London, in Juhu. She estimates she’s bought a million pairs of knickers over the years, but her favourite swimming gear is a chocolate tankini with lemon- coloured polka dots and a tie, for that perfect tan.
Niharika Khan, 38, Silversmith
Khan runs a made-to-order jewellery business, designing contemporary pieces for clients. She has a roster of fashion retail customers who consult her on brand building and positioning. Khan can’t understand why her slimmer friends are so conscious about their bodies. This free spirit wears only bikinis and is partial to one pairing: a floral halter bikini top, mismatched with a pair of purple or black shorts.