RIO DE JANEIRO — Tall and tan and young and … chunky?
The Girl From Ipanema has put on a few pounds, 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 heavy women with new plus-size lines.
That’s nothing short of a revolution in this most body-conscious of nations, where overweight ladies long had little choice but to hit the beach in comely ensembles of oversized T-shirts and biker 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 oiled-up curves packed into 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 to 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 U.S. 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?’” said Rebelatto.
Lehona is currently sold exclusively at big and tall specialty stores throughout Brazil. Its bikinis retail for about 130 reais or $75 — a relatively high price-point here, but Rebelatto said sales have grown at a galloping pace, though he did not provide any figures.