July 28 2010 10:04 AM

Our guide to helping you find the perfect bathing suit or bikini

Fables by Barrie’s “Audrey” bathing suit
Photo by Levi Dexter; Model, Bernie Dexter

Swimsuit shopping is a universally abhorred ritual but pretty much a necessary one when you live in San Diego. You can try to avoid the beach all summer long, but, eventually, you're probably gonna want to get wet.

Unlike many shopping affairs, this one can't be conducted online terribly well. You have to get naked; you have to try them on; you have to look at yourself in the mirror.

Pilar's in Mission Beach (3745 Mission Blvd., pilarsbeachwear.com) has been around for 33 years. (Full disclosure: I worked there a bazillion years ago, and it still smells of the same heady mix of rubber and suntan oil.) In its heyday, you couldn't move in there—it would get so crowded. Not so any longer, since there are now dozens of surf shops up and down the coastline. But don't rule Pilar's out just yet. The store carries a nice mix of youthful suits by Raisins and Roxy, as well as swimsuits for the more mature and ample woman from the likes of Cosabella, Gottex, Gideon Oberson and the completely awesome Despi line, which are not made for getting wet (they feature leather details). Here's what's still so great about Pilar's: They explicitly tell you to not worry about re-clipping each bottom and top to its respective hanger. They tell you to just hook them on and they'll do the real work. The dressing rooms feel secure, there's tissue if you don't wanna try the suits on with your panties and the place is staffed by women.

Why does that last thing matter? Well, a block away at Gone Bananas (3785 Mission Blvd., gonebananasbeachwear.com), it feels like a club inside, complete with leering Euro dudes in the corner. It's up to you whether it's worth suffering through that because Gone Bananas might have the largest selection of bikinis in town. Endless racks and tall-tall walls stocked with the entire Juicy line, plus Vitamin A, Volcom, Ed Hardy, True Religion, L-Space and Body Glove. There's far too much sparkle and bad art for my taste, but there's no question there's a lot to choose from here.

Over at Sunsplash (979 Garnet Ave., sunsplashswimwear.com) in Pacific Beach, you're more likely to be helped by an older woman with a thick Eastern European accent—and when it comes to my dainties, that's just the kind of assistance I crave. As for the stock, it's somewhere between Pilar's and Gone Bananas—not too clubby, not to sedate. And it has a nice selection of cute short-short board shorts.

Across the street from Sunsplash is the very petite shop Anna Brazil (954 Garnet Ave., 858-273-3032). It specialize in the Brazilian bikini, the kind that needs a special waxing to wear. But this store is not just for the ladies: I was examining a ridiculously small suit when a man's head peeked out from behind the curtain that hid the miniscule dressing room.

“Psst. Can I ask you a question?” he said. “I don't know; I'm a little frightened,” I replied. And then he stepped out in one very tight suit, the bright green-and-gold flag of Brazil emblazoned across both his front and back. Actually, he didn't look all that bad, but I suggested he lose the socks.

If all this is just too much for you, there's another way: a custom suit. And it's not as expensive as you might think. In fact, at Mollie B Bikinis in Ocean Beach (4966 Santa Monica Ave., Suite E, mollybbikinis.com), a custom suit costs no more than a moderately priced suit from any of the stores mentioned here. Mollie sells her own line—it's very Malibu Barbie Goes to Palm Springs—out of the tiny, tucked-away studio and will custom-fit one to your specifications. She will also replicate a favorite suit of yours that's seen better days.

Ah, and there's the loophole! Mollie can keep copying your favorite suit and you'll never have to go bathing-suit shopping again.

Located far from the beach area (well, at least when compared with these other spots), the recently opened Fables by Barrie (3775 Park Blvd., Hillcrest, fablesbybarrie.com) is the storefront for Barrie Kaufman's glamgirl-inspired clothing line. Kaufman's swimsuits are Esther Williams-meets-Bettie Page, perfect for ladies who're going for the pin-up look but also looking for a little extra coverage. The suits are almost too pretty to get wet, yet surprisingly affordable. And, even better, they're manufactured locally, in National City.

Want to know where to find something? Write to clea@sdcitybeat.com.


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