Women ask too much from their bathing suits. Unlike men, who can get all the seaside self-actualization they need from a pair of cutoff khakis, women have to juggle two diverging, often warring, needs: fashion and function. In other words, while we like looking cute in a string bikini, we also want to go boogie-boarding. This season's suits remain divided by this yin and yang of women's swimwear, but the best play up one without entirely giving up on the other. There are suits with more sequins than the entire cast of Dynasty that still peform reliably off-camera. And there are racerback tanks that will win plenty of admiring glances on the beach without letting you down during an intense volleyball game. Whatever your priorities, these stores have suits that will keep you covered.
199 Mulberry Street; 212-625-2311
You don't need a model's endless legs to strut your stuff in a suit from Malia Mills. The designs are glam but flattering, the tops are matched to your bra size for an exact fit, and the staff is so reassuring that you won't feel embarrassed asking where that third string goes. Tops range from $78 to $88; bottoms, $74-$84. This season, Mills, whose classic paisley prints have made her a downtown darling, introduces new colors like ice blue and baby pink, in styles that are cool enough to get you into Bar Room. One bikini bottom's flirty string ties dangle to mid-thigh, evoking a fringy twenties flapper dress. This is typical of the line's hip sensuality -- glamour with barely a sequin or bead in sight.
80 Thompson Street; 212-966-3853
Liza Bruce's swank new store is more like an oversized jewel box than a boutique. Maybe it's because her suits ($180-$285) sparkle more brightly than the knuckle-dusters at Harry Winston. You might miss the micro-bikinis and cut-up-to-there tanks were it not for their glitzy extras. Quarter-sized paillettes dangling from a bikini bottom are fit for a Vegas revue; gold lamé shimmers like a costly second skin on the torso of a strapless number; both are ready to be trotted off the runway and right into the (private) pool.
Calypso St. Barth
935 Madison Avenue, at 74th Street; 212-535-4100
Hamptons-bound day-trippers with nothing to hide snap up the tropical-colored bikinis ($95-$210) at Calypso St. Barth by the handful. The dreamy space is filled with equally dreamy salesgirls in bustle skirts hawking everything from straw bags to sandals to slipdresses -- making it a popular stop en route to the LIRR. One crimson string bikini has a faux wet look that lets you look like you spent the afternoon practicing your backstroke instead of bronzing on an inflatable chair. Channel your inner Carmen Miranda with a fruit-print Manuel Canovas suit (don't forget the matching tote bag, pareo, and slides). Or don a flowing batik print to cover your sunburn as you cool your heels outside Nick & Toni's.
754 Fifth Avenue, near 57th Street; 212-753-7300
Hit Bergdorf Goodman's swimwear boutique, and get suited up for your next voyage in looks by Tomas Maier, Veronique Leroy, and Eres. Their elegant designs ($86-$740) reveal sexy glimpses of skin without baring too much of Madame. A skinny forties showstopper by Maier has high-drama white wraparound ties, and delicately embroidered pastel flowers pretty up bikinis by Delfina. Another star attraction here is the wall of gauzy, brightly hand-painted caftans by Muriel Brandolini -- perfect for lazy days on the lido deck. Just don't forget your Jackie O. shades.
62 Greene Street; 212-226-6051
Though the photos of Keiko-clad Sports Illustrated models on the walls are perhaps more intimidating than inspiring, you don't have to be endowed with a calendar-girl shape to love this cheery shop. The suits are Gap-made-luxe -- lots of color-blocked and striped suits ($110-$225) whose functional shapes are livened up with Crayola-bright palettes. The store will custom-design a new style or color for you ($225-$450) if you can't find what you're looking for in the rainbow-colored rows of chic square-necked halters, two-pieces, and tank suits. Although, given Keiko's five shades of blue alone, if you can't find what you need, your problems probably run deeper than swimsuit shopping.
721 Lexington Avenue, at 58th Street; 212-688-4595
There's more to a Speedo suit than its drag coefficient. Sporty is stylish here, as unexpected extras like tie-dye prints and buckled straps update otherwise basic tanks (prices range from $50 to $88). But if you do care about flat-locked stitching and the like, you've hit the mother lode. More gold medals have been won in Speedo suits than in any other brand. Don a pair of sturdy goggles and a cute swim cap and you'll want all eyes on you, no matter how bad your butterfly stroke is.
888 Madison Avenue, at 72nd Street; 212-434-8000
Of course, Polo is chock-full of the well-scrubbed Nantucket look that Ralph Lauren perfected. But this season's line ($86-$500) takes eighties-style Waspiness to such extremes that even derivative East Villagers will want to join in the fun. You don't have to be a card-carrying clambake enthusiast to appreciate Polo's trim tanks in sunny orange and crisp khaki, though the straps do look adorable peeking out from under a Lacoste. Prim gingham bikinis come with matching drawstring bags that are just big enough to tote keys, lip balm, and the latest issue of Avenue.
Quicksilver Boardriders Club
109 Spring Street; 212-334-4500
Real-life surfers gather at this shop, deliberating over wet suits and surfing wax, but even the palest mainlander will leave here feeling like a big kahuna. Groovy Hawaiian florals grace everything from hip-hugging board shorts to flirty Gidget-era tank suits from Roxy ($48-$80). The boy-cut bikini bottoms are daringly low-slung, but their elastic waist will stay in place no matter how hard you wipe out. Bamboo trim and lights strung from old surfboards echo the kitschy charm of the clothes. Kelly Slater's autographed board, displayed in a glass case, is about the only thing in the store that isn't treated with attitude -- the laid-back California variety, that is.