The dress that makes the biggest splash at this summer's soiree might not be a dress at all. Swim coverups can make chic, comfortable and relatively inexpensive cocktail dresses, and they fold up to almost nothing in a suitcase.
The season's top styles — one-shoulder silhouettes, metallic hardware and rich jewel colors, among them — make the easy transition from day to night because they're infused with a little everyday glamor.
"Many of the fashion trends for spring are translating to swim: There's ethnic with tribal prints, patterns and animal prints, embellishments with more 'organic' trim and beadwork, ruffles and ruffle trims. Floral prints are very happening in spring and beachwear," says Colleen Sherin, fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue.
Carmen Marc Valvo made the leap from eveningwear, his specialty, to swimwear, and says it was a seamless process. "Unlike sportswear, eveningwear is very exposed and swimwear is even more bare. They're similar. They both have a lot of draping, and I can work with tricot as if it were chiffon."
The same tricks he uses to create flattering gowns work here, too, Valvo says: The obi sash narrows the waist; halters flatter the neckline; ruching is shorthand for camouflage.
Customer demand got him into the swimwear business, when after a trunk show in Palm Beach he sold out of some nylon-Lycra jumpsuits he threw in on a whim. "The average woman has only a few occasions for evening dresses, but everyone loves to sit in the sun," he says. "This is for both."
Saks' Sherin notes that coverups are making up at least half of the swimwear business for some brands. "It's an important part of the beachwear business. I do think that reason is the added value, or the ability to wear two or three ways."
There's also more flexibility in sizing, notes Rosemarie DiLorenzo, co-founder and creative director of Swimwear Anywhere, the manufacturer of designer licenses such as Valvo, Marc Jacobs and DKNY. "You think about how many purposes it serves, and how many types of women it will fit."
These pieces don't carry runway prices. For example, Valvo's dresses typically sell in the $500 to $1,000 range; a dress from the swimwear collection is closer to $150.
You can find stylish coverups at much lower prices, too. Whatever your budget, keep in mind that the coverup that can also be a dress is never fully sheer, shapeless or cinched just under the bustline. "You need to shop for it like a dress. You need to try it on and get the right size," says Kiran Rai, creative director of the Satya Rai label.
And don't forget the accessories, adds Sherin. Wooden or gold bangle bracelets, sunglasses, a sharp tote and thong sandals complete the package, she says. "You really don't need much else if you're going away to a resort or beach location, and you can wear this to lunch, cocktails and dinner."