One of the most revolutionary lingerie ranges on the market this year comes not from a specialist company with decades of research behind it but a high-fashion designer renowned for her laid-back glamour. Stella McCartney says that underwear is “an obsession” for her, and the lingerie room in her London townhouse flagship is one of its most beguiling areas. Now, with her new range, she has focused on comfort and fit, using the latest technical fabrics and shapes that put her head and shoulders above the rest of the fashion pack and in direct competition with the lingerie specialists. The pieces are virtually invisible under clothes, offer good support and still manage to look attractive.
It should come as no surprise considering McCartney’s success in designing the Team GB Olympic kit for Adidas, with which she has worked since 2005. Comfort and performance are part of her fashion philosophy, the underpinnings as essential to her as the clothes, with lingerie making up a larger proportion of her £21m annual sales for 2011 than many other designers whose businesses are of a similar size.
“I think lingerie is an important standpoint in a woman’s wardrobe and has a big impact on the way she wears clothes and on what she wears,” says McCartney. “Lingerie is more than an interest for me – it’s an essential complement to my ready-to-wear.” Her experience with creating fashionable, desirable sports clothing has influenced her latest designs. “Underwear can be like sportswear in a sense,” she says. “Just because it is luxurious and feminine doesn’t mean it can’t be very technical at the same time. I wanted to provide a nearly naked wearing experience, creating pieces that women can wear without thinking about it and that still express the different sides of their personality.”
With her sharp designer’s antennae, McCartney has tuned in early to a new mood in what women want from their undergarments, something retailers are also noticing. “Our fashion-led customers don’t want the pumped-up cleavage look that comes with padding and moulded cups,” says Alexandra Miro of Fox & Rose, an upmarket lingerie website that, alongside Stella McCartney, sells designer brands including La Perla, Mimi Holliday, Eberjey and newcomer Belle et Bon Bon, dividing its stock into the delicate “Rose” and the saucier “Fox”. “Clothes look better on a less angular silhouette, and we are increasingly asked for lingerie that will offer that. Soft bras used to be for young girls, but perception has changed, along with technology. Now that D and E cups are standard, brands are using new materials and different structures to provide natural-looking support and comfort. It’s a clean-lined but sexy look that is very modern.”
Fenwick’s Bond Street lingerie buyer, Laura Snelling, is also seeing a greater demand for this type of underwear. “We now have a larger variety of softer bras, from sporty and plain to very lacy. The most popular are retro, slightly 1940s styles that combine nostalgic design with modern technology, and are often worn with a high-cut brief that can be prettily decorated and offers light tummy support.” At Agent Provocateur, creative director Sarah Shotton has seen “the move to a more gentle silhouette develop over 15 years, as women’s confidence in their figures has grown. Push-ups look dated; women want to look athletic but natural and feminine.”
Marks and Spencer, which supplies a third of British women with underwear, is also offering more soft bras. “Clothes fashion has shifted to an elegant, more womanly style that is challenging the past decade’s domination by padded T-shirt and push-up bra shapes,” says head of lingerie design, Soozie Jenkinson. “Women are now seeking a more feminine look, a natural shape and supreme comfort – this will be the key direction over the next five years. The underwire has created the basic uplift since the 1950s, but in the past three years new fabrics have allowed different structures for natural support to be developed. We have long done non-wired bras up to a D cup – now we can go larger and still produce a decorative, light-looking bra.”
Triumph has a venerable history of making non-wire bras in all sizes. “Larger cups used to be more constructed,” says product manager Monica Harrington. “An underwire should be comfortable if properly fitted, which is crucial, as women of 20 and 50 who are both 34D will have different requirements. If you can feel the bra, it’s the wrong size.” She adds: “But some women prefer a modern non-wire, such as the model Helena Christensen, who contributed creatively to our Celestial Essence range and who, as a mature woman, wants support as well as softness and luxury. We use a new, supportive, delicate-looking stretch lace over natural material, with a deeper, stronger underband and slightly wider straps.”
Lightness is a key feature of the new lingerie. McCartney and her team have shaved 25 per cent off the foam that makes up the cups of the Stella range; lace plunge bra, £45 and bikini, £22) – now 8mm instead of the conventional 12mm thick, creating a super-light yet strong structure. There are five styles of which the Supernatural (from £40) is the most directional – completely wireless, with the underbust and side-wings in one seam-free, supportive piece that, if properly fitted, is virtually undetectable under clothes and almost imperceptible to the wearer. Lace or mesh is bonded to the underlying fabric, scarcely thickening it, or a super-thin microfibre is used with a python print, so it looks pretty and glamorous. All styles are finished with recycled metal hardware and organic cotton gussets, and give a smooth, natural line to McCartney’s favoured slouchy silk tops.
M&S has its own technology, so advanced that it currently has a patent pending for its new Amazing Illusion bra (from £19.50), which is wire-free up to a G cup. “The support is in the underband and cup,” says Jenkinson. “It looks flatter than a conventional bra on the hanger, but in wear you hardly notice it. We’ve added a subtle animal print jacquard mesh and it teams with a no-VPL short or a high-waist knicker incorporating a light supporting panel, so it’s super-comfortable and glamorous.”
The brand is one of several to use memory foam, which is very light and moulds itself with body heat to give a totally natural shape, wire-free up to a D cup. French company Chantelle uses it, alongside spacer technology – a 3D knit which, says UK brand manager Alexandra Gueveneux, “is the lightest available. Neither adds size, and both give a very natural shape.” The brand has several styles, which balance a smooth cup with delicate lace and embroidery on the sides and high-waist briefs with lace integrated into the front stretch-satin panel to give support. Italian luxury brand La Perla, which used to be a byword for small sizes, now also uses spacer materials for lace-detailed softness and comfort (Martha bra, £90, and briefs, £57, on opening spread) because, says creative director Giovanni Bianchi, “We are noting demand for a more natural fit, especially from generously formed women.” Both Chantelle and Triumph use light side-boning to prevent what Harrington calls “an east-west look”, while the underwire itself has been re-examined by German brand Anita, which uses a soft-coated wire that follows the contours of the body and moves with the wearer.
Meanwhile at Eres, which has made non- or lightly wired shapes since 1968, recent innovations in elastic‑mesh tulle and side support have, says creative director Valérie Delafosse, “been used to give a natural cleavage that is sexy but not vulgar. We are always researching new laces that are delicate but supporting and comfortable – I start by asking myself what gives the best silhouette.” Mimi Holliday designer, Damaris Evans, continues the outer part of the bra up to the shoulder in a very decorative sling effect for support, with a wider underband, while Elise Anderegg, a new find by Snelling at Fenwick, works a similar shape in vintage-style silk satin and lace, with matching French knickers. Fenwick also has Lise Charmel’s opulent lacy Epure bra with supportive underband (£69) up to size 36C. Intimissimi adds light, horizontal boning and supportive front fastenings to glamorous, lace and stretch‑bandeau bras (£25.99) and high‑waist knickers (£19.99).
Even the boudoir glamour market is going soft. At Myla, a brand recommended with La Perla and Stella McCartney by Harrods’ head of womenswear, Helen David, styles such as Bailey (from £55) have light, flexible boning across underband and sides for comfort and support, while Agent Provocateur’s Ameliah set, in leavers lace (£410), uses power mesh, rigid lace and a clever cut for natural cleavage. “These fabrics mould to the body, so bedroom lingerie can now be worn all day,” says Shotton. If the sexier side of lingerie can be built for comfort rather than cleavage and still be glamorous, then in underwear at least women really can have it all.