Back in the 1990s, when Madonna wore a Jean Paul Gaultier conical-busted corset over men’s pinstripe suit trousers, the underwear as outerwear trend was born. Fast forward to 2017 and the look has evolved. Underwear is not only breaking cover but also cross-pollinating with ready-to-wear to create something new.
Women are eagerly exploring new ways to wear traditional boudoir pieces. In fashionable restaurants and at smart weddings or cocktail parties, you see stylish women decked out in sleek silk pyjamas and statement earrings. Silk shorts are a smart, chic alternative to denim cut-offs for the beach, slip dresses are not uncommon on school runs and a lacy bodysuit, worn with high-waisted jeans and a blazer, brings a fresh new twist to casualwear.
Meanwhile, discerning women are opting to spend thousands on luxuriously embroidered or handpainted kimonos and robes from Carine Gilson (robe, £1,075, and slip, £720), Alberta Ferretti (blazer, £1,010, and trousers, £640), Dries Van Noten and Johanna Ortiz. These pieces double as evening coats and look great over jeans for a decadent take on daywear.
Street-style stars Giorgia Tordini and Gilda Ambrosio were pioneers of the kimono-and-jeans look and have since launched Attico, a label specialising in glamorous lingerie-inspired robes and dresses (£771). “We wanted to make ‘thrown-together’ appear dressed up, dressed-up to feel everyday, and every entrance feel like the entrance,” they say.
Alongside its intrinsic glamour, the ease, comfort and versatility of the lingerie look is the key to its soaring popularity. “There’s been a real return to women wearing a simple slip dress layered over a T-shirt or knit,” says Natalie Kingham, buying director at Matchesfashion.com. “Customers like the effortlessness of this look – you can throw a slip dress on with a pair of trainers and still feel feminine but in quite a pared-down, simple way.” She also points out that silk or satin slip dresses pack up light for travelling, work in hot climates and look good during the day and for cocktail events. Her bestsellers include maxi versions from Raey (from £180) and Galvan’s sinuous designs (£835). “Their luxe slip dresses are nostalgic of that ’90s glamour thing. Think of a young Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell,” she says.
Some designers are going further than reimagining familiar boudoir attire. For them the aim is to create a unique fusion of lingerie and fashion. That’s certainly how La Perla’s Julia Haart would describe her approach. In February 2017, the creative director of the luxury Italian lingerie brand took the bold decision to show its hybrid creations on the New York Fashion Week catwalk, staking a claim on ready-to-wear. “I‘m trying to do something that’s completely different. It’s an evolution of fashion,” she says from her design studio in New York. Haart is intent on transforming La Perla into a lifestyle brand by melding its lingerie expertise, honed over 63 years, with ready-to-wear attitude (jumpsuit, £2,083). That doesn’t mean simply trimming everything in lace – although there’s plenty in the La Perla range. A big feature of the collection includes dresses (from £1,420), tops (from £490) and tailored jackets (from £1,411) that contain specially engineered, built-in bras. For optimum fit these pieces are sold according to cup size as well as dress size.
“Until today women’s clothing has been designed, very frequently, by men, without having in mind all the parts that make a woman’s body unique,” says Haart, pointing out that a size eight woman with A-cup breasts is a very different shape to a size eight woman with DDs. “Why hasn’t anyone ever done that before?” she asks of her integrated bras which have a unique, reinforced fabric in place of uncomfortable underwires. “Probably because it is very difficult to have the expertise for both. But La Perla is uniquely positioned to understand all of a woman’s curves.”
Back in La Perla’s manufacturing headquarters in Bologna, third- and fourth‑generation lingerie pattern-cutters now work alongside fashion designers plucked from the world’s best luxury houses. “The first six months were torture. They didn’t trust each other. They didn’t want to work together,” says Haart of the unique design set-up, but the initial culture clash was worth it.
Haart is evangelical about comfort and for her that means reinventing the very fibres garments are made from to maximise stretch and fit. “We came up with a new way to put elastane into thread by twining it within the thread itself as opposed to around the thread. By doing that, it doesn’t thicken the material, it just gives you movability,” she explains, “So now you have manufacturers in Calais, who have been making lace for 700 years, making it from my stretch thread.” She’s even managed to create stretch silver thread that she will use for a couture collection to be launched in November. “It’s actual spun silver with the elastane built into the fibre. It’s insane. You are wearing a jewel but it’s completely movable.”
With her hybrid designs, Haart is most definitely onto something. At Selfridges, there has been a 36 per cent rise in sales of silk and luxury lingerie in the past year, with the strongest demand for crossover pieces that can be worn at home or out and about. “Olivia von Halle is seeing a 50 per cent rise on last year,” says Selfridges buying manager Heather Gramston, of the British-based brand that specialises in luxury silk pyjamas and loungewear (kimono, £720). “It’s such a lovely louche look to wear wide-leg silk pyjama pants with a cami top and sandals or to pair jeans with a pyjama shirt,” she says. The shoppable shoots on von Halle’s website underline this blending of categories, styling spaghetti strap silk slips (from £210) with box-fresh white trainers or layering its patterned pyjama shirts (from £310) over frilly white blouses for a feminine daytime look. “Olivia will be doing silk bombers for next season and we will sell them alongside lingerie,” says Gramston, who believes that women are increasingly shopping with key wardrobe pieces in mind and no longer care whether they come from the lingerie department or fashion floor.
All of which is good news for new brands, as adventurous customers seek out fresh, surprising pieces that stand out. “I looked at the ready-to-wear market and found it over-saturated. I thought lingerie is right for me. Everything I’ve ever done and the materials I use belonged in that seduction world,” says Aimee McWilliams, who set up Aimée Lingerie with her creative partner Simon Paul Benton. They design the brand in London but manufacture in France. Both are Central Saint Martins graduates and McWilliams spent her formative years creating couture gowns for Givenchy and Balmain, which explains why her robes, slips and bodies are infused with a sense of occasion. “With my lingerie I want it to be the most opulent, seductive and attractive,” she says of her intricately crafted lace and silk pieces (£1,700) that could also double as eveningwear. “Even if it’s just for an audience of one, I think my pieces should be seen as a total look rather than something just worn underneath. That’s where the crossover comes from,” she says of her deliberate blurring of the fashion boundaries. “I just can’t play it safe – it’s playing with boundaries that adds an air of mystery and makes it more desirable,” she says.
Another new lingerie brand making crossover waves is Morgan Lane, designed by Morgan Curtis, daughter of renowned US fashion designer Jill Stuart. Curtis came to lingerie via ready-to-wear, graduating from Central Saint Martins and working for her mother before launching her label in 2013 from her studio, one floor up from Stuart’s in Manhattan’s garment district. While ready-to-wear brands evolved every season with new design themes, Curtis noticed that traditional lingerie lines stayed the same. She wanted to inject the excitement of fashion into her brand, which is sold in Harrods, and did just that with silk bras (from $148), rompers (from $184) and pyjamas (top, $328, trousers, $238), emblazoned with her witty illustrations, which work just as well on the beach as in the boudoir. The versatility of her pieces is an added incentive to buy she says.
For La Perla’s Haart, the momentum pushing this trend forward comes from women who desire feminine pieces that also work in real life. “It’s not enough to make clothes that look beautiful on a woman; they have to be comfortable,” she says. Haart recounts a recent lunch date with a Vogue editor who was wearing a spectacular jacket but it was so tight she couldn’t move her arms to reach the salt. “I said to her you are the living embodiment of everything I’m trying to fix in fashion. People are sick of being uncomfortable but I want to give them an option where they don’t have to give up glamour and style.”