It took only a few minutes for Louis Vuitton’s autumn/winter show to shift the fashion world a little on its axis. Then-designer Marc Jacobs is often a game-changer, re-examining forgotten items of clothing in ways that capture the modern imagination. While we who were there watched, fascinated by the scenario of girls emerging from hotel-room doors wearing déshabillée silks and lace under wonderfully opulent coats, the world viewing the live stream saw only one thing: the re-emergence of lingerie as outerwear and, in particular, the bias-cut slip dress.
Last seen as part of the 1990s grunge movement thatinspired Jacobs’s early collections – although the original Seattle grunge girls wore vintage flea-market lingerie finds – the new super-luxe slip dress has inspired not just the predictable deluge of high-street versions for this winter, but a preoccupation with underwear for next spring from some very big names. There were light yet sumptuous beaded-chiffon slip gowns at Roberto Cavalli; louche black-mesh lingerie and shoulder-slipping art-nouveau-embroidered kimonos at Gucci; and lingerie dresses have slipped into the collections of most British creative luminaries.
The discussion at Vuitton, however, was about whether Jacobs was saying such pieces could be worn to be seen or as lingerie. Surely a client who can afford one of the brand’s hand-embroidered feather- or fur-trimmed coats (from £3,800) might also buy an exquisite dress that looks like lingerie (from £1,860) to wear as a private pleasure? Some have a built-in bra structure, and the lace with which they are lavishly trimmed is so light and delicate that it would cause scarcely a ripple in anything you might choose to wear over it. So Vuitton’s lingerie dresses, however extreme, tick all the boxes for what women are increasingly looking for in lingerie: classily alluring when on view, invisible to the outside world when not. And if they happen to smooth your own shape along with the sleek lines of your clothes, then so much the better.
This was not easy to achieve until recently – ultra-light, almost edge-free underwear too often prioritised function over form and tended to show every lump and bump. But that’s changing fast, due to a combination of customer demand for beautiful pieces that seem barely there; more women working in the industry and calling the shots on design; and technical advances leading to improvements year on year. Even for those not able to justify Vuitton’s delicate lace, modern yarns and machinery are producing ever finer, flatter, intricate yet strong lace that supports while looking as if it couldn’t possibly. And they’re creating finely bonded edges that have no visible turning, thus making – if chosen in the right colour – VPL a thing of the past. Such materials are now routinely used even in highly decorative lingerie. As a result, today’s customer is starting to view very light, very pretty underwear as the norm.
“Women increasingly demand their underwear works hard for them, and the boundaries of fashion and function are becoming blurred,” says Soozie Jenkinson, head of lingerie design at Marks & Spencer. “Shapewear has to look stylish, underwear has to be comfortable and seamless and it all has to be multifunctional.” The new Waist Sculpt firm-control high‑cut briefs (£22.50) are a case in point. “Winter’s curvaceous, ladylike shapes call for waist-defining solutions, so we combined vintage-corsetry styling with high‑tech bonded construction and lace to make ‘shapewear in disguise’, which looks very glamorous,” says Jenkinson.
Given the size of M&S – it supplies a third of women’s underwear in the UK – it is a real technical leader and prides itself on introducing innovations each year. “We have been making use of recent breakthroughs in fabric technology to make components that are ever lighter and finer but with high-performance benefits, to give our customers what they tell us they want,” says Paschal Little, head of lingerie innovation. “Traditional firm corsetry can be hot and restrictive, but our latest Secret Slimming shapewear (from £6) is our lightest and most comfortable yet, super-fine with bonded edges that give a completely discreet layer under clothes and have a special finish that makes it cool and comfortable.” Other new fabric revolutions include invisible bonded edges on cotton (a technical coup, according to Little); ultra-smooth lace for its bestselling cotton knickers (£5); memory foam that responds to body temperature to create a personal fit for smooth “perfect fit” bras (£19.50-£22.50); and a light-control lace and tulle for Flatter Me armwear (£22.50), which can be revealed under a sleeveless dress or give a smooth fit under narrow sleeves.
“Today’s Bridget Jones needn’t be self-conscious about her big knickers, she can be proud of them,” quips Sian Thomas, head of creative design at Triumph who began her career as a mathematician and sees no disjunct between the two. “Everyone says lingerie-building is engineering, and creating support for a moving weight – as in a bra – is a mathematical problem,” she says. “The new challenge is to make that support effective but light and virtually invisible, and dress it up to be extremely alluring.” The Shape Sensation range (from £28) uses flat, fine microfibres processed to look like lace, but which also offer support. Design features such as built-up shoulder straps covered in lace and leading to a plunging neckline look pretty but offer more support (£42); and a steamily glamorous satin slip dress (£65) has supportive lace inserts. There is also a collaboration with Danish model, photographer and magazine editor Helena Christensen, whose signature is vintage details from traditional lingerie, interpreted in light, modern form in her Elodie slip (£135). Ingenious ideas include shaping “bandage” styles in flat, fine elastic and strong shades for fit-to-be-seen items that equally give a smooth line under clothes (Dragonfly body, £210).
Lingerie brands understandably listen to their celebrity collaborators at least as hard as their regular customers and Agent Provocateur has taken on board the comments of its model and muse Penélope Cruz and her sister Monica for L’Agent by AP. The pair wanted an AP version of shapewear, and the result is a super-smooth stretch-satin and tulle set (bra, £45, and briefs, £26) that comes in a range of colours as well as nude or black – or, most strikingly, colour-blocked in both. A sleek, shaping body (£95) and slip (£95) in stretch satin and flat lace come in bright colour combinations, and most sets in the collection have a non-padded brassiere alternative, reflecting the more natural-looking shape that modern women are increasingly demanding.
Sometimes the customer becomes the designer. Los Angeles-based Kiana Anvaripour worked for top ready-to-wear and lingerie brands throughout the Noughties but could not find, she says, “something to go under sheer or body-con dresses that looked like part of it and would make me feel comfortable and smoothly shaped. It didn’t exist.” She designed “one complete look with a built-in bra, just as pretty as a dress, which can be shown off or give you the bombshell factor when hidden. I designed it as a 3D sculpture, carving out angles, creating form from the inside while paying attention to where it hit on the body, so it would look good and help you stand up straight.” In 2011 the dress became the foundation of dMondaine, a sexily structured range (bra, £98, and briefs, £83) based around shaping panels and including clever ideas such as a dress zip, which makes it easy to put on but is invisible from the outside.
Customer response at Selfridges and Net-a-Porter has been, she says, amazing. “One customer ordered 60 pairs of a shaping brief.” Other top-selling pieces include, says Helen David, head of womenswear at Harrods, “the new L’Agent Penelope bra [£45] that sits flat but gives a good push-up, and Maison Lejaby’s zip-front shaping dress [£139], which is perfect under partywear.” Fenwick’s bestsellers are “pieces that are seductive but that also smooth and shape”, according to Laura Snelling, lingerie buyer for the Bond Street store. “Shaping lingerie has moved on from plain and functional. Now it has to be lacy, detailed, beautifully cut and still work.” Her top tips are high-waisted shaping briefs from French designer Chantal Thomass (bra, £110, briefs, £79); the cleverly engineered Incognita shaping range, with beautiful lace yet no visible edge from Donna Karan (from £42); and ultra-smooth lace and mesh from Stella McCartney (bra, £45, and briefs, £55), whose pretty, technically advanced designs have become a huge success. “Her styles have bonded wings for support and are invisible under clothes, despite having a lace overlay,” says David. Other ranges doing well in this area include Chantelle’s Les Invisibles – especially the Haussmann matte-satin mix (bra, £48, and briefs, £18) – and its Galuchat line, with its subtle prints, bonded fabrics and laser-cut edges (from £18); and Body Wrap’s seam-free, circular-knit, curve-accentuating strapless slips (£49.95).
All these ranges owe much to technology but at the finest level, handcraft counts. La Perla, known for its handworked lace and delicate finishes, designed its Shape Allure range (bra, £221, and briefs, £125) to make shapewear seductive, not embarrassing. The range features flat lace layered on fine tulle, hand-pleated tulle briefs and straps made from flat grosgrain. Fleur of England’s slips, from Dolci Follie, made from fine stretch-satin and very flat lace (from £165), give a smoothing effect and some support while looking supremely alluring. In her Brussels atelier, meanwhile, Carine Gilson hand-cuts and sews lace inserts into silk so finely it’s invisible (from £225). Yes, but with their hands on such items, who would not want to emulate Mmes Moss and Beckham, who have already dared to bare their (usually Vuitton) lingerie dresses in public to unexpectedly elegant effect?