FIRST IN A SERIES
I am a final year lingerie design student at De Montfort University in Leicester, England, one of a very few universities in the world to offer a degree specializing in the construction and design of lingerie.
The Contour Fashion bachelor’s degree program, established in 1947, offered a new route for final year students to take this year. Instead of the traditional aesthetic route, in which students create a capsule collection consisting of six outfits and a chance of a spot on the final runway show, the program offered a new technical route that focuses on product innovation. Students who chose this specialty are required to create and develop a niche lingerie product, with a presentation to a panel of industry experts.
I jumped at the chance to follow the technical route as soon as it was mentioned. My project: taking on the challenge of a creating DD+ size strapless bra — attempting to defy gravity.
Whilst a few people not-so-jokingly advised that this was “impossible,” for me, underwear has always been about more than merely “cushion covers.” Underwear lies closest to the skin, it forms the foundation of far more than an outfit; I believe a gorgeous set of custom fitting underwear can transform a woman’s life.
The inspiration for my final collection comes from lights and lightness. Exploring Paris while visiting the Interfilière and Moda lingerie trade shows, I was drawn to the beautiful lights of the city: from the candles full of memories flickering inside the Sacre Coeur, to the art nouveau lampposts along the Seine.
I visited lantern exhibitions in Manchester; drew Gothic lampposts on the streets of London; dug out photographs of Chinese lanterns from my travels. The more I looked into them the more I realized the concept of “Lights” complimented the technical aspect of my project.
The tutors push us to think outside the box when it comes to collection inspiration and will ruthlessly shoot down ideas which don’t have enough depth or originality. Their focus is on primary research: if you can see it, smell it and feel it, you can draw it and draw inspiration from it. This push for originality is one of the best parts about university: allowing your imagination to create “blue sky” designs, without the constraints we know we will face when entering industry.
A large part of the final collection marks are allocated to market research: the practical side and the realistic implications of our designs and where they might succeed in the lingerie market. Designers, catwalks, high street retailers, boutiques, online suppliers, trend analysis, financial figures , selling statistics, media and even celebrity culture need to be digested and the gap in the market for your product justified. It is important not to dampen your creativity with this information, rather use it to your advantage to give your product a sense of realism outside of university walls.
On the technical route this research is critical for forming the platform from which to develop our innovative product. I visited bridal catwalks in London to see first-hand the trends and in turn the demand for foundation wear; toasted champagne whilst pretending to get married at bridal shows; and interviewed bridal shop owners, plastic surgeons and sports science researchers. I dug up research on the cultural differences in breast shapes, along with couture and vintage detailing from the darkest depths of our library.
Next, I designed a survey to gauge what customers felt were the real issues with plus-size bras. The response was phenomenal; within two days I’d had hundreds of women from all over the world fill it in. In addition, an enormous amount of e-mail traffic was generated by people asking me how they could get involved, feeding back personal experiences in different countries and even taking the time to take measurements and details. It was overwhelmingly touching, not to mention providing me with a crucial viewpoint into what consumers felt were the real issues.
All this research led to my own experiments with plus-size breasts: how to manage, how to shape, how to support … all without straps.
Scouring stands at Interfilière Paris for new technology for three years running, I started experimenting with ideas in my quest to defy gravity. I interviewed architects and looked into aspects of building design (no scaffolding, though!) looking for any structures or techniques I could apply to lingerie. I deconstructed and analysed the patterns of successful plus-size bras already on the market, using the successful elements as a starting point to base my development on.
David, the tutor for the Contour Fashion technical students, is particularly keen to stress the emphasis on innovation — without completely reinventing of the wheel in four months. For my own twist on the designs I added an extra innovation which has been lacking in plus-size strapless … but more on that later.
Armed with all my research I began developing the patterns. That in itself has been the most exhausting of all journeys. Plus-size cups ( 30GG to be precise) are very hard to perfect. Especially without straps.
It’s been similar to a roller coaster as one minute I’m jumping up and down when a toile (test garment) successfully does what its supposed to … with just a few seemingly minor tweaks required … and the next I’m crashing in class as it becomes alarmingly apparent that those minor tweaks are still VERY much there two toiles later.
However, for every contour-induced breakdown I’ve had, there’s been at least five pairs of arms come rushing to pick me back up and help me smooth things out. Between all the girls on the course and the tutors, in one month I made it through 13 toiles for ONE bra.
What does that mean, exactly? It meant painstakingly re-measuring, shaping, printing, cutting out and sewing up 390 pattern pieces to get the closest-to-perfect pattern I possibly could ready for photo-shoot day.
MONDAY: Behind-the-scenes at De Montfort’s Contour Fashion program.