A star-studded lingerie show will dazzle London’s fashion elite tonight, but its impact could be felt around the world for years to come.
A sold-out crowd of 400 UK glitterati paid up to £1,000 each for the eagerly anticipated Lingerie London catwalk show at Old Billingsgate, a converted fish market on the Thames and prized Victorian landmark.
The main attractions at the event will be runway shows from power lingerie brand Agent Provocateur — presenting its biggest-ever fashion show and its first in five years — and renowned couture latex designer Atsuko Kudo.
With 80 models participating, the AP/AK double bill will provide eye-popping entertainment, but it’s the event’s backstory that should give patrons plenty to think about once the glittering spectacle is over.
Lingerie London is the third luxury lingerie show hosted by the Seven Bar Foundation, a unique New York-based charitable organization that uses the economic power of world-leading lingerie brands to support the entrepreneurial efforts of underprivileged women in some of the world’s poorest countries.
Tonight’s event will also feature a theatrical production from Empowered By You, a lingerie line that Seven Bar launched earlier this year and which funnels profits directly into the organization’s international microfinance partners.
Previous shows in Miami and New York have attracted high-powered patrons and high-wattage celebrities like Eva Longoria, Sofia Vergara and Deepak Chopra, and have showcased premium brands like Fifi Chachnil and Carine Gilson. More importantly, they helped Seven Bar raise more than $400,000 so far to support more than 3,000 women in Third World business start-ups.
The guiding light behind the shows and the Seven Bar Foundation is its founder, Renata Mutis Black, whose goal is to spark a paradigm shift in the luxury fashion world by turning big-ticket brands into agents of sustainable social change. Through Seven Bar’s lingerie shows and other cause marketing projects, she hopes to get micro-finance business loans into the hands of 250,000 women world-wide by 2020.
Black and her family launched Seven Bar after she spent several years as a volunteer relief worker, at one point working in 12 different countries in one year.
After the 2004 tsunami flooded south Asia, Black moved to the Chennai region of southern India to help rebuild demolished communities. It was there, in the tiny village of Mahabalipuram, that she had “a life-changing experience.”
“A woman came to me and said, ‘I know you have money but I don’t want it. I just want to learn how to make it myself.'” Black told Lingerie Talk. “I realized how disabling aid was, how it made a lot of strong women into beggars.”
With that inspiration, Black traveled to Bangladesh to spend three months learning about microfinance, microcredit and community lending from Nobel Prize winning economist Muhammad Yunus. She then returned to Mahabalipuram in India to help 800 women set up village lending collectives that are still operating today.
“We had a lot of money from (relief) aid,” Black said, “but the government was saying we can only give money for business loans to credit-worthy people. We said, ‘Are you kidding? These people eat rats.'”
Emboldened by the early success of the Indian microcredit program, Black returned to the U.S. and began looking for ways to fund similar programs on a global scale. Her entry into the glamorous world of fashion lingerie came, ironically, through Victoria’s Secret.
“I was watching the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show on TV and I thought, it’s a shame that lingerie is only being used as a tool for seduction when it can be so much more than that.”
Through a mutual friend, Black was introduced to Joe Corre, founder of Agent Provocateur and one of Seven Bar’s earliest and most ardent supporters. Another friend introduced her to actress Eva (Desperate Housewives) Longoria, who is also well known as a social justice activist and agreed to host Seven Bar’s first exclusive lingerie show in Miami in 2009.
“Traditionally, people just saw lingerie as a tool of seduction,” Black said. “We want to turn that around, to use it as a tool of empowerment. It’s a powerful tool that only women own. No other medium has that kind of power.”
And Seven Bar provides more than just a way for women to help other women: it’s helping to make couture fashion brands socially relevant.
“Our lingerie shows provide an entry point that lets luxury brands make an impact on the rest of the world,” she said. “It has a lot to do with the idea of sustainable luxury. Maybe only 1% of people in the world live this way, so if we don’t direct some energy to the rest of the world, it’s not going to be a sustainable world.”
[Interesting sidenote: Carine Gilson, the fabled Belgian lingerie designer who was part of the 2009 Lingerie Miami show, got her start 25 years ago with a microfinance loan.]
Seven Bar is what’s known as a fund-to-fund charity. It doesn’t manage Third World microfinance projects itself, but channels money to vetted NGOs working in foreign countries that meet their strict criteria. Those agencies in turn provide small, low-interest loans to support women entrepreneurs. Because such programs are community-based and often involve worker collectives, loan defaults are extremely uncommon, creating a steadily-growing funding pool for others in the community.
Black returned to India in January to see the progress made by women who were part of her first microcredit efforts after the tsunami. She found the the village women hard at work creating paintings that they sold to retailers for the tourist market.
“It was really neat to see how innovative and forward-thinking they were,” she said. “When you’re in need, it’s amazing how creative you become.”
So far, Seven Bar is a very lean organization with only one full-time, unsalaried employee (Black), a handful of interns, a blue-chip executive committee and “a lot of love,” she said.
To ensure the charity’s long-term sustainability, Seven Bar also has a for-profit arm that creates cause marketing campaigns such as the Empowered By You panty line and a new collaboration with Agent Provocateur involving stockings with a ladder pattern — representing the “ladder out of poverty” that is their symbol.
Seven Bar is also planning another American lingerie show in Los Angeles next fall.
After finding new ways to approach poverty relief for more than a decade, Black — born in Colombia, raised in Miami, living in Dallas and working in New York — admits it’s hard to take a step back and appreciate what her organization has accomplished so far.
“It’s hard to see it from the stands,” she said. “I’ve worked so hard, but I feel like I have so much more to do.”