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The inaugural UK Lingerie Awards seemed like a timely idea when they were announced a couple of months ago. There’s been a tremendous explosion of creativity in the British lingerie industry over the past decade, fueled by an intensely competitive market and college programs that routinely turn out skilled and ambitious graduates. The big high street brands keep refreshing and expanding their offerings, and a vast number of fashion-forward indies and luxury labels are setting style trends around the world.

In short, there’s a lot to celebrate and a deep pool of talent in Britain worthy of recognition.

Imagine our surprise, then, when the short list for the Ukies was announced last week, identifying three finalists in each of 19 categories. Fully one-third of the finalists are non-British brands or multi-nationals with headquarters abroad, while a huge number of Britain’s most celebrated brands (and individuals) were simply shut out. (Here’s the list.)

According to Lingerie Insight, the magazine that created the awards, they are “the most important annual event in the British intimate apparel industry … [and] recognize the achievements of the companies and individuals that have excelled over the past 12 months in this most glamorous part of the fashion business.”

The awards, they say, will showcase “the leading lights from the British lingerie industry, including designers, wholesalers, agents, department store and web site buyers, and the best independent and nationwide retailers in the country.”

But when the Ukies (what else should we call them — the Brundies?) are handed out at a glamorous bunfest in September, don’t be surprised to see names like Calvin Klein, Maidenform, Armani and even Spanx walking off with the hardware for their contributions to “British” lingerie.

Even the top prize, Lingerie Brand of the Year, has German-based megabrand Triumph going up against Italian luxe label La Perla, with Curvy Kate as the only UK label on the list to act as defender of the realm.

And that’s only one of many problems with this initiative. The UK Lingerie Awards are deeply flawed, with its apparent good intentions undercut by disingenuous media hype, goofy eligibility rules, and some glaring conflict of interest.

Let’s break down the issues that should cause people to scratch their heads — and ask some tough questions:

  • 19 of 57 finalists are brands based outside of Britain, including many multi-nationals available worldwide. Names like Seafolly, La Perla, Wolford, Triumph, Emporio Armani, Calvin Klein and Maidenform‘s Flexees. The New York label 2(x)ist is up for best men’s underwear line in Britain — go figure. HOTmilk and Cake (both from New Zealand) are slugging it out for best maternity label, although the lovely UK brand Amoralia isn’t. Many of Britain’s growing number of eco-lingerie labels were left out to make room for France’s G=9.8.
  • Who didn’t make the list of finalists? Stella McCartney. Elle Macpherson. Ultimo. Theo Paphitis’s new luxury retail chain Boux Avenue. Marks & Spencer. ASOS. Topshop. Nancy Meyer. Mio Destino. And that’s just the start. (Bizarrely, Scottish entrepreneur Michelle Mone of Ultimo was awarded an OBE this year by the Queen for her contributions to Britain’s lingerie industry — but she didn’t make the cut for the Ukies.)
  • Numerous highly accomplished independent design labels are ignored. Damaris. Myriam Girard. Mint Siren. Fleur of England. Strumpet & Pink. And on and on and on.
  • Although there are many niche categories (swimwear, sportswear, maternity etc.), there’s no award for vintage labels or corset-makers. Does that mean Velda Lauder, Ayten Gasson, What Katie Did, Kiss Me Deadly and others like them are simply not considered part of the industry? (None of them made the finalists list.) Likewise, there’s no loungewear category, which excludes a clutch of British brands that really shine in this area.
  • Some names on the short list look like they were attempts to “find a place” for worthy brands. Thus, the endlessly creative Made By Niki finds herself going up against Spanx in the shapewear category. Agent Provocateur gets nominated for its stores but not its products or its wildly inventive marketing efforts. And Myla made the cut for its bridal line, but not the rest of its exceptional collections.
  • Four British brands that are either owned by or employ a member of the judging panel were chosen by the judging panel. Likewise, one of the awards’ sponsors made the short list too. Someone should explain that to Stella, Michelle and the others on the sidelines.
  • These really aren’t “UK” awards at all. As far as I can tell, every British label on the shortlist is from England.

The reason so many offshore brands are competing for British recognition is that the rules allow it. You don’t have to be British to be eligible for the Ukies, you just have to sell to the Brits through a “retail channel”. Anyone with a store, a website or a distribution channel qualifies. This policy undermines the awards’ goal of celebrating unique British talent, and it handicaps “local” labels that suddenly find themselves competing with the likes of La Perla and Lise Charmel for a homegrown prize.

In fact, given the mystifying eligibility criteria for the Ukies, we have to wonder why there aren’t more foreign brands on the short list, since you can buy just about anything in London. If Triumph made the list, why not Etam or Pleasure State or Simone Perele or Eres or Ritratti — all of which have “retail channels” there?

This paradox will prove even more interesting next year, when big-spending outsiders like Victoria’s Secret and Baci come to England and, thus, give British labels more to worry about and compete against.

Another major flaw in the awards setup is the process used to choose the finalists, which was, in a word, deceitful. Lingerie Insight published numerous articles encouraging readers to nominate or vote for their favorite brands, and urged British brands to launch social media campaigns to drum up popular support. (My Facebook news feed and Twitter feed was flooded last month with well-meaning UK labels asking me to “vote” for them.)

Unfortunately, the votes don’t really count. Both the short list of finalists and the eventual winners are hand-picked by the 7-member judging panel alone. Results of the “fan vote” campaign (which drew 5,000 entries) were shown to the judges who, in the words of the organizers, “may use [them] to see if the strength of public opinion chimes with their own views.”

Yikes! That’s like saying Simon Cowell will “consider” the fan voting on X Factor — and then pick the winner himself. After all, he’s the expert, right?

The Ukies are not, as Lingerie Insight says, “the Oscars of the British lingerie industry.” At the Oscars, the votes count.

(In comparison, the winner of the “fan vote” for the recent Triumph Inspiration Award earned a bonus point that was applied to her final judges’ score.)

The culprit responsible for all these problems is the awards organizer, Lingerie Insight, which has turned the event into a self-serving marketing platform designed to a) manufacture some “exclusive” news content; b) curry favor with their advertisers; c) inflate their own credentials (yes, they are on the judging panel); and d) breathlessly proclaim their dominance over their competitors, most notably Lingerie Buyer, the other lingerie industry magazine in the UK.

But sponsors, brands and industry people attending the Ukies gala in September might want to ask their host why other media outlets that focus on lingerie have been excluded from the promotional run-up to the event. Despite LI’s boast that “a PR campaign will make the UK Lingerie Awards a major event for consumer as well as trade press,” I’m still waiting for their first press release.

LI’s own website says the Ukies will be “a world-wide media event” with a publicity machine that encompasses the vast media landscape represented by Lingerie Insight magazine, LingerieInsight.com, the Lingerie Insight Daily News Alert, the Lingerie Insight Twitter account, and the Lingerie Insight Facebook page. In other words, you should expect to read about this branded marketing campaign in one place only.

The short list of finalists for the UK Lingerie Awards includes a lot of very deserving, and very British, labels. Who can argue with nominations for Bordelle, Lascivious, Atsuko Kudo and terrific newcomers like Obey My Demand and Nicole Gill? Likewise, the judging panel includes many of the British lingerie industry’s most esteemed names whose credentials (despite the ethical problem of nominating themselves) are beyond reproach.

But none of this is enough to give the Ukies true authenticity. These awards are in serious need of a reboot, and desperately need an arms-length organizing body that won’t turn the whole thing into one big self-serving advertorial.

Finally, one of the judges was quoted as saying that the UK Lingerie Awards are intended to “increase competitiveness” among British labels and thereby improve quality across the industry. But that seems unlikely in a market that is already ferociously competitive and marked by exceptional creativity.

Instead, the worst thing about the Ukies is that they could become a divisive element in an industry that is also known for the high degree of mutual support, admiration and collaboration among its workers and owners. Almost everyone in the industry has worked for other brands in the past, and retains loyalties and friendships that rise above the daily combat of the marketplace.

The first Ukie awards, which favor a select few and exclude many, can only tarnish that reputation.

Does Victoria’s Secret Really “Love Your Body”?
Posted by richard | July 18, 2011

The image above is the winning entry in the 2011 Love Your Body poster contest held by the National Organization for Women. It was created by college student Kyla Hollis of Colorado, and will be used in the NOW Foundation’s Love Your Body campaign to promote self-esteem in school-age girls.

The image below, which uses the same empowering, feel-good language, is something altogether different. It’s part of a summer marketing campaign by Victoria’s Secret to sell push-up bras.

In fact, there’s a sly double meaning in the VS campaign: the “body” in the slogan isn’t just your body, it’s their Body by Victoria® brand of bras. If you click the button that says “I ♥ My Body”, you’re telling the world you love VS too.

The NOW project, which we’ve written about before, is an important educational effort but it can appear puny in comparison to the unrelenting parade of advertising messages that girls are exposed to daily, and which can breed lifelong body-image issues, eating disorders and health problems. And ironically, despite the similarities in these two slogans, the NOW campaign was set up to counter the influence of brands like Victoria’s Secret, which promote highly idealized, and largely unattainable, standards of beauty to their eager customers.

If you take a closer look at the VS “I ♥ My Body” campaign, you’ll see there’s not really much to it. You click the Facebook button (and allow VS to post advertising messages on your wall!), then you are asked to browse through their Body collection of lingerie. There’s a contest you can enter to win a spa trip and, if you feel like it, you can post a comment on the VS wall to “tell the world” how you “love your body”. About 500 people have done so, with varying degrees of lucidity, occasional crudeness and a few self-loathing grumbles. That’s 500 out of Victoria’s Secret’s nearly 15 million FB followers.

Has Victoria’s Secret done anything wrong here? Not at all; it’s just a harmless marketing campaign. And that’s the problem.

At its best, it’s a feeble and perfunctory effort to promote a self-esteem message. At its worst, it’s a mildly cynical attempt to use self-empowerment language to piggyback on the more socially responsible efforts of health agencies, educators and other corporate citizens to promote healthier body image perspectives for women.

My question is, why isn’t Victoria’s Secret leading that campaign instead of coasting along in its wake? They have enormous resources, an incalculable influence on the lives of young women, and a tremendous vested interest in promoting healthy life choices among its consumer base.

And there are many, many precedents of similar companies that used their profile and riches to promote social change. Who can forget Anita Roddick and her Body Shop‘s aggressive campaigns against domestic violence? Or the soap company Dove‘s exceptional and inspiring “Campaign for Real Beauty”?

Of course, I should point out that Limited Brands, which owns Victoria’s Secret, is a generous corporation that plows millions into charities and community projects, and it has earned the respect and gratitude that comes with such exceptional philanthropy. But I’m not talking about giving, I’m talking about leadership. There’s a broader, more important role that Victoria’s Secret can play which, if pursued with the right amount of commitment, could literally change lives.

The “love your body” message is more than just a slogan or a marketing tie-in. It’s a critical issue affecting the lives of all young women today. With their appropriation of this message, Victoria’s Secret missed a golden opportunity to assert itself as a pro-active force in educating their customers.

It’s not asking too much to ask them to do more.

NOTES:

  • The image below is Lisa Sarasohn’s prize-winning poster entry in the “Open” category for the NOW poster contest. To learn more about NOW’s Love Your Body campaign, go here.
  • To learn more about the Canadian soapmaker Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, go here or here. There are numerous supporting videos on YouTube for the Dove project as well.
  • For a shocking and convincing look at body-image and self-loathing, rent the 2009 Australian movie I Am You (aka In Her Skin). Excellent, hard to watch, and completely true.
Is This America’s Creepiest Statue?
Posted by richard | July 17, 2011

If you’re heading to Lollapalooza or, better yet, the Pitchfork festival in Chicago this month, you’ll want to take a brief detour up Michigan Avenue to gape at the city’s newest — and cheesiest — tourist attraction.

A city realty company on Friday unveiled its 26-foot-high statue of Marilyn Monroe that replicates the famous billowy skirt scene from The Seven Year Itch. Unlike the movie version, however, the statue in Pioneer Court puts Marilyn’s lacey granny panties on display for everyone to see.

As you can see from the images below, the creation by artist Seward Johnson brings out the juvenile voyeur in spectators young and old. Seward’s Marilyn is almost certain to become the most photographed (and most frequently vandalized) public landmark in the windy city since that big shiny jellybean was installed over a decade ago.

The piece has taken a beating, however, from both art critics and social commentators who argue that giving folks (including children – see below) a chance to look up a woman’s dress is not healthy public policy, and not what was intended by the creation of the Magnificent Mile strip of public art installations.

Andrew Ritchie, in a widely circulated post from the Chicago Art Blog, had this to say:

“It’s creepy schlock from a fifth-rate sculptor that blights a first-rate public art collection. …  Sadly, the reduction of Monroe to a mere sexual object is exactly what may have contributed to her suicide.  Johnson seems not to realize this.”

Spokesmen for Zeller Realty, which owns and commissioned the statue, have been quoted as saying the Marilyn statue is “art that makes people think”, although there’s more giggling than thinking going on in the photos below.

If you absolutely MUST get a photo of yourself licking Marilyn’s legs or peeking up her dress, you’d better act fast. It’s inconceivable that this monstrosity will last very long before Rahm Emanuel or someone at city hall orders it removed. At the very least, someone will eventually realize that Marilyn’s iconic “subway moment” was shot in New York, and has no connection with Windy City at all.

Meet This Year’s TIA Design Winners!
Posted by richard | July 6, 2011

Your outfit is modeled by Lily Cole and photographed by Ellen von Unwerth. You land a job with a leading international fashion brand, which sells your first piece in boutiques around the world. And you start off with an extra €15,000 in your bank account.

Not a bad way to start your career as a lingerie designer, huh?

That’s what awaits Bogl&#225rka (Bogi) B&#243dis, a Hungarian design student who was named the winner tonight of the fourth annual Triumph Inspiration Award at a gala ceremony in Berlin.

Bodis’ entry (above), called Les Fleurs du Mal after the Beaudelaire poem of the same name, was chosen from national finalists representing 37 countries around the world.

And it marks another coup for design students from Eastern Europe: last year, Bulgaria’s entry won the TIA competition, while Turkey and Romania placed second and third, respectively, this year.

“Les Fleurs du Mal”, Bogl&#225rka B&#243dis, Hungary

Bodis said in her submission to the TIA panel that her string-and-fringe bodysuit was meant to celebrate “the eternal beauty and sensuality of the female body.”

Contestants were asked to base their submissions on the general theme, “125 years of Celebrating Women”, an acknowledgment of Triumph’s 125 years in the business. A six-member jury that included German photography legend Von Unwerth, UK actress Lily Cole, supermodel Helena Christensen, Chinese pop star Coco Lee, Triumph’s creative director Jos Berry, and Anita Tillmann, founder of the Berlin Fashion Fair “Premium”.

The 37 finalists, which we previewed earlier, showed a remarkable range of visions from today’s young lingerie designers. The second-place winner, Nurten Yuksel of Turkey, named her winged creation Hezarfen after legendary 17th Century Turkish aviator as a way of inspiring women.

The third-place winner, Diana Bobina of Romania, created a unique geometric body inspired by Romanian religious paintings and decorated with interchangeable triangles to allow the wear to create their own pattern.

“Hezarfen”, TURKEY, 2nd Place
“Ava 1-2-3-6″, ROMANIA, 3rd Place
The Luckiest Girl In The World
Posted by richard | June 29, 2011

The girls in Ann He‘s photoshoots are dreamy and distracted, as though they are falling in love for the first time. Not with boys, but with themselves.

They are young people in the process of defining and discovering themselves, and their outfits — right down to those vintage briefs and lace tunics — are an essential part of it all.

All this could be said too of Ann He, who is barely beginning to explore her newfound identity as an in-demand fashion photographer. So far this year she’s done shoots for Elle Girl Korea, Blanket, Wallpaper and several other magazines, and landed a job at Nike. This week she’s in New York for Seventeen‘s “Pretty Amazing” contest — not as the magazine’s fotog, but as a contestant.

Yes, the precocious and prodigously talented Dallas native is still only 16.

Ann picked up a camera for the first time just three years ago and shot her first test with a professional model a year ago. She’s been attracting attention ever since, not just for the exquisite styling of her antebellum dreamscapes, but for her stirring personal story.

As she explains bluntly in her blog Dolor Haze, Ann as a youngster was an obsessive perfectionist — a trait that plunged her into eating disorders and crippling body image issues when she hit puberty. She hit bottom (so young!) with a five-week stay in hospital, “watching my life waste away.”

Photography became Ann’s liberation and “an escape from the rigid standards and negativity. … Photography was creation, expression, freedom. There was no one to tell me that it was wrong.”

As you can see below, Ann poured her soul into her new passion, finding inspiration in numerous photography masters and in wispy vintage fashions. And she’s wise enough to know that she has a lesson to share with other girls.

“I don’t photograph solely for the sake of fashion but also with the hope to inspire my generation to look past their immediate lives,” she says in a video posted on her website.

Ann is currently one of five finalists in the contest that will choose one of Seventeen‘s accomplished young readers to appear on the magazine’s cover. Not a bad gig for someone who, like many girls her age, once looked in the mirror and felt only shame.

Today, she says, “I [keep] telling myself, I’m dreaming, I’m dreaming. I feel like the luckiest girl in the world.”

You can learn more and vote for her on Seventeen‘s Facebook page.

The images below are from Ann’s portfolio which you can view on her site. My favorite is the final shot, a blurred image of a young model in a southern graveyard. A vision of youth, and style, that moves so quickly you’ll miss it if you blink.

From “Runaways”

From “Oui Oui Marie”

From “Ghost Whisperer”

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