Debenhams’ head of design for lingerie tells Ana Santi how a passion for shoes at art college led to her following a career in lingerie.
What inspired you to become a lingerie designer?
I wanted to design footwear but my tutors at art college identified that I had a textile mindset and I realised I was too restricted in footwear. I had an instinct for intricacy and detail combined with fit and technology.
So you could say I got into knickers through shoes. I have never been into big garments but my role model was my aunt who was an amazing seamstress. I remember going to Topshop with her and seeing a dress I loved. She took me to John Lewis to buy the fabric and by that evening the dress was made.
Where did you work after art college?
I studied fashion and textile at De Montfort University in Leicester and then went to work for [lingerie manufacturer] Courtaulds, where I learned about pattern cutting, garment production and cash flow – it stood me in good stead. Then I set up my own firm – Lust Design – which was a product and development service for retailers and brands including Tesco, Playtex and Heidi Klein.
What are you up to at Debenhams?
One of the reasons I came to Debenhams is because you can do so much on the design front. The Designers at Debenhams range is such a design-driven product. Technology and embellishment go hand in hand. We are constantly evolving the shapes and silhouettes that our customers like with an emphasis on them. The benefit of working in a retail environment is that you are immersed in the fashion world, where trends are so important. You have to keep everything contemporary.
Where does your inspiration come from?
I am inspired by the couturiers of the early 20th century, such as Balenciaga and Madeleine Vionnet. It was an amazing period where clothes were starting to look modern but still had an element of couture.
What are the main issues facing the lingerie industry at the moment?
Fit is still the biggest issue at the moment. More than 60% of our bra sales are from D-plus bras. Women are getting bigger and anecdotal evidence says our diets are making our bodies change shape. We are so much more aware of fit now. But fit creates one of the biggest opportunities for brands and retailers. On the back of it, shape is coming back to the fore, with the industry looking at a variety of shapes from a trend point of view, like the balconette or the padded bra. Shape is key in briefs too – it’s about different knickers for different outfits.
How has the industry evolved since you started out?
The industry has changed so much – I remember when there was manufacturing in the UK. The number of retailers that sell lingerie has grown from the likes of Next, Bhs and Marks & Spencer to shops such as Primark and H&M. There’s also been an explosion of designers such as D&G and Sonia Rykiel doing lingerie too. The question is, can they do it well? Creatively, the ranges are beautiful, but in terms of commerciality, I think they are doing it for the cachet.
Has the lingerie industry been hit by the financial crisis?
Lingerie holds up well in tough economic conditions because it is a small purchase. You need bras and you can treat yourself without spending too much.
Caroline Greenslade is head of design for lingerie at Debenhams
Who is your fashion icon and why?
I have two. Firstly, Madeleine Vionnet (pictured), because she was a woman running her own business at the turn of the 20th century, and the artistry involved in her work is amazing. Secondly, Kylie Minogue, as I grew up watching her. She is a great role model, who has reinvented herself and isn’t afraid to get out there and have a go at something new.
Madeleine Vionnet was born in 1876 in France. Trained as a seamstress, she set up her own fashion house in 1912 called Vionnet, which grew to employ more than 1,000 seamstresses. In the 1920s she introduced the bias cut to the fashion industry, creating a sleek and flattering body-skimming look that was to be her legacy. In addition to introducing the bias cut, the designer was best known for her elegant Grecian-style dresses and clothes that accentuated the female form. With her bias cut trademark, Vionnet was a dominant force in the 1930s, dressing stars such as Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo.