The Australian lace and lingerie trade.
A glamorous trade. A sunset trade.
Shortly after joining the lingerie & lace business in the summer 1989, I was introduced to two veterans of the trade.
The first was ‘Rhino’ from the textile city of Calais in the North of France. A former French foreign-legionnaire, he told tales of international travel, of glamorous lingerie exhibitions and of the opportunities for large sales commissions. The other lace veteran of the trade was a local lace buyer, who warned that in Australia the lingerie industry was entering its ‘sunset’ phase and would soon be gone.
This then is the true* story of lingerie and lace in the 90’s and 00’s and of one man’s journey through it trying to achieve the goal of a large international lace order. I was young, had a family to support and a licence to travel with a suitcase full of lace and women’s underwear.
What could possibly go wrong?
- The Laceman
(* 95% true.)
The life and times (and needle pricks) of a visionary.
Upon first encountering ‘The Laceman’ in the design department of a bra company’s office,
I realised this was no typical man. He was indeed a man of great integrity, and of lace. From when I first saw him with a piece of 78-bar jacquardtronic raschel lace looped across both hands and with his mind a picture of concentration, his nature was clear.
As one of the few who were able to stretch and hold lace under a steady 4.2 newtons of elongation pressure, his skills were rare and those lucky enough to glimpse him working with lace were fortunate. There have been others; prophets, soothsayers and horse-whisperers, but rarely did any man connect so completely with their subject as he.
The Laceman and I became friends over time and he rejected offers of greater fame and wealth to remain close to laces which were his calling and his life’s work. With each woman he met in his lacey world, he could see past the bland distraction of her clothes and knew immediately, intimately even, what her bust size was, if her bra was well fitting, and if she was wearing an under-garment sewn from a fine quality lace. Such was his deep calling to lace and lingerie that it was never far from his mind.
I am proud to call him my lacey friend.
With eternal respect.
- The Embroideryman.
In small business, work life and home life often overlap, and so it happened on this day that my children and mannequins became entangled. Whilst collecting Chris from school after a lingerie sales-meeting, our little Renault was found to be too full for him to find an empty seat in. Finding the car to be too tightly crammed with French lace ranges, lingerie garments and mannequins, we needed to repack it at the school gate in order to make room for him amongst our many molded plastic friends.
So full was the car, with many work samples tightly packed into it, that the glove box was crammed with corsets, a booster bra swung loosely from the rear-view mirror and the cup holders both contained colourful liquid dye samples. Whilst other cars may have had turbos, our car was known as the one with boosters. On the rear parcel tray rested a pair of very firm legs in rather dusty stockings and several right arms with missing hands covered the carpeted floor spaces.
As Chris watched apprehensively from the curb, with his school bag hanging heavily from his shoulder and his ear-buds swinging noisily at his side, several mannequins were removed from the car and carefully dismantled on the side of the road. Once taken apart, their rigid legs were placed onto the car roof temporarily and their torsos and arms were then expertly intertwined into a neat pile on the rear seat.
“I prefer it when mum picks me up,” Chris sighed, wishing me to hurry along before other students left the school grounds and stumbled onto our plastic body part collection.
“Nearly finished,” I called to him eagerly, “so jump in quickly, hop into the front seat and I’ll pack the girls’ legs in around you.”
Chris slouched low in the passenger seat, determined not to be seen by others whilst I filled all the available space around him with firm long legs, garment hangers and the occasional plastic hand. We drove away from the school gates unaware that one leg had fallen into the gutter, rolled under the car out of sight and had caused quite a stir amongst the school mums later when it was crushed by a wheel of the school bus.
“Don’t look back, Chris.” I reminded him as we sped off up the hill. “Whenever you’re in the lace-car, never look back.”
“It’s not very cool dad,” he said later as we drove home, “all this stuff of yours looks absurd, and, there is a plastic foot somewhere around here that’s poking me in the ribs every time you change gear.”
“It will make you tough though Chris, the lace business will make you tough,” I reassured him between lane changes. “All of this,” I added whilst gesturing around the car and all my work gear, “though you don’t appreciate it now, it’ll be good for you in the long run.”
We drove along different streets towards home for a while, the eleven and a half of us, and mostly there was silence between us as my mind was elsewhere. I knew that Chris was a tough kid and was not likely to suffer bullying due to his family’s unusual business. He was a fourth generation textile-man and would grow up to be as tough as an old polyester guipure collar. Lace was in his blood ... and, some was by now probably also in his school bag.
On this particular day, a pleasantly warm one, I had earlier run a lengthy sales meeting where several new French lace collections had been keenly presented to some high-end lingerie brands for the first time that season. My favourite good-luck mannequin ‘Princess Buttercup’ had also joined me for the round trip in the car and the day’s positive meeting. Princess Buttercup was our office’s second longest serving staff member, having entered the industry in the early 90’s, around the same time that Lycra lace was invented. Together she and I had been through countless ups and downs in the fashion trade’s erratic business cycles, always working through the successive lingerie seasons as a close team, with me gradually going grey and she never changing. Princess Buttercup was consistently a size 12-B. Age did not weary her and nor did working life tire her.
Having no hair of her own, being neither a natural blonde nor a bottle-brunette, Princess Buttercup preferred then to forego a wig for herself and chose to wear silk scarves on her smooth head for any occasion or outing. These silk scarves were attached with double-sided Hollywood tape and the occasional staple. Ever since she and I had first met in a laneway fashion store downtown, she had always been a woman who loved the latest fashions, and she remained to this day always very fashion-forward, dressing often a season or two ahead of her time.
Buttercup owned a wide range of silk and cashmere scarves, and all were stored neatly in the second and third drawers of her desk. Staff would fuss about her and help her with styling as she chose different scarf patterns, colours and styles to match her various outfits for our different meetings.
A few years ago she once also suffered a dramatic fall when we tried to attach some fresh sticky tape to her forehead for a sales meeting and she went off balance. It was not a public catwalk fall fortunately though, as that would have been far more embarrassing for her due to the crowd watching, but in any case that unexpected tumble had left her quite visibly scarred with both a chip on her upper lip and also a large piece of her left ear missing. Being non-discriminatory employers though, we happily accepted this more grungy new look of hers and she continued to work for us as our in-house model. Some caring staff reminded us on occasion also, and re-assured Princess Buttercup too, that beauty is on the inside. Even with those who are plastic models on the outside.
The end of summer was steadily approaching at this time of year also, and we were now coming close to the end of January. Australian fashion designers and buyers were returning from their annual holidays and were slowly readying themselves for the new season ahead, the season of Spring/Summer fashion which would eventually be launched one year from now. Our own in-house sales-order book on which commissions were earnt, had also been re-set to zero for the start of this new calendar year and all manner of business opportunities and lacey trade possibilities lay ahead.
What would the new season bring?
Would corded & clipped Chantilly lace be the key fashion story for this coming season?
Or, would colour-change embroidery be the biggest selling fashion item in the coming Spring/Summer ranges?
Would the high-end buyers and High-street retailers want risky and avant-guard styles to promote in their catalogues this season? Or, would they seek to stave of new fashion trends and stick with their tried and true styles for another sales-quarter?
There was much to consider at the start of and also during the rolling out of every fashion season, and much about it would remain unknown up until the moment that the development work had been finished and final sales figures were studied and for the season.
As I sat silently at the wheel, waiting for a traffic light to turn to green, I pondered also about a recurring thought I’d been having. Would just women buy and wear lacey bras this season? Or, would bras suddenly catch on with men now also?
Seen before me now as I sat motionless in my car, gazing directly ahead, was a portly man crossing the road slowly at this intersection. He was someone who had, through some means, managed to grow quite large in the chest. Compared to many small breasted women he could be described as having relatively large breasts and I contemplated then, again, that if all men like him would take to seeking garment support for their ample chests, it would quickly double the market size of bras, and so perhaps also of lace. Men in bras; this was quite an exciting notion for some and especially so for lacemen. For this manly chance of doubled lace sales though, I decided once more not to wait by the phone just yet.
No-one ever really knew what the coming season would present in any case; trend boards were constantly being collated and re-hashed all across the world by the international market leaders and the key seasonal looks were still being revised and developed by trend-setting companies and their teams of colourists and designers.
I didn’t mind personally what the next lingerie fashion trend was to be as I believed that by now we had signed enough contracts to become the Australian agent for the widest possible variety of material suppliers and that we had all possible textile options on range in our sales office. Whatever the buyers wanted to source for their garments, be it lace from France or Colombia, or embroidery from Austria or Thailand, we had them all on offer in our collections from the world’s finest and most extensive lace and embroidery houses, all prepared for display and ready to show to clients. Anything we didn’t have existing on range we could, and eagerly would, develop in our design room. Exceptions to this were ivory corset bones, snake-skin bra straps and baby-seal bra-cup fur. No-one likes to have red paint thrown over them at work by angry animal activists, least of all Princess Buttercup.
Recently several of my buyers had begun exporting their lingerie to larger off-shore markets. This added new buyers and sales-growth opportunities to their business plans, and thus also, indirectly, to mine. Australia itself was already an attractively sized market of over twenty million people, which the trade counted as ten million lingerie wearing women, or the equal of twenty million breasts. The trade figures still officially excluded men with man-boobs from being viewed as potential lingerie consumers, since, no matter how big they got, Australian man boobs were unlikely ever to be squeezed into a lacey bra. Officially at least.
Each (female) breast needs about 50 cm of a standard 23cm wide lace to support, decorate and cover it, so the sales potential in Australia for lace is ten million metres per annum, assuming each lady bought on average one lacey bra per year. Mentally then, for me, this information presented itself as being a huge lacey-commission possibility, fuelled further also by knowledge of the increasing use of lace in womens’ briefs. The one exception to this happy planning of increased lace-sales is the possibility of market share growth of the garment style known as the ‘G-string’. The G-string is historically the natural enemy of the Laceman and as its name suggests, so small is the usage of lace in a G-string garment that a seasoned Laceman will immediately run away upon sighting one.
With some Australian bra-manufacturers now beginning to export to the UK and USA, a bigger lace market could also now be tapped. All the sugary Cola, greasy hamburgers and deep-fried chicken consumed by American women over recent decades has resulted in them now having substantially bigger breasts that need additional lace coverage and support. The more fried chicken breasts they ate, the bigger their own breasts got, albeit without the feathers. So more chicken breasts begat bigger human breasts and suddenly fried chicken consumption had become a statistical mainstay of my business plan.
Whilst in the past we would sell just 50cm of lace per breast, in more recent times our sales forecast for the lace meterage needed to cover the modern day chicken-enhanced human breast was calculated at 60 cm, and sometimes even up to 70-80 cm, per breast. Business was looking perky.
“Are you thinking about big American boobs again dad?” Chris asked. “You know I’m going to need therapy for this one day. Please stop muttering aloud when you’re thinking about your laces, the chickens and all those images of breasts that you carry around in your mind.”
“Sure, no problem,” I replied as I glanced over towards him in the passenger seat. He was by now completely buried under plastic thighs and I could barely see him. A dislodged foot with painted pink toe nails was further shielding his face from my view.
In my own way, I knew that I saw the world through lacey glasses. Whilst estate agents drive about their city looking at houses and wondering what selling price and commission they could achieve for them, I drove around town thinking about lace, fried chicken and bras, and how to get more women to buy ever more of them. It was a lonely lacey road for one man to travel alone. Even, or especially, with Chris riding alongside and gagging my reverie.
We drove on and the little Renault skipped along the darkening streets towards home while Chris dozed and I contemplated the fashion calendar and the sales season ahead. Nearing home, we passed by a fast-food chicken outlet with a drive-through lane. Slowing down then through the gears I turned off the street and we stopped at the speaker system where food orders are placed.
“What would you like sir?” the young voice asked through the speaker system.
“Nothing to eat actually” I replied, “I just wanted to stop by and say thanks.”