No longer the preserve of saucy seaside postcards or racks of grey bloomers in Marks & Spencer, underwear has now taken its place alongside snigger-free fashion as the basis for a profitable business.
Respectability has bred a mushrooming public demand for lingerie, although as Emma Cheevers, one half of State of Undress, admits, more traditional attitudes still exist.
“My parents would like me to go to law school tomorrow – they would send a helicopter over to take me back!” says the Canadian designer. “My family is supportive, but I think it’s hard to see your highly-educated child say ‘No, I’m not going to do that, I’m going to do this’ and have no firm source of money coming in.
“Also, when people ask my parents what I do, they have to say, ‘Oh, she owns a knicker company.’ That element can be hard.”
Emma founded State of Undress with fellow St. Martin’s student Alexandra Suhner upon graduation. Even though the two both hailed from the same area of Vancouver, their paths only crossed at the London college.
Their mutual love of fashion blossomed rapidly into State of Undress, purveyor of high-quality silk lingerie that draws its inspiration from 1940s film star glamour.
“I’m a long-time collector of lingerie – I remember my mum wandering around in the 70s in negligees, I thought it was so glamorous and I had them in my dressing-up trunks,” Emma recalls.
“We love lingerie but it is also desperately cheap to start up in. Our first collection cost £1,500 in total, whereas to start a womanswear or menswear collection would cost about £10,000. We started it on a thong!
“After we finished our degrees, I was working for a catwalk photographer and Alex was freelancing for Burberry. Both of us were exhausted from fashion week and I said that I was going home to open a lingerie company like Agent Provocateur, because there was nothing like that in Canada.
“But she said ‘No, don’t do that, we can start one here.’ Within three weeks we had all the styles and factories, it was all very rushed. We never really wanted out own businesses, it was an accidental thing. I always wanted to work for other people and have a nice safe job!
“This company is like a lovechild – we started it on a whim and we never realised how hard it would be but how enjoyable it would be at the same time.”
Using their contacts and Emma’s experience as a fashion journalist, the duo sent out their new products to test levels of interest. They were to be pleasantly surprised.
“We were very lucky, I didn’t even call people, I just sent out packs and they called me,” Emma says. “We offer something something a bit different, we are really conscious of that.
“Because I used to be a fashion journalist, I know what’s going to be hot, so we can design things that are press-worth and attention grabbing, while still having a basic collection that works well for people who want everyday lingerie.”
Emma maintains she has a good relationship with Alex, although, like many partnerships, the two are prone to clashing.
“We work together very well, but we have our bad days,” she says. “We are very different people – she’s very avant garde and I’m much more commercial about things.
“We go to battle over shapes and colours – we fight over them at the start of each season, we won’t talk to each other for a few days because we’re so passionate about it.
“But after about two-and-a-half years working together we’ve figured out how not to press each other’s buttons.
“You can often get just one person’s vision, particularly in fashion, What’s good about our business is that it’s not a one-trick pony – it wouldn’t be as good without both our influences.”
State of Undress’ reputation has grown over the last two years to the extent where they now have 12 stockists in various countries, from Fortnum & Mason in London to Denmark’s largest department store.
Emma admits that finding finance was a struggle in the early days, with the business suffering from department stores’ insistence on large volumes of products – something that Emma and Alex simply couldn’t afford.
Fortunes have improved radically since then – with a new range set to come out in September, favourable press reviews and impending business angel investment, State of Undress can afford to plan for large sales across the globe.
“Lingerie is a growth market, it’s the new accessory, like bags,” says Emma.
“British women spend more on lingerie than anyone else – we are big spenders, we know what we want, we have a wardrobe full of lingerie and we don’t have M&S cotton knickers any more.”