Dress diary – ‘Violente’ corset and tutu

This post is a dress diary for my competition entry into the Foundations Revealed 2017 competition. There’s a lot of rambling about the construction methods and it’s very picture heavy.

So there’s an incredible website called Foundations Revealed that is essentially a treasure trove of corset and underpinning-making know-how. I’ve been a member for around 4 years now and I’ll never cease to be amazed by the incredible wealth of knowledge and inspiration that it offers. Every year they run a corset making competition; you can see my 2015 and 2016 entries here. I’ve been quite fortunate so far in that the ‘themes’ have aligned with projects I’d already happened to make; this year, I had no such luck.

The theme for 2017 is ‘ballet’, and it’s a broad umbrella of inspiration. Last week I noticed that my sewing schedule had freed up a bit and that I had always wanted to make a tutu… So of course I decided it would be sensible to spend the next week panic sewing a full couture outfit.

Tiny scribbled sketch on the back of an envelope. Drawing is not my forte so most of the time I just keep designs in my head. Photo by Karolina Laskowska
Tiny scribbled sketch on the back of an envelope. Drawing is not my forte so most of the time I just keep designs in my head.
Photo by Karolina Laskowska

It’s not an entirely uncommon occurrence for me to start ridiculous projects like this on a whim. Sometimes I get a peculiar drive to just create something, and it does mean that these sorts of designs are rarely actually planned out. At most, I will scribble a small sketch on the back of an envelope (as in this case), and then try to work out which bits in my fabric cupboard can be used (I almost never buy new fabric specially for a project… I just hoard things until they become relevant).  Hence, it was a roll of red silk tulle, a couple of metres of cream silk duchesse, white bobbinet tulle and white coutil that formed the basis of  this design.

The inspiration for this piece is the fairy Violente from the Sleeping Beauty ballet. Sweet Nothings informed me that this particular character should be smiling with disdain at everyone, and that she gifts the princess ‘A Forceful and Commanding Presence’. I mean, what’s not to like? Researching the ballet meant falling into a YouTube hole of incredible dancing and stunning costumes. The opulence and lushness of colour was giving me a lot of ideas on where to take this piece, even if I wouldn’t be faithfully replicating an existing costume.

Interior of the tutu mid-construction Photo by Karolina Laskowska
Interior of the tutu mid-construction
Photo by Karolina Laskowska
All the tulle ruffles!  Photo by Karolina Laskowska
All the tulle ruffles!
Photo by Karolina Laskowska

It was actually the tutu that I started first. From having watched a couple of videos over the last few years, I had an inkling of how tutus were constructed but not any formal knowledge. So of course  I jumped in headfirst and made it up as I went along. This mostly involved cutting a knicker shape in silk, cutting various sized strips of silk tulle, ruffling the tulle and then stitching it onto the knicker. Longer layers at the top, with a lace trim on the top layer, getting shorter and denser further down to support the skirt on top.

Tutu with the hoop inserted - quite a peculiar shape so this was quickly cut out. Photo by Karolina Laskowska
Tutu with the hoop inserted – quite a peculiar shape so this was quickly cut out.
Photo by Karolina Laskowska

At one point I sewed channels into the tulle layers for wire supports to be added, but it made the skirt a rather peculiar shape, so I’ll be saving that technique for when I attempt a ‘proper’ pancake tutu rather than a romantic one (and note to self – silk tulle is definitely too light for that). The knicker base I gave a cheeky lingerie twist to: the back of it is ouvert and buttoned up with silk loops and contrast covered buttons. They were constructed as with other lingerie, with plush elastic at the legs and waist (and good god it is difficult to sew that with all those tulle ruffles attached).  Finally, the join between the waistband and skirt was hand embellished with organically placed lace appliqué – not that you can see it when the corset is worn, but these details matter to me!

Button details on the tutu - yes it extends *all* the way down! Photo by Karolina Laskowska
Button details on the tutu – yes it extends *all* the way down!
Photo by Karolina Laskowska

I decided that the corset in question would be a cupped corset. It was fairly obvious to me that I should try to put a lingerie sway onto this project, given that it’s my specialism. Bra cups are particularly tricky to insert into corsets, given the extra bulk and different ways that tension is exerted onto the body.  My 2016 competition entry was also a cupped corset, but I wanted to attempt a different shape and refine the fit even further this year.

The first thing I did was to tone down the bright white of the coutil and cotton bobbinet. The white was just too obvious, and I wanted something softer like the cream silk. I boiled them in used tea leaves for a couple of hours until they’d absorbed a lovely subtle teastain.

Corset pattern. Photo by Karolina Laskowska
Corset pattern.
Photo by Karolina Laskowska
Cup pattern Photo by Karolina Laskowska
Cup pattern
Photo by Karolina Laskowska

Then came the corset patterning.  The main fit is based on this series of corsets from my Summer 2016 mini collection, but tightened up slightly (I have a terrible habit of not toiling personal projects!).  There are 6 panels per side which gives a nice distribution of tension to the flexible bobbinet without too much strain. This number of panels also makes it possible to give a dramatic shape without risking damage to the fabric. I wanted a very tight, nipped waist to this corset, with a lovely rounded hip and rib (the finished piece has a 18.5″ waist with a 15.5″ hipspring). The cups are quite complex, with 6 panel pieces each.  A foam liner gives structure, whilst the silk sling gives a base for the lace cap sleeves.

Corset base exterior, mid-construction Photo by Karolina Laskowska
Corset base exterior, mid-construction
Photo by Karolina Laskowska
Corset base interior, mid-construction Photo by Karolina Laskowska
Corset base interior, mid-construction
Photo by Karolina Laskowska
Bra cups mid-construction Photo by Karolina Laskowska
Bra cups mid-construction
Photo by Karolina Laskowska

Sewing together the base of the corset wasn’t particularly complex. I use a light twill tape for the bone channels, sandwiching the bones underneath the fabric seam allowance. Twill tape is my preferred bone channel on bobbinet as it isn’t particularly bulky, and makes the insertion of cups easier.  After the cups were inserted, the seam was taped over with a plush wire casing, half top stitched and then hand tacked down for a clean exterior finish. The bones are all either 5mm spiral steels or flat steels.  Finally, the cream silk binding was stitched on and hand finished, and gold 5mm eyelets were inserted. With all the base construction out of the way, it was time for the fun bit!

Cups pinned into a partially constructed corset base, lace draped for sleeve detail placement Photo by Karolina Laskowska
Cups pinned into a partially constructed corset base, lace draped for sleeve detail placement
Photo by Karolina Laskowska
Base construction complete. Unfortunately bobbinet can be a bit deceptive when it comes to garment shape - it collapses in on itself rather than showing curves. Photo by Karolina Laskowska
Base construction complete. Unfortunately bobbinet can be a bit deceptive when it comes to garment shape – it collapses in on itself rather than showing curves.
Photo by Karolina Laskowska
Once eyelets were inserted I could finally test the fit. I was rather relieved at how well it fit without toiling - only a minor tweak was needed to shorten the bra shoulder straps for adequate cup tension. Photo by Karolina Laskowska
Once eyelets were inserted I could finally test the fit. I was rather relieved at how well it fit without toiling – only a minor tweak was needed to shorten the bra shoulder straps for adequate cup tension.
Photo by Karolina Laskowska

Embellishment is the most exciting part of any project for me: it’s what transforms a garment from just nice into spectacular. The vision that I had for this piece was of delicate French lace gracefully and symmetrically trailing across the corset body, encrusted with bold and sparkling jewels.

Being impatient and playing with lace placement before the corset was even sewn together (the cups are just pinned in here). Photo by Karolina Laskowska
Being impatient and playing with lace placement before the corset was even sewn together (the cups are just pinned in here).
Photo by Karolina Laskowska
After the first day of lace stitching, with a completed tutu to check the overall silhouette. Photo by Karolina Laskowska
After the first day of lace stitching, with a completed tutu to check the overall silhouette.
Photo by Karolina Laskowska
At the end of the second day of lace stitching. Photo by Karolina Laskowska
At the end of the second day of lace stitching.
Photo by Karolina Laskowska

The lace proved easy enough to work with: although the cutting and hand stitching takes hours (seriously, there’s easily around 15 hours of laces stitching in this outfit), placing it is a relatively organic and flowing process. Nothing pre-planned, just allowing the lace to be arranged into the most aesthetically pleasing manner. I used two types of lace in this piece in subtly different shades of red. One was a galloon that I’d held in my stash for nearly a year (clearly waiting for the perfect project), and the other… was a flounce trim that I cut from the hem of an Alexander McQueen gown. Before the pitchforks come out, the gown needed shortening anyway!

The ill-fated Swarovskis sewn on at 2am. The subsequent removal damaged the silk slightly underneath which was then covered with more lace appliqué. At the end of the second day of lace stitching. Photo by Karolina Laskowska
The ill-fated Swarovskis sewn on at 2am. The subsequent removal damaged the silk slightly underneath which was then covered with more lace appliqué.

Photo by Karolina Laskowska

After several days of stitching, I was getting to a near-satisfactory stage with the lace appliqué. I started to think about how to bring the sparkles into this piece, because all the best ballet costumes are sparkly. I’d purchased a number of Swarovski crystals in the Light Siam shade in large quantities, when disaster struck: no matter how I arranged them, they did not look good. I stitched some down at 2am one night and the next day was so disgusted I tore them off and damaged the silk underneath with the needle holes. Cue, covering it up with lace.

Red crystal placement 1 Photo by Karolina Laskowska
Red crystal placement 1
Photo by Karolina Laskowska
Red crystal placement 2 Photo by Karolina Laskowska
Red crystal placement 2
Photo by Karolina Laskowska

This is when panic started to set in. The corset didn’t feel finished with just lace, but the red crystals just looked wrong! So I started to try everything in my stash.

Clear crystals – too white, too bright, too many different shapes.

Clear crystal placement Photo by Karolina Laskowska
Clear crystal placement
Photo by Karolina Laskowska

Amber crystals – only one scale, looked odd.

Amber crystal placement Photo by Karolina Laskowska
Amber crystal placement
Photo by Karolina Laskowska

Crystals ripped off a Damaris basque – better, but still not good enough. Not worth sewing on, as lace alone still looked better.

Damaris basque, pre-crystal-pillaging Photo by Karolina Laskowska
Damaris basque, pre-crystal-pillaging
Photo by Karolina Laskowska
Multi-coloured crystal placement Photo by Karolina Laskowska
Multi-coloured crystal placement
Photo by Karolina Laskowska

At this stage, my patient friends on facebook told me to leave the corset alone for a bit and go and do other things. It was sensible advice.

Violente Corset by Karolina Laskowska
Violente Corset by Karolina Laskowska

Thankfully, in the time away from the corset, one of my other crystal orders had turned up with red in the perfect scale: tiny and in metal settings. They’re subtle and delicate enough to feel organically part of the lace, with only a few pear drop crystals to accent the branch motifs of the lace. After another full day of sewing, I got the corset to a stage that I was finally happy with.

I was hoping to add a final couple of large scale crystals that have sadly not yet arrived in the post – fingers crossed they will turn up before the photoshoot tomorrow! Even if they don’t, I am pretty damn happy with how this outfit has turned out, and it will frankly serve me right not planning ahead enough with postal times.

Wish me luck with the photoshoot and the competition, I’ll be sure to share more and better photos soon!

Karolina xx

Lingerie Secret Santa 2016

It’s pretty terrible that I haven’t updated this blog in nearly 8 months, but there has been a lot going on in the meantime. So I’m reviving it for a rather excellent cause: 2016’s rendition of the Lingerie Secret Santa!

Lingerie Santa Pangolin, apparently now the Secret Santa Mascot! Illustrated by the wonderful Marianne Faulkner
Lingerie Santa Pangolin, apparently now the Secret Santa Mascot! Illustrated by the wonderful Marianne Faulkner

The Lingerie Secret Santa was started by me a few years ago, on the line of thought that the run up to Christmas is a hideously busy time of year for most indie lingerie designers and it would be nice to get a treat in that time.  So it’s now become a bit of a tradition that every year, a handful of knicker designers are wrangled together and paired up as best as possible to all bring each other some Christmas cheer! You can read my posts about the 2015 and 2014 swaps here.

Custom lingerie set by Karolina Laskowska, designed for the Lingerie Secret Santa 2016
Custom lingerie set by Karolina Laskowska, designed for the Lingerie Secret Santa 2016

This year I’ve been rather snowed under with work, so I only just made the holiday posting deadlines with my gift (hence the photos taken with my phone rather than a decent camera). Nevertheless, it’s something I’m pretty damn pleased with: a custom set comprising of a nursing bra and two knicker options, designed with adjustability and luxe comfort in mind for a new mum.

Cup detail. Custom lingerie set by Karolina Laskowska, designed for the Lingerie Secret Santa 2016
Cup detail. Custom lingerie set by Karolina Laskowska, designed for the Lingerie Secret Santa 2016

The main fabrics used are a cotton bobbinet tulle (for breathability), French leavers lace (with a small percentage of elastane, to allow for a flexible fit in line with the body’s changing needs) and a little sandwashed silk for incomparably luxurious softness.

Custom lingerie set by Karolina Laskowska, designed for the Lingerie Secret Santa 2016
Custom lingerie set by Karolina Laskowska, designed for the Lingerie Secret Santa 2016

Gold plated components allow the cups to be unclipped, and my signature adjustable bra band means that the garment’s fit can be changed according to comfort needs. The bra presented its own technical challenges, but I love how it turned out and I hope that its new owner does too!

Custom lingerie set by Karolina Laskowska, designed for the Lingerie Secret Santa 2016
Custom lingerie set by Karolina Laskowska, designed for the Lingerie Secret Santa 2016

I’ve yet to receive my gift from the swap, but rest assured that I will be shouting about it everywhere once it arrives.  In the meantime, I highly recommend checking out the other brands taking part in the swap for lots of lingerie gorgeousness:

Abigail Greydanus
All Undone
Alma Robles Lingerie
Betty Blues Loungewear
Buttress and Snatch
Elissa Poppy
Harlow and Fox
Karolina Laskowska
Kiss Me Deadly
Manoela Marandino
Nearer the Moon
Nubian Skin
Pillowbook
Playful Promises
She and Reverie
Sugar Lace Lingerie
Tight Laced
Toru and Naoko

Why don’t more indie lingerie brands make wired bras? Pt. 2: materials and sourcing issues

This is part two of a series deconstructing the intricacies of wired bras and their significance to independent lingerie designers. Part one can be read here.

Wired bras are incredibly complicated when it comes to materials. Whereas a soft cupped bralet can be stripped down to fabric and elastic and still function, wired bras are engineered such they they need specialist fabrics and components.

One of my very early bra designs; fabrics like the French lace were relatively easy to source compared to things like good quality wire casing, correctly sized bra wires and shoulder strapping. Design by Karolina Laskowska
One of my very early bra designs; fabrics like the French lace were relatively easy to source compared to things like good quality wire casing, correctly sized bra wires and shoulder strapping.
Design by Karolina Laskowska

Let’s consider a basic, unpadded, underwired bra. Typically, it would use a minimum of ten seperate types of fabric and component: a decorative outer fabric, a non-stretch nylon liner, a stretch powernet for the wings, underband elastic, shoulder strap elastic, rings, sliders, hook and eye fastening, underwire casing and bra wires. That’s a lot of individual parts for an independent brand to source, especially since many of these are difficult to find on a small scale.

Typically a bra will use approximately a metre of shoulder strapping per garment.  Most indie brands don't make in huge quantities so a minimum order like 1000m can suddenly make life very difficult indeed.
Typically a bra will use approximately a metre of shoulder strapping per garment. Most indie brands don’t make in huge quantities so a minimum order like 1000m can suddenly make life very difficult indeed.

There are very few wholesale stockists of these fabrics and notions. Most of them have high minimum order quantities that can be prohibitive for small designers. It is typical for manufacturers and suppliers of things like bra wires, sliders and hooks and eyes to set their minimums at 1000pcs+ for each variant of product. My elastic supplier’s minimum is 1000m for their basic styles and colours: specialist and coloured products can easily rise to 10,000m. Most independent brands simply don’t operate at these kinds of volumes and absolutely can’t afford to buy so much in one go. For a designer who sews from home, this becomes impossible to achieve.

This delivery of underwires would be considered tiny in industry... And I still haven't used these up over a year on.
This delivery of underwires would be considered tiny in industry… And I still haven’t used these up over a year on.

Admittedly, the increasing popularity of hobby sewing means that there are now quite a few stockists of lingerie notions and fabrics. Whilst these are great for home sewing projects, the high retail prices are often prohibitive for independent designers. When a pair of bra wires alone costs £2, typical wholesale and retail margins will quickly multiply this into £10 of the final garment cost.  It can become incredibly difficult to make a profitable product when sourcing materials at these high retail costs.

Bra wires alone can cause even the largest of independent designers huge headaches. Stylesheets and size increments vary greatly between suppliers; once you find a suitable bra wire, you tend to stick with it (especially since you’ll be required to order 1000s of pieces anyway, which should last a good few seasons!).  Different bra types (be that plunge or balconette) need different wire shapes. Different size groups require different wire gauges (of particular note are fuller bust bras, which need a heavier wire to offer sufficient support). There is no ‘one size fits all’ wire, and bras have to be developed around a specific wire from the very start.

The nest of bra wires that I initially intended to use for my first production run. There was a lot of struggle finding wires in manageable quantities and in a suitable profile and length. (I ended up dropping 2 of the larger sizes for the run for financial reasons but I hope to use them eventually!)  Photo by Karolina Laskowska
The nest of bra wires that I initially intended to use for my first production run. There was a lot of struggle finding wires in manageable quantities and in a suitable profile and length. (I ended up dropping 2 of the larger sizes for the run for financial reasons but I hope to use them eventually!)
Photo by Karolina Laskowska

Sourcing issues become even more of a nightmare when you consider the possibility of padded bras. Not only is bra padding difficult to find in manageable quantities (in the financial sense!), it takes up a huge amount of space: and that’s just the PU-foam that can be rolled up. One of the main reasons that I phased out padded bras from my lingerie brand is because of the storage space issues they create. Molded cups have to be specially made with industrial machinery; unless a suitable pre-made form is found (which is extremely difficult to source at a good price!), these remain firmly in the realm of mass-manufacturing.

The material issues that wired bras incur can be distilled down to two main problems: suppliers and money.  Without inside industry knowledge, it can be near impossible for an independent brand to find suitable suppliers of the specialist materials required. Even if suitable suppliers are found, it often becomes an insurmountable challenge to even afford their minimum order quantities, let alone to dream of getting through such quantities of material!

This incarnation of the 'Sayuri' bra from my SS15 collection never made it as a product because the cup foam simply caused too many complications and storage issues. Design by Karolina Laskowska
This incarnation of the ‘Sayuri’ bra from my SS15 collection never made it as a product because the cup foam simply caused too many complications and storage issues.
Design by Karolina Laskowska

I’m in a very fortunate position now wherein my brand gets through a lot of elastic strapping, wire casing, sliders and bra wires. Consequently, I can afford to justify to purchase these by the 1000s. However, just a couple of years ago this would have been impossible.  I simply didn’t have the cashflow, storage space or sales to justify buying at these quantities. I can see why for many brands, the solution to these issues is to simply not offer wired bras.

Of course, the story of wired bras gets even more complicated than just pattern cutting and materials. In part 3 I’ll be discussing the problems incurred by grading and sizing.

If you’ve ever made a wired bra, how easy was it for you to find suitable materials? Who is your favourite independent brand that offers wired bras?

Lingerie business: my production design process

The 'Ara' bralet and harness brief by Karolina Laskowska
The ‘Ara’ bralet and harness brief by Karolina Laskowska

I’m still rather overexcited about the launch of pre-orders for my first major factory-produced collection! Yesterday’s post tackled my reasons for moving away from sewing solely in-house and today I’ll be addressing the creative process behind my ‘Ara’ and ‘Carina’ collections’.

The Ara wired bra, suspender and cut-out brief by Karolina Laskowska
The Ara wired bra, suspender and cut-out brief by Karolina Laskowska

Admittedly, the title of this blog post is a little misleading; there wasn’t a vast amount of designing involved in these collections. All of the garment patterns and shapes are based on previous designs. This isn’t out of laziness, so much as practicality and avoiding risk as much. These are garments that I know fit well and that have sold well in the past. Cutting, grading and fitting garments from scratch would have been a costly and, all things considered, unnecessary. I know that these styles can be relied on as they’ve been continually perfected and improved upon every season. Preparing designs for production is incredibly time consuming; unlike when I sew something myself, a factory requires extensive technical files, detailing every single individual stitch, measurement, elastic tension of every garment. The technical packs alone for this run took me weeks to complete.  Working with familiar garments made life a lot easier!

The first ever incarnation of the 'Sayuri' set. Design by Karolina Laskowska
The first ever incarnation of the ‘Sayuri’ set. Design by Karolina Laskowska

The shapes that informed this collection include the ‘Sayuri’ set from my AW14 collection and what originated as the ‘Monika’ set from my AW13 (though the latter differs quite dramatically in its current incarnation!).  These are all shapes that are somewhat ‘signature’ to my brand and it was important for me that this first major run still be recognizable as ‘Karolina Laskowska’ pieces.

Although the 'Ara' bralet set looks very different to my AW13 'Monika' set, the patterns and measurements are based on the same tried and tested blocks. Design by Karolina Laskowska
Although the ‘Ara’ bralet set looks very different to my AW13 ‘Monika’ set, the patterns and measurements are based on the same tried and tested blocks. Design by Karolina Laskowska

One of the most important areas of design to me is the choice of fabrics; this has always been crucial to my brand and what I truly believe sets me aside from other designers at a similar market level. Although I wanted to bring customers lingerie at a lower price point, I didn’t want to do it at the expense of beautiful fabrics. I decided that rather than continuing with kimono silks, as I previously used in the ‘Sayuri’ collections, I wanted to focus on beautiful lace.

The same English leavers lace was used in my SS15 'Ela' set. Design by Karolina Laskowska
The same English leavers lace was used in my SS15 ‘Ela’ set.
Design by Karolina Laskowska

The black and gold lace used in the ‘Ara’ sets is quite possibly my favourite lace in the entire contemporary lace market. It’s made in the UK by the last remaining leavers lace manufacturer: Cluny, who are still owned by the same family in its 6th and 7th generations. Cluny specialise in cotton laces, which are typically heavier and arguably a little more ‘dated’ in appearance than the lace usually used in lingerie. It’s the fact that it’s considered so atypical that initially drew me to this lace design: the cotton is soft against the skin, unlike so many scratchy modern metallic laces. The floral design is lush and dense, with the bright gold lurex highlights giving it the most wonderful opulent feel. I hope to continue using this lace for many collections to come; it’s used in several pieces in my next season and had relatively extensive use in my SS15 designs!

This Italian leavers lace is beautifully delicate and sheer! Quite a contrast to the heavy black cotton and gold threads.
This Italian leavers lace is beautifully delicate and sheer! Quite a contrast to the heavy black cotton and gold threads.

Meanwhile, the ‘Carina’ sets use a much lighter and more delicate chantilly lace, made in Italy. There’s not quite the same profound heritage behind it, but that fact remains that it’s a pretty design and is offset perfectly with the harness inspired strapping of these shapes. Both colourways are trimmed with a delicate Cluny cotton lace trim.

Although the harness trend is on its way out, I still opted for ‘strappy’ designs. This was out of practicality rather than trying to make any dramatic fashion statement. The adjustable bands of my bras make it possible for me to even offer wired bras by sidestepping the minimum order quantities incurred by traditional bra sizing. Bra sizes that use a bra/band incur a huge amount of variants, even for a narrow range.  As my factory sets its minimums by sizes, it would have been impossible for me to afford to produce wired bras with the traditional sizing method.

I’m rather fond of the fact that the adjustability of the bra designs allow the wearer to make the bra fit them rather than trying to fit their body into a prescribed size. I will admit that it’s impossible to make one bra fit every band size, but this design does also make for relatively easy alterations.  It is dramatically more complicated and expensive to produce than traditionally built bras with wings, but I’d like to think that the benefits outweigh the additional cost!

The adjustable bands of my bra designs allow for much more fit flexibility! Design by Karolina Laskowska
The adjustable bands of my bra designs allow for much more fit flexibility!
Design by Karolina Laskowska

My designs’ heavy reliance on elastic has led to me getting rather obsessive with my sourcing. For this range, all of the elastic has been sourced and knitted in the UK. It’s immensely important for me to be able to guarantee its quality and to continue supporting industry in my home country, even though it realistically costs almost 6 times what it could have done by sourcing from Asia.  Another area I wasn’t willing to cut back on was my metal components: all the sliders and rings are gold plated. These metal components add up to a fairly healthy chunk of each garment costs, purely because there’s so many of them: the wired bra uses 18 of them! Nevertheless, they add a lovely aesthetic to each piece and plastic or enameled rings and sliders just wouldn’t have the same effect.

The 'Carina' set by Karolina Laskowska. Photography by J. Tuliniemi. Modelled by Ceci Zhang. MUA by Anitka Kwiat.
The ‘Carina’ set by Karolina Laskowska.
Photography by J. Tuliniemi. Modelled by Ceci Zhang. MUA by Anitka Kwiat.

All this considered, I am so pleased that I’ve managed to keep the prices of these pieces so comparatively low without compromising on quality of materials. These are designs that I’m proud to sell under my name, which is saying a lot given how much of a perfectionist I am! I’m keeping all of my fingers and toes crossed that this first run does well commercially so that I can bring the styles back in new colourways and increased size ranges.  Oh, and of course make some brand new things. Though there’s very little that will stop me from doing that 😉

Which is your favourite from the new designs?  Have you ever thought about the design process behind your lingerie?

Lingerie business: moving from in-house to factory production

Stitching some glorious French lace knickers in my studio this Summer. Photo by A. Lindseth
Stitching some glorious French lace knickers in my studio this Summer. Photo by A. Lindseth

My business has been stuck at a deeply frustrating bottleneck for quite some time now. Since leaving university, my brand has grown fairly steadily. With only a few minor exceptions, every garment that I’ve sold over the last 4 years have been created with my own fair hands*. 

Sewing can be a deeply enjoyable and fulfilling activity: there is truly something wonderful about creating a complex and beautiful garment from a piece of fabric. However, it stops being fulfilling when you have to make the exact same garment 40 times in a row.

The Sayuri set from my AW14 collection was always one of my most popular designs. When I sew it myself, it takes hours. My new factory can create it in a matter of minutes. Photo by Simon Crinks. Model is Emma Salisbury. MUA by Violet Zeng. Macarons by Zoe Anderson.
The Sayuri set from my AW14 collection was always one of my most popular designs. When I sew it myself, it takes hours. My new factory can create it in a matter of minutes.
Lingerie by Karolina Laskowska. Photo by Simon Crinks. Model is Emma Salisbury. MUA by Violet Zeng. Macarons by Zoe Anderson.

I’m incredibly grateful for the fact that there’s been so much more demand for my designs. I have in the past year tried to change my business model from my previous ‘only made-to-order’ ethos. With so many customers buying at a distance, made-to-order can be a risky business; even with all the measurements in the world you can never be completely sure that something as complex as a bra will fit until it arrives in person. Consequently, I’ve been trying to move to holding stock, so that customers can try things on and return them. So that there isn’t the huge 8 week wait for me to finish making the order.

Unfortunately for me, this has meant a huge increase in sewing labour. This has caused a few substantial problems.  Firstly, I’ve found myself spending the majority of working days stitching rather than investing energy in growing the business in other areas. Secondly, I’ve had to cut down my size range to make the workload manageable: most of my recent styles that I hold in stock only offer my 3 best-selling cup sizes.

I put a lot of work into developing the Sayuri bra for larger busts; it seems that even beautiful photos on a 32F model weren't enough to sell this style. Unfortunately I couldn't even entertain the thought of including this bra size in my factory production as it was so cost prohibitive. Lingerie by Karolina Laskowska. Photo by J Tuliniemi. Modelled by Vicky Burns. MUA by Sandra Nilsen.
I put a lot of work into developing the Sayuri bra for larger busts; it seems that even beautiful photos on a 32F model weren’t enough to sell this style. Unfortunately I couldn’t even entertain the thought of including this bra size in my factory production as it was so cost prohibitive.
Lingerie by Karolina Laskowska. Photo by J Tuliniemi. Modelled by Vicky Burns. MUA by Sandra Nilsen.

When I used to offer wired bras on a made-to-order basis, my most extensive size range encompassed 7 different cup sizes (so 32A-32F with a range of band sizes): that was a huge amount of extra work, for very little return. I failed to sell a single 32A, 32E or 32F size at full price: in my eyes this made these sizes a poor investment. There’s also the unavoidable fact that this much sewing just isn’t healthy in the long term. From migraines to increasing issues with RSI in my hands and wrists, I’ve realised pretty quickly that this many problems at the age of 23 doesn’t bode well for the future!

Returning to factory production has been a long term goal of mine for a while now, held back by that annoying issue of money. Unlike a lot of luxury lingerie brands, I have no outside funding. Since leaving university in 2014 it’s been my focus to outsource production.  I’d tried crowdfunding in the past and my experiences were mixed; I didn’t want to return to that uncertainty, emotional upheaval and the inevitable stress that comes afterwards (you’d be surprised how many people choose size-specific rewards and then fail to respond to every attempt to contact them).  I didn’t want to sell off a major chunk of my company to an investor who doesn’t care about my product. I also didn’t want to take out a bank loan with my risky financial situation (that is, if I could even qualify for one!).  So I instead decided to play the long game: slowly saving, slowly buying up supplies and piling them up in my already-cramped studio.  And by the time 2016 sped round, I was almost ready!

This March I finally headed over to my new factory armed with 2 suitcases full of lace, elastic and overly-detailed technical files. Meetings went well and finally this week, I received my production samples. There has been so much stress involved in this process; when I finally received the samples, they were so beautiful I teared up. The two sets that I’ll be making (in two different colourways) are exquisitely stitched in beautiful fabrics: they’re products that I am completely proud of.

I'm still waiting on proper photos of the Carina set but the chantilly lace over the pale pink tulle is utterly delicious! Lingerie by Karolina Laskowska
I’m still waiting on proper photos of the Carina set but the chantilly lace over the pale pink tulle is utterly delicious!
Lingerie by Karolina Laskowska

What I’m perhaps most pleased about though is that even with the exquisite and expensive laces that I’ve chosen (one of which is my favourite English leavers lace, the other a wonderfully delicate Italian chantilly), the higher-priced metal components and the overly complex adjustable designs, the price is nearly half of what it would be if I sewed it myself.  That hammered home how unsustainable it is to try to sew everything myself; I’ve continually tried to bring my prices down with lower-priced ranges (using cheaper laces, less detailed designs etc), but the fact is that I’ll never be able to compete with the quality or cost-effectiveness of a factory set up.  I never thought I’d be able to say that I’d have a full set available at a retail price of under £100, but it’s happened!

The Ara set by Karolina Laskowska
The Ara set by Karolina Laskowska

This week has been all about finalising my final order size (in itself a deeply stressful and difficult decision!). Even with this small size range (because honestly, even adding one extra size into the range would have meant another month of saving and delay, only adding extra risk into this venture), deciding which quantities to order is tricky. The minimum orders are already higher than any products I’ve ever sold before. In around a month and a half, I’ll be receiving a delivery of 500+ pieces of lingerie, which is a more terrifying concept than I could have ever thought!

This increased pressure to sell in volume has been somewhat sobering. So much has gone into my lingerie brand, be that from a resource perspective (time and money) to an emotional one. Even with the unprecedented success and support that I’ve seen, the fact is that this factory run has to be a success for me to justify carrying on with this brand. I need to be able to sell a cheaper and higher-produced product, at a certain speed and at full price, if my business has any hope of growing and making a living in the future.

Yazzmin just rocks the Ara set way too well, I ADORE the photos from this shoot - can't wait to share them all with you! Lingerie by Karolina Laskowska. Photography by Jenni Hampshire. Modelled by Yazzmin Newell.
Yazzmin just rocks the Ara set way too well, I ADORE the photos from this shoot – can’t wait to share them all with you!
Lingerie by Karolina Laskowska. Photography by Jenni Hampshire. Modelled by Yazzmin Newell.

That’s brought the realisation that the next few months will be make or break for my brand. On the one hand it’s sad that I might have to say goodbye to this business; on the other, it could mean growth and wonderful things for the future (or in less sensible terms, lingerie world domination!).  I have high hopes for these new designs: I truly feel like Ara and Carina are the start of excellent things.

In my next blog post I’ll be talking about my design decisions behind the Ara and Carina sets and some of the challenges I faced in the process. If you have any questions that you’d like to see answered then please leave them in the comments below; I’d also love to hear what you think about the new designs!

*those exceptions being the corset ranges created for me by Ava Corsetry, the occasional bit of intern help and a brief and unfortunately fated experience with a tiny factory run back in 2013. The latter was funded by an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign and was unfortunately not sustainable: the factory  messed up my order quite dramatically and it wasn’t something that I was able to return to with any speed at the time due to my university commitments.

Why don’t more indie lingerie brands make wired bras? Pt. 1: Pattern cutting and the cost of education

This is part one of a series deconstructing the intricacies of wired bras and their significance to independent lingerie designers.

I make no bones about the fact that I am in very deep into the world of lingerie.  Maybe a little too deep.  Everything about it has become second nature to me, to the extent that I often forget that the knowledge that I take for granted is completely unknown to the average consumer. The average bra wearer simply has no idea about the amount of work that can go into that single garment.

One of the first supportive wired bras that I offered as a product for my brand Karolina Laskowska. I still reuse a version of this shape in new collections rather than developing a new bra from scratch. Photography by Simon Crinks Modelled by Yazzmin MUA by Violet Zeng Macarons by Zoe Anderson
One of the first supportive wired bras that I offered as a product for my brand Karolina Laskowska. I still reuse a version of this shape in new collections rather than developing a new bra from scratch.
Photography by Simon Crinks
Modelled by Yazzmin
MUA by Violet Zeng
Macarons by Zoe Anderson

As an independent designer myself and general lingerie obsessive, I often see the question: ‘why don’t more indie designers make wired bras?’. After all, there’s a positive glut of dainty soft cup bras. Soft bras don’t work for everyone though: they’re not the most supportive of styles even on smaller busts and consequently aren’t considered suitable for everyday by many lingerie wearers.  Wired bras, with their heavy structuring and carefully constructed cups, offer a superior level of support. Surely, with such demand for them, it should be a staple product for indie lingerie brands?

This bra style from my AW14 collection took so long to develop and fit and proved so complicated to grade that it was eventually cut from the range. I didn't revisit a similar bra shape until nearly 2 years later because of the work involved. Design by Karolina Laskowska
This bra style from my AW14 collection took so long to develop and fit and proved so complicated to grade that it was eventually cut from the range. I didn’t revisit a similar bra shape until nearly 2 years later because of the work involved.
Design by Karolina Laskowska

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. In this series, I hope to unravel some of the intricacies of the surprisingly complicated wired bra that make this garment difficult, if not impossible, for a small-scale lingerie brand to produce.  Although the term ‘independent brand’ can apply to quite a variety of business scales, many of the points raised in this series can be generalized.

The development of patterns is one of the most time consuming and expensive parts of bra creation. Perfecting this pattern for my first major production run took me weeks.
The development of patterns is one of the most time consuming and expensive parts of bra creation. Perfecting this pattern for my first major production run took me weeks.

A wired bra is complicated. So complicated that I would certainly argue it’s one of the trickiest garments to master across the entire board of clothing. Every aspect that goes into its creation requires specialist knowledge.

For all intents and purposes, a wired bra is a piece of engineering.  In abstract terms, you’re relying on a few pieces of fabric, elastic and steel wires to lift, support and reshape flesh in a very particular way. Contemporary bras are generally created to create a lifted and rounded bustline to conform to modern fashions: a shape that natural breasts largely don’t adhere to.

Pattern cutting is a skill that requires specialist training and a lot of practice. Personally, I studied for 3 years on a specialist Lingerie focused BA degree.  A degree is a very expensive investment for any individual to make for their future. It left me with £25,000 of student loan debt; since recent reforms in British university fees, it would leave similar students with up to double that.

My Contour Fashion degree graduate collection ended up only featuring one bra and one cupped corset. Aside from the fact that I was obsessing with corsets at the time, I avoided a lot of fitting and construction pain! Design by Karolina Laskowska, photo taken by P. J. Laskowski at Graduate Fashion Week 2014
My Contour Fashion degree graduate collection ended up only featuring one bra and one cupped corset. Aside from the fact that I was obsessing with corsets at the time, I avoided a lot of fitting and construction pain!
Design by Karolina Laskowska, photo taken by P. J. Laskowski at Graduate Fashion Week 2014

There are in fact only 3 universities worldwide that even offer this course: De Montfort University and London College of Fashion in the UK and Hong Kong Polytechnic in China.  Although many fashion course worldwide offer cursory modules in lingerie, they do not offer the expertise or focus of the Contour Fashion degree.  (Edit: I’ve since been informed that FIT in New York does offer a full lingerie specialism as part of their fashion design degree) Because of how specialist the knowledge acquired on these courses is, graduates can expect relatively positive job prospects compared to other fashion sectors. But for those looking to start their own lingerie brands, it’s a big cost to shoulder. There are of course also plenty of short courses that offer bra making: however, these are also expensive and don’t offer the level of immersion and specialty of a degree.

Very few independent lingerie brand owners have studied lingerie design to this extent though. Consequently, they have a couple of options facing them. The first would be to outsource product development, often to a freelance designer. This is very common but also very expensive: a brand must have a certain amount of financial capital to be able to achieve this.  It’s easy to spend thousands on the development of a single bra style.

Although I do offer several wired bras, I create many more soft cup bras because there's so much less work involved. Lingerie by Karolina Laskowska Photography by Jenni Hampshire Modelled by Yazzmin
Although I do offer several wired bras, I create many more soft cup bras because there’s so much less work involved.
Lingerie by Karolina Laskowska
Photography by Jenni Hampshire
Modelled by Yazzmin

In fact, pattern cutting can be arguably one of the most expensive parts of wired bra development. Even on the commercial side of the industry, you will see large-scale brands reusing the same bra shapes again and again.  This makes perfect business sense: when you have a style that fits well and you have full technical specifications for it is profitable to repeat it in new colours and embellishments than to create new shapes each season from scratch.

Many young independent brands are unable to even consider the option of outsourcing. As the internet has removed many of the barriers to entry that were previously seen in fashion, people are able to start brands on their own terms. Often this means that brands are headed up by individuals doing everything themselves from their own homes: I would in fact argue that the majority of designers on websites like Etsy are in this position.  Consequently, they have to work within their own technical abilities. The pattern cutting of wired bras usually fall outside of this knowledge base, whereas soft cup and unstructured styles are infinitely more achievable.

The patterns for wired bras take a huge amount of time to develop and fit. But the patterns are also inexorably tied to things like components and fabrics. These all interact together to affect how a bra fits and functions. Wired bras require a lot of specialist materials, many of which are relatively difficult to access for small scale designers. I’ll be tackling this topic in part 2 of this series!

Have you ever tried to pattern cut a bra? Which is your favourite indie brand for bras and why?

Vintage Revival: The Kestos Bra

Kestos style silk bralet. Photo by K Laskowska
Kestos style silk bralet. Photo by K Laskowska

My last post may have given you a hint of my love for the Kestos bra; however, despite my love for them, I could never wear any of my vintage pieces on a regularly basis. I view them as an archive for the purpose of study and inspiration: something to be preserved rather than used up. Consequently, it brings me so much joy to see contemporary designers reimagine these classic vintage designs! Not only does it give everyone a chance to introduce these beautiful styles into their own wardrobes but technological advances into elastication and sewing machine possibilities make them vastly more comfortable to wear and much more accessible in price (I adore hand finishing, but the associated price tag makes it tricky to incorporate into lingerie on a regular basis!).

So without further ado: here are my current favourite picks of Kestos-inspired bralets!

Tempest Bralet by Evgenia Lingerie
Tempest Bralette by Evgenia Lingerie

The ‘Tempest’ bralette by Evgenia: available sizes S-L, $130 (USD)

From the adorable embroidered star French lace to the grosgrain trims, this piece bra has pride of place in my personal lingerie wardrobe: I was absolutely overjoyed to receive it in the Lingerie Secret Santa of 2014! The buttonhole elastic gives this style some extra flexibility in fit compared to the rouleau loops of the original Kestos style.

'Frankie' bra by Toru & Naoko
Toru & Naoko ‘Frankie’ bra

‘Frankie’ bra by Toru & Naoko: available sizes XS-XXXL + custom, $65 USD

A decidedly edgy take on the 1920s style, with a wonderfully seductive fishnet fabric and centre O-ring detail. Toru & Naoko have the most extensive size range on this list and even offer custom options if none of the standard options work for you.

'Carla' bra by Absolutely Pom
‘Carla’ bra by Absolutely Pom

‘Carla’ bra by Absolutely Pom: available sizes FR 85A-95B, 110 Euros

The mix of exquisite French lace and layered mesh make for a delicious contrast of textures and teasing sheers. Hooks and eyes at the centre back make for a more modern finish,

'Dirty BLVD Tri' Bra by Kiss Me Quick
Kiss Me Quick ‘Dirty BLVD Tri’ Bra

‘Dirty BLVD Tri’ bra by Kiss Me Quick: available sizes S-L, cups A-C, D-E. $65 AUD

Stretch lace and frilly trims make this bralet a decidedly sweet and flirty piece to add to your wardrobe: and at only $65 AUD it’s a bargain for an indie made lingerie piece!

Chantal Thomass 'Rendez-Vous' bralet. Photo by Nancy Meyer
Chantal Thomass ‘Rendez-Vous’ bralet. Photo by Nancy Meyer

‘Rendez-Vous’ bralet by Chantal Thomass: available sizes S-L, $195 USD

This decidedly luxurious interpretation of the Kestos bralet stole my heart long ago: it’s certainly the most faithful  reproduction of the original in its materials and relatively unflexible fit. French lace and exquisite silk binding are finished with delicious ribbonwork floral motifs, a wonderfully apt trim for a piece inspired by the 1920s.

'Rosaline' set by Karolina Laskowska
‘Rosaline’ set by Karolina Laskowska

‘Rosaline’ bralet by Karolina Laskowska: available sizes S-L, £150

And to finish this list off, here is my own personal interpretation of the Kestos bralet! This was a piece I’d dreamed about for years. When I managed to acquire this delicious design of French lace and the orchid print silk, this design was simply inevitable! The lace has been carefully placement cut on the matching knicker and gold plated components give it a deliciously luxe finish. I modernised the fit with adjustabled elastic and a slightly more curved bust point than the original styles. It’s certainly my absolute favourite design from my last collection!

What do you think of the Kestos shape? Which of these designs is your favourite?