Giving the slip
They say it's what's on the inside that counts. While the major labels of the fashion world - the Louis Vuittons, the Chanels, the Diors - focus almost exclusively on luxury outerwear, the idea of high-end innerwear is all but ignored in the industry.
But for Carine Gilson, the Paris-based designer behind her own lingerie couture label, it's truly about what's underneath it all.
Born in Belgium, Gilson was educated at the prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, which also boasts alumni such as Dries van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester. After graduating, the fledging fashionista quickly dived in the deep-end and set up shop in the avant garde city - but not in the way most would imagine.
'I was 23 when I bought a small sewing workshop,' she says. 'I had always been fascinated by lace and noble materials - lingerie came to me as an obvious thing to do. I was attracted by the perfection and the handmade qualities, and decided to elevate it to lingerie couture.'
Establishing her eponymous haute couture line in 1994, the past 18 years has seen Gilson revolutionise lingerie, transforming the revealing attire from sexy and almost slutty, to sophisticated and oh-so-stylish.
Key to Gilson's success has been her traditionally based methods for the lingerie materials: the designer sources only the finest and most delicate silks and lace from Lyon and Calais, and hand finishes each piece in her Brussels atelier.
'The tradition has been lost for many high-end lingerie brands because they have chosen to grow in a different direction,' she says. 'It's important to carry the tradition of haute couture, and also the subtle technique of corsetry.'
Gilson's collections are far removed from the mass-market, uber-erotic brands that feature predominantly in the lingerie world. While many offer garish colours and prints akin to what the public deems 'passionate' and 'hot', Gilson opts for subtler palettes: her use of scarlet and saffron might not immediately heighten the popular purchaser's senses as a hot pink, but they aren't her target market.
'Almost every brand creates sexy lingerie because the customers in the mass-market want it. I don't want to fall into that kind of stereotype,' she says. 'The market offers a wide range of lingerie types that are suited to different personalities. I prefer to work on a segment market, and to keep a very high-quality of product.
'The target of my brand is a high-profile woman who knows what she wants; she is open minded and appreciates beauty - she values quality. She is a master of seduction, but in a classy way, never vulgar.'
Indeed, some of her admirers include celebrities Nicole Kidman, Monica Bellucci, Victoria Beckham, and Catherine Deneuve. A large part of their interest is due to Gilson's chic boutiques: with three currently open - in Brussels, Paris and most recently, London - customers are given almost unheralded levels of personalised service, while regular in-store installations from names such as architect John Pawson and florist Thierry Boutemy (of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette fame) offer a sense of opulence almost unheard of in this segment of the fashion industry.
'It is very important for me to promote the image of Carine Gilson Lingerie Couture correctly, and to provide a very personalised service to my customer,' says Gilson. 'In my boutiques, I try to ensure wellness and intimacy.'
But more than anything, it's about what's on the rack. Materials and colours have their place, but like her opposites in outerwear, it all comes down to her sense of design inspiration.
Influenced by many mediums, Gilson embraces everything around for the brand's collections. Many muses are firmly rooted in the fashion world - Martin Margiela, a host of Belgian designers - but there's a Hong Kong connection to her Spring 2012 collection.
Inspired by local filmmaker Wong Kar-wai's 2000 romance In the Mood for Love, Gilson has crafted a collection that takes heavy inspiration from the chic 1960s and the era's influence on the Orient. By branching out into cheongsam-like slips and belted dresses, Gilson is heading towards a less-is-more aesthetic that hints at ready-to-wear, where the most seductive piece of clothing is the one that reveals just the right amount.
'There are some recurrent pieces in my Spring 2012 collection, but I'm getting more inspired to create a pret-a-porter collection and accessories around the silk and lace theme.'
Anything is currently possible for the much-coveted lingerie couture designer. Because while the true admirers of your sensual silk-and-lace number might be solely behind closed doors, don't rule out a Gilson that you can wear beyond the bedroom sometime in the future.
'I'd like to develop an outerwear collection,' she says. 'But I'll never stop creating lingerie.'
Carine Gilson Lingerie Couture is available at Lane Crawford
Rigby & Peller
The famous British lingerie firm is known for its luxurious lingerie, beautiful corsets and sumptuous fabrics, with clients including the Queen as well as Hollywood royalty such as Scarlett Johansson and Gwyneth Paltrow. rigbyandpeller.com
Venice-based Carlotta Danti launched her haute couture lingerie label in 2005. Her intricate pieces beautifully combine contemporary design with traditional Italian craftsmanship. rosamosario.com
The brand has been synonomous with sumptious chic lingerie since its inception in 1954, with such offerings as lace bodysuits, silk shorts and printed balconette bras. rangelaperla.com