Shape Shifters – Spanx was just the beginning

girdle.jpgOur grandmothers had corsets, our mothers had girdles, we had aerobics classes and Pilates and now – there is a revolution in shape-enhancing underwear to take some of the pressure off turning down dessert.

Not only that, there’s big business in helping women – and men – have their cake and eat it too.

Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, had a now-legendary (to the passionate fans of her underwear at least) eureka moment in 1998 when she hated how her bum looked in pants one fine day. So she grabbed a pair of control pantyhose and cut the feet off and the rest is history. Spanx, a full range of body-skimming and slimming underwear, is now a USD $350-million a year underwear empire and a godsend for thousands of women who will no doubt say a silent prayer of thanks to Blakely as they slip into their party clothes this year.

Mere mortals wear them but so do the superstars including the skinny ones – Madonna apparently wears the “Slim Cognito” bodysuit on tour, Sienna Miller is said to have a pair or two, and Gwyneth Paltrow confessed she wore two pairs at once after giving birth. Actress Emma Thompson calls them “the knicker equivalent of Fort Knox” and Oprah Winfrey named Spanx as a godsend and has a dedicated “Spanx” drawer in her dressing room.

“I’ll be at parties and the minute women learn I’m the Spanx girl they lift their dress and say, ‘I’ve got them on!’ It’s something they brag about,” says Blakely.

In the early going it wasn’t easy to convince retailers that there was a need for her kind of shape-shifter. So Blakely, who had experience selling photocopiers before her eureka moment, did what photocopier salespeople do – she offered a demonstration, meeting a buyer a US department store Neiman Marcus in 2000 and won her first order. Then she hit the road with “before and after” pictures of her own bum. Like many an entrepreneur, her big breakthrough came when she sent a gift basket to Oprah and landed on her chat show. (Blakely paid back that good deed by donating $1-million to Oprah’s Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa.)

Blakely has said women have different reasons for wearing her body-shapers – some like feeling “contained” so their clothes look more perfect, others want a bit of help with the wobbly bits. There are now more than 100 styles with names like Tight End tights, the Hide and Sleek bodysuit and the Bra-lellujah bra.

When one succeeds, smart money follows and now control-wear has entries from virtually every major lingerie company in the world. Donna Karan Intimates has glamorous tummy-tucking “big pants” that look like something the burlesque star Dita von Teese would wear, and La Senza has “shapewear” (the more polite name for control top options). Sculptz Legwear and Shapewear launched in Canada during Octobers LG Fashion Week ’09, demonstrating perhaps that this kind of underwear is ready to come out of the closet.

“Sculptz offers an exciting range of colour and patterns to compliment the most traditional wardrobe or add a colour accent to freshen your favourite dress or casual outfit,”says Kristy Crombie a representative for Sculptz, available at Sears and Addition-Elle. Change is another brand that has stores across Ontario, BC, Montreal and all over Europe. They offer two variations on the body shaper; high cut shorts for $84 and a full body suit for $134.

Change of Scandanavia, carried in various retailers and having two stand alone stores in Toronto, offers a couple of options including a full body suit. “Shapewear does make some difference if you are looking for a product that slims some bumps down slightly,” says Janelle Tablada of Change’s Toronto Queen street location. “The material is comfy and more breathable than other products that are out there.”

Men are the next frontier for the shapewear revolution. John Pearce, a marketing director of the lingerie company Brazilian Shapewear, says that “girdles which cover your moobs” are being snapped up online, mainly by wives and girlfriends. Online offers the men a bit of apparently necessary privacy. “Men will never go into a shop to ask for a girdle,” Pearce says.”The products are packaged with a picture of a man playing golf. They are promoted as being good for posture and for ‘long car journeys’.”

Holt Renfew, the toney fashion retail chain, is testing that theory. Earlier this year it launched control underwear and the “mirdle”, a sort of tight tank top, for men sporting a beer belly or a little too much junk in the trunk. The shapewear for men, from the Australian company Equmen, is made from high-test fabric akin to Lycra.

The key to the men’s offering is that it looks much like regular undies – while women might be happy to admit the flat tummy is due to Spanx, according to one retailer a man won’t risk looking silly. Hence Equmen’s careful design and more careful lingo – this is not shapewear, this is “compression clothing.” A mirdle by any other name….