Odds are good that if you're at all plugged in to the lingerie world, you've read something by or about Karolina Laskowska. A regular columnist at The Lingerie Addict and darling of the indie lingerie world (she won Best New Designer at the 2014 UK Lingerie Awards), Laskowska's luxury designs come with a twist: a commitment to ethical fashion in the form of her signature upcycled, vintage fabrics, and a whimsical eroticism epitomized in the brand's tagline, "kinky sexy pants of joy!" Laskowska took some time to talk shop with Bluestockings about industry issues like size range and the challenges of being a one-woman show.
Karolina Laskowska. Photo courtesy of Karolina Laskowska.
Tell us about yourself and your background. Born in London to parents of Polish descent (hence the name!) and spent most of my life here, with a partial three year interval for my university studies. When I finished school, I really had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I was actually leaning towards studying law/psychology/linguistics, but to delay making the decision for a little longer, I enrolled in an Art & Design foundation course. It was just before the course started that I found out about the existence of the Contour Fashion BA—a degree specializing in lingerie. Although it was something I hadn’t even considered up to that point, my obsessions with bras and corsets were already a little out of hand, so I knew it was perfect.
Nowhere else in design or fashion do you get the opportunity to focus on detail so much or to use the most exquisite fabrics (I’m in a long term love affair with Chantilly lace!). In my brief experience studying womenswear, I found that there was just too much pressure on creating something ‘edgy’—designs that weren’t necessarily even wearable. I love that lingerie allows you to create something beautiful for the sake of being beautiful. There’s something incredibly special about the intimacy of lingerie—the fact that it’s usually hidden behind clothes. You’re the only one who knows about how beautiful your undergarments are; I think there’s something really lovely about that kind of secret. On a day-to-day basis, my outerwear tends to just be badly fitting jeans and band t-shirts, but I always have to have a pretty bra on underneath.
Karolina Laskowska SS15. The Erika Waspie features a built-in harness and stunning antique silk lace. karolinalaskowska.com
What are some of the most pressing issues facing you as an independent designer and small business owner?
The first major issue as a designer is one of confidence. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, which means I’m never truly satisfied with what I do (or, for that matter, what most other people do—I get pickier the more that I learn about lingerie!). It takes a lot to take a deep breath, step back and remind myself to have reasonable expectations—like, I can’t get so focused on every element of a bra’s construction, because it will affect the final cost too much. It’s a constant battle to remind myself that my designs are good enough and that people will still enjoy them!
The other major issue is one that isn’t really addressed much in the industry, and it’s one of money. My business is probably a lot smaller than meets the eye. Unlike most independent luxury brands, I have no financial backing whatsoever. Pretty much everything I do is on a shoestring budget (which I will admit is a little at odds with my love of luxurious fabrics!). It’s kind of a case of scraping by from season to season, unable to afford what a lot of brands view as basic costs: things like glamorous press events, stands at trade shows, slick branding. It gets quite frustrating at times that I can’t really compete at that kind of level.
There’s also the fact that I’m still producing nearly everything in house (a roundabout way of saying I’m still stitching all the bras with my own fair hands) – which presents plenty of its own issues. Sewing a lot of the lingerie styles is time-consuming business, and it means that I’m largely chained to my sewing machines when I should be focusing on other areas of the business. It’s my aim for the next year or so to get some styles back into factory production, if only to free up some of my time in the business to focus on other areas. There are only so many harnesses I can sew before my sanity starts wandering!
One of our bestsellers: Karolina's Bee Charm Choker
Congratulations on winning the 2014 UK Lingerie Award New Designer of the Year. How has the award affected your brand and/or your work as a designer?
Thank you! It’s difficult to say really how it’s affected my brand (and in all honesty it was totally unexpected!). It’s definitely given it more visibility in the industry at large, particularly in trade press, so it’s been lovely to get that recognition. I’ve definitely had a lot more retailers get in touch, though it hasn’t resulted in new stockists. But it definitely means the brand name is on more people’s minds.
We’ve spoken about some of the complicated issues around expanding size range. Can you speak more about that particular challenge as a designer who has answered customer requests and expanded your own size range in the past?
Expanding size ranges is a very tricky topic for a lot of lingerie brands; it’s expensive and it’s risky. For full bust style bras especially, the amount of work that goes into developing the patterns and fit rises exponentially compared to core size range—it’s a lot more difficult to get right. Plus, there’s the unavoidable fact that sizes outside the core range just don’t sell as well. This has been seen time and time again with independent lingerie brands, for whom making a loss like that and accepting it just really isn’t an option. I’m quite fortunate in that I have all the necessary skills to develop my own bra styles from scratch, so the expense of hiring in outside specialists isn’t something I have to consider.
There’s also the fact that most of my styles are made to order, so I don’t have to invest in the costs of production or keeping stock. I’ve had a lot of requests on social media to expand my bra size range. I tend to create styles with adjustable underbands and my original size range encompassed the cup sizes 32B-32DD (a pretty standard core range). After feedback from fans, I introduced cup sizes 32A, 32E and 32F into the range on some of my most popular wired styles. I’ve promoted it on social media, and although initially there was a great response in terms of comments and praise, I haven’t actually sold a single one of these sizes! It gets frustrating, because there’s a lot of people who like to lament that their sizes aren’t available but whether these people actually vote with their money is another matter. As a business, this all has to come down to the bare bones of profit. If the sizes aren’t selling, there’s no incentive for me to continue them in future collections as it’s just too much work.
Upcycled fabrics in unexpected places. Karolina Laskowska SS15. karolinalaskowska.com
One of your aesthetic signatures is upcycled fabric. Can you speak more about the ethics of upcycling?
It’s funny, but when I started using upcycled fabrics it wasn’t in the slightest an ethical consideration—it was a case of finding utterly gorgeous textiles that happened to have had a previous existence and wanting to use them in my designs. For lack of finding contemporary, affordable equivalents I figured why not just give the older fabrics a new life? It was only after I started making these upcycled designs part of my collections that I began considering the ethics side of things—there is so much waste in the fashion industry and this bizarrely popular view that just because something’s old means it’s no longer of any use. I quite enjoy challenging that. The fact is that a lot of vintage textiles are of a hugely superior quality to modern equivalents. In the case of the kimono silks that I use, I couldn’t even begin to consider the costs of trying to recreate that level of hand painting and embellishment without a tag that went into the thousands. Likewise with the sari trims. In the case of vintage laces especially there’s a huge difference in the quality of modern versions—there just isn’t that attention to detail anymore, nor would you ever find a handmade lace available in commercially available lingerie. In the case of one of my recent designs, the Erika waspie, I’ve used a piece of antique handmade Victorian lace, taken from a severely damaged silk shawl. As a garment, the damage has made it useless, but by carefully placement cutting it, I’ve essentially give it a brand new life—and a very beautiful one at that, I think!
Energy in a lookbook photo? Yay! Karolina Laskowska SS15. karolinalaskowska.com
What do you see as the most pressing issues facing the industry?
Immediately springing to mind is the aversion to risk (too many retailers are far too attached to their beige & black t-shirt bras to consider new designers), lack of diversity (you could almost be easily mistaken to think that only straight, slim white girls wore lingerie) and the ethical considerations of fast fashion (because people expect their bras to only cost $5 without thinking about the consequences or human labour behind it). I wouldn’t know which to address as the most pressing; I think everything needs serious consideration and an active effort to change.
In the cases of aversion to risk, a lot of designers are bypassing that by retailing direct to the customer, which to an extent means they can do what they want. Obviously designs still need to be commercial enough to sell, but it means they don’t have to worry and expend the effort of trying to charm buyers over into trying something new.
For diversity, although the industry is still dominated by imagery of slim, white women, there are pockets of designers making an effort to change that, particularly in the independent scene. It’s something I make a conscious effort to address when casting models for my imagery, though there are huge limitations – the fact is that around 90% of the UK population is white, and trying to find suitable models that are also sample size and happy to model lingerie within that small pool can be seriously challenging.
As for manufacturing ethics: following on from certain publicized disasters, the general public now seem a little more amenable to considering where their clothing comes from. There will always be people who want to buy cheap no matter what, but it’s refreshing to see more and more customers (and designers for that matter) take into account how their lingerie comes into existence.
Whimsical props and poses. Karolina Laskowska SS15. karolinalaskowska.com
What are some of your favorite pieces in your personal lingerie collection?
Oh dear, do you have any idea how difficult that question is to answer? If I had to, I think I could narrow it down to around three sets.
The first is without a question my bra/French knicker set from Carine Gilson (my absolute favourite designer in the industry right now). It is literally lingerie perfection—utterly flawless construction and so beautifully elegant. I absolutely aspire to create designs as beautiful as these one day!
The second would be my bespoke ‘Moth’ corset from Sparklewren, an utterly delectable couture creation, with lashings of hand stitched lace appliqué, spikes and subtle sparkles.
Finally, I have an original vintage 1920s silk kestos-style bra and French knicker set that bowls me over with its construction and effortless simplicity. The binding is all impossible tiny and handstitched invisibly, the cutwork and embroidered embellishment faultless. I’m on a serious 1920s obsession right now. I truly believe it was one of the greatest eras for lingerie, as no other period has seen that level of attention to detail for finishing, fabrics and embellishment (even if admittedly the silhouettes weren’t the most supportive or dramatic!).
P.P.S. Shop Karolina Laskowska at Bluestockings and support indie lingerie brands!