Imogen, an environmentalist from Auckland, is wearing a pair of ivory suspenders while daydreaming on her bed. Kiyomi, an artist from Osaka, steps out of a bathroom, kimono hanging from her shoulders. Nicole rests her baby on a kitchen counter while wearing a sturdy black bra and matching underwear. It’s hard to believe that images capturing women going about their lives, happy and unguarded, can feel so revolutionary today.
Yet for Lonely, the New Zealand-based lingerie and fashion label that rejects the ‘look-at-me’ brand of sexiness that’s a hallmark of the industry, portraying diverse women was the only option.
“We felt like no lingerie label really spoke to us, and that this was probably the case for a lot of our customers,” says Helene Morris, who launched her fashion label, Lonely Hearts Club, with her partner, Steve Ferguson, in 2003 before branching out into lingerie in 2010.
“I think it’s difficult to relate to a brand when we are only seeing stereotyped imagery, overuse of Photoshop or limited sizes. We wanted to give [our customers] another choice, hopefully one that they could relate to. Inclusiveness is really important to us. Everybody is different and we want to try and help give people the confidence to realise that is a positive thing.”
“We felt like no lingerie label really spoke to us, and that this was probably the case for a lot of our customers.”
Inclusiveness can be a rare commodity when it comes to underwear brands. But from The Lonely Girls Project – the company’s wildly successful Instagram campaign that invited women to share images of themselves in their Lonely lingerie – to lookbooks created by feminist photographers, stylists and art directors such as Petra Collins, Zara Mirkin and Mayan Toledano, Lonely rejects an identikit notion of beauty. And by doing so, it tells us that stretch marks, curves and body hair aren’t flaws to be airbrushed, but features to be embraced.
“We want women to look at our imagery and realise that they don’t have to be a certain way to feel beautiful. We simply wanted to offer the idea that it’s okay to be yourself,” says Helene. “Some of it does challenge people – for example, seeing underarm hair [in a lingerie campaign] isn’t common and sometimes people make judgments. But our Lonely girls are so brave when it comes to documenting the beauty of diversity, and our community is so inspiring and strong.”
“Inclusiveness is really important to us. Everybody is different and we want to try and give people the confidence to realise that is a positive thing.”
Lonely’s willingness to hand over control of their campaigns to talented young female collaborators is one of the brand’s biggest – and most surprising – strengths. For instance, the label’s AW15 campaign, ‘Sophia’, shot in Tel Aviv by the aforementioned trio of Petra, Zara and Mayan, features pastel-haired girls in soft-cup bras and vintage-inspired underwear as they explore tawny desert landscapes and laze under bleached-out skies. The campaign successfully conjured all the hazy magic of a summer vacation with your closest friends.
Lonely’s SS16 campaign, ‘Jessie’, is no less daring. Zara and Mayan followed two women – Arvida Byström, a Stockholm-born artist whose work riffs on gender politics, and Paloma Elsesser, a plus-sized model and champion of the body-positive movement – on a Californian road trip.
The shoot, which shows Arvida and Paloma posing against fairy floss clouds and pastel-pink motel bathrooms, is dreamy proof that beauty and sensuality comes in all shapes and skin tones. Unsurprisingly, the brand’s unique campaigns have been profiled everywhere from i-D magazine to Vogue and The New York Times.
“Our collaborations are really organic in process,” says Helene. “Although we discuss concepts and ideas before shooting, we like to give our collaborators creative control. Often they travel alone with our models and form strong connections, because being relaxed and comfortable is so important. We’ve worked with Zara, who’s from New Zealand but is now New York-based, for a long time and she was the one who introduced us to Petra and Mayan. Their values align so strongly with Lonely’s and I think the images we create together feel really natural and relatable.
Lonely pieces are refreshingly exempt from padding and push-ups, focusing instead on subtle details such as lace, velvet strapping and feather-light fabrics…
“The one we shot in Tel Aviv will always stand out to me – the fact that it was a group of great friends who travelled and modelled together gave it such a great energy. Giving these amazing creatives the freedom to create their own stories is so empowering.”
For Helene, this passion for speaking to the needs of real women goes beyond the images produced by the brand. Lonely pieces are refreshingly exempt from padding and push-ups, focusing instead on subtle details such as lace, velvet strapping and feather-light fabrics in deep red, blush pink and khaki. Bras, which are manufactured in family-owned factories in China, are now available in 24 sizes – most of Lonely’s bra styles go up to an F-cup.
“There is no lingerie production in New Zealand, so building relationships with our manufacturers [overseas] has been challenging and rewarding at the same time,” says Helene, adding that the brand’s sampling and production process takes about six months from initial concept to delivery in-store.
“From the language barrier and time difference, to meeting minimum standards for materials and production quantities, we are constantly problem-solving and learning. Lingerie is a lot more time-consuming to produce than clothing as there are so many components, and working with lace can be very time-intensive. It is so important to us that thought and care goes into all parts of Lonely, and nurturing the relationships we have with our suppliers is critical.
“Our manufacturers are like family to us and we work very closely together. I think this connection is something special.”
Luckily, the movement that Lonely has started only seems to be gathering steam, with its latest campaign, released in October 2016, featuring nine women – a ballerina, a transgender model, an artist, and even the photographer’s mother – of various ages, shapes and ethnicities, completely unretouched.
“Hopefully, we can continue to help give women more confidence to be themselves,” says Helene.