Slipping into style

In a lingerie market overcrowded with basics, how do you make yours stand out? For Hanro of Switzerland, the answer is simple: make sure your vests are the best, writes Ana Kinsella.

Sat, Apr 13, 2013, 06:00

The white cotton vest is a staple of any well-dressed woman’s wardrobe, as Naomi Campbell certainly knows. The supermodel splurged in one Zurich department store last year, spending more than €2,000 on simple tops and other pieces. The brand? Hanro of Switzerland, a company more than 125 years old, dedicated to making the best basics, bras and briefs around.

“Basics are our bread and butter,” says designer Marija Kaspar. “So it’s important that our simplest designs are of the best quality.” The design process starts in the Hanro HQ, which is in Mäder, Austria, where the team aim to refine and improve old classics each season. They have a loyal following, Kaspar explains: “Our customers think, ‘Well, I bought this slip 10 years ago and loved it, so I’ll buy it again now’.”

Slip devotees maintain that they make for smoother lines, a comfier fit and even a hint of sensuality. Today they are hard to find, and fans of the slip will go to great lengths to track a good one down. Hanro, stocked in top department stores from Brown Thomas to Harrods and Bergdorf Goodman, has always sold slips.

To keep designs fresh, the team start by looking to the past. Hanro has been around for more than 125 years, so the archives can provide inspiration each season. Kaspar and fellow designer Yvonne Hoffman-Morent show me a perfectly-preserved vest from 1900, handmade in silk and crochet. “We look each season to see if we can renew old styles,” explains Hoffman-Morent. “Then we make them more modern in the cuts and fits.”

Such an emphasis on the past could leave the brand looking too nostalgic. But Hanro has a trick up its sleeve in the form of its fabric production factory. Using innovative dyeing and knitting machinery, developed in-house, allows Hanro to make the best use of new fabrics like Tencel, a more sustainable alternative to cotton, made from repurposed wood pulp.

The lace used is made in a nearby factory over the border in Switzerland, one that also makes embroideries for the likes of Chanel and Stella McCartney. In the past, lace-making was a painstaking process done by hand, but the factory Hanro uses, owned by Bischoff Textil AB is bright and airy, a world away from the sweatshops we may imagine produce our cheaper clothes. The team of mostly female employees man the huge machines and carefully check every piece of lace fabric for minute errors, as only flawless fabric can be used in production.

“It’s about zooming in on detail,” says Hoffman-Morent. “Using new technology to improve details on a classic design is how we change and modernise.”

Those vests so beloved by Naomi Campbell had already become celebrity endorsed, after Nicole Kidman wore one (and not much else) in Stanley Kubrick's 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut . According to Hoffman-Morent, a simple vest is the most essential item a stylish woman could have in her wardrobe. “You wear it under a shirt and it keeps you warm in winter, but it’s breathable in summer too. It’s very elegant, very pure.”

That’s not to say trends don’t have a place at Hanro. Between Spanx and onesies, loungewear and shapewear have been booming in recent years. Even British prime minister David Cameron admitted to coveting an adult-size all-in-one earlier this year.

But shapewear is another, notoriously uncomfortable thing altogether. Spanx attempt the hard task of sucking in curves at any cost, with celebrities competing to see who can wear the most pairs of the super-strength tights on the red carpet (the current record is Adele, who reputedly wore four pairs to last year’s Grammys).

But Hanro value comfort more than tummy-slimming. “After I had each of my three children, my mother bought me shapewear and said, ‘You need this. You need to tuck it all back in.’ ” Kaspar tells me. “But I tried it on and thought, never again. When I tried the Hanro line, I thought, you don’t even feel it on, You’re all tucked in, but you’re not suffering in the same way.”

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