by Gabriel Bell
In the rag trade, there is perhaps no richer real estate than the inches between the waist and thighs. Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, and a host of others rode the backs of a million waistbands to enduring fame. But, what's an underwear designer to do when exposure itself has become overexposed? Victoria Bartlett, creator of the burgeoning bloomer brand VPL, has found success in the panty game by learning to cover up.
"When there is nothing to discover," says Bartlett of the current crop of barely-there underwear, "the sexiness disappears and you lose interest in what's beneath. That's why I will always shy away from T and A." Indeed, the panties created by VPL (short for "visible panty lines") owe more to the knickers of decades past than Brazilian beach attire. But don't confuse Bartlett's wares for granny-panties. Subversion is never far from her mind.
A graduate of the London College of Fashion, Victoria Bartlett has a knack for raising eyebrows. Throughout her career as a freelancer and contributor to Interview, Allure, Vogue, Visionaire, and The Face she cultivated a reputation as a canny and cantankerous stylist. Famous for dressing up the tawdry or adding a hint of sleaze to the high-minded, the fashion director gained a standing in New York circles usually reserved for firebrand designers. She even bared her breasts for a V photo-shoot. Self-employment was just the next logical step for the incorrigible and inspired stylist.
When there is nothing to discover, the sexiness disappears and you lose interest in what's beneath. That's why I will always shy away from T and A.
Fall/Winter 2003 and Spring/Summer 2005 line shows
Teaming up with partner Jeffery Costello, Bartlett revealed VPL's first collection of sexy tops and bottoms in fall 2003. While the line's allusions to medical gauze, doctor's scrubs, and men's swimming trunks might not inspire steamy thoughts on paper, the coy combination of seemingly innocent cuts and materials with Bartlett's inference that these revealing designs should be worn as sportswear curled a quite a few hairs. Unlike the star-strewn Victoria's Secret runway phantasmagorias, VPL's debut show kept the emphasis on the concepts behind the clothes with a brilliant doctor-and-patient pantomime that reveled in the rarely tapped eroticism of institutional and utilitarian themes. Tight, functional creations that would have looked familiar to a Socialist ballerina became dangerous when dyed a suggestive nude. The pair had improbably brewed definitively unsexy elements such as wide banding, foundation construction, terry cotton, and health care into a flirtatious potion. It wasn't long before Bartlett's deconstructed camisoles, bandage bras, and "mechanical green" panties were disappearing from Barneys' lingerie department.
Since their deceptively sexy premiere, Costello and Bartlett have expanded on their leitmotif of comfortable, flexible underclothes that double as arresting outerwear. Certainly, one could see the sporty side of Bartlett's carefully torn T-shirts, bodysuits, miniskirts, panties, and leggings as her models quietly pumped iron at a gym during VPL's Spring 2005 line show.
This season, Bartlett's theme seems to be a novel mix of delicate, lively designs with a dose of classic poolside sweat. Delving again into the realm of vintage athletic togs, VPL's spring 2006 line of contemporary loungewear channels the unique appeal of their lingerie into casual tennis dresses with bra tops and mesh paneling, long-hooded boxing coats, pleated jersey culottes, and striped, paneled swimsuits. Of course, the line's references to prim country clubs and masculine gyms are smoke and mirrors. Even when one of Bartlett's rare conservative patterns covers summer skin, its touch is so light that the wearer seems colored rather than clothed. During a line show that featured models glistening with sweat while sipping soft drinks, witty towel necklaces by Brian Crumley Accessories, sweatbands, and mesh leather Airtex boots underlined VPL's sensous sports motif with a wink and a smile.
Fall/Winter 2006/2007 collection, featuring the new line of Report for VPL boots
But for fall, Bartlett is adding more than inches of cloth to her portfolio. Instead of relying on the high drama of her rollout shows, Bartlett chose a conventional catwalk format for this fall's VPL rollout in order to shine a light on her newest project. While her models charmed the audience with Bartlett's latest collection of wide culottes, ballooned sleeves, and asymmetrical necklines, it was the newly designed boots on their feet—a collaboration with Report—that really got tongues wagging. The two models for fall include a strident, almost sock-like riding boot ($750) and a more playful knee-high structured "sneaker" boot with flirty lacing ($615). True to her aesthetic, Bartlett has found something unmistakenly sexy and feminine in these knee-high numbers that wouldn't look out of place on a British fusilier or Depression-era boxer. What's more, the Report boots cover almost the entire calf in tight, reinforced canvas and leather—a restricting look that in Bartlett's language equals a sophisticated come on. As she says, "discovering what's beneath is the sexiest part. It's good to have a dessert!"
Report for VPL boots
Spring/Summer 2006 photography by Maciek Kobielski
VPL designer Victoria Bartlett discovered long ago when it comes to the lingerie game, a little skin goes a long way. And this summer, the mistress of unmentionables adds another kind of booty to her roster of sexy offspring.