As American as apple pie, as historic as the Empire State Building and shapelier than Liberty herself, the Maidenform logo hit the big nine zero last year: that’s almost a century of cinching, boosting and lifting the forms of women around the world.
Now 91 years young, like the grand old New York dame that she is, the brand is on a quest for youth and reinvention and, after a year of nostalgia that saw the creation of an extraordinarily va-va-voom anniversary collection by the Mad Men costume designer Janie Bryant, 2013 will see a wholesale revamp of the British branding.
“From the start of January we’re launching a whole new look,” says Jane Denearez, commercial director for the UK and Ireland. “We have a change of branding, a change of focus, everything. It’s like 2012 was celebrating everything we’ve been for the last 90 years, and 2013 is saying, ‘Ok, let’s turn the page; this is the new Maidenform.’”
Shaping the past
That doesn’t mean the company is leaving its heritage behind, though – far from it. Last year’s celebrations were just the icing on the cake for a company for whom history has happily coincided with contemporary culture and fashion, taking the brand from mid-West mumsy to Mad Men va-va-voom.
The company was created in New Jersey in 1922 by Ida Rosenthal and Enid Bissett, who created a bandeau with two cups and a piece of elastic in the middle, and in 1925 William Rosenthal filed the first patent for a prototype of the seamed uplift bra. It made vests for carrier pigeons and parachutes for the Army during the Second World War and filed a patent for the adjustable bra strap fastener in 1945.
It was the 1950s, though, that really saw Maidenform become synonymous with fashion, shapewear and the arch, elegant wit of the era, thanks to its famous "I dreamed…" campaign – at the time a remarkably racy concept in which women, in their dreams, find themselves with their Maidenform underwear glamorously on show in the most public of places.
"Everyone loves that campaign even now," says Denearez. "And they’re lovely images if you look at them now. Many of them are the old pointy bras, but they’ve got a beautiful look. In their day they were very shocking, because women weren’t advertised in their underwear, but also there’s a certain tongue in cheek."
Indeed, it was that campaign that, 60 years later, changed everything for Maidenform – a brand whose very name, to modern ears, speaks of spinsterish girdles – when an episode of Mad Men was based entirely around the adverts.
The season two episode, actually titled “Maidenform”, which aired in the UK in 2009, features the fictional ad agency Sterling Cooper’s client, Playtex, demanding an advert more in line with Maidenform’s campaign.
"Everybody loved that programme, and when Maidenform was associated with it, it kind of surprised people, because let’s face it, particularly in the UK, most people didn’t realise the style and heritage of Maidenform," says Denearez. "I think Mad Men just brought it back into focus as being a stylised and aspirational product."
That this was such an important campaign for the Mad Men executives is a reminder of how vital and game-changing those long-line conical bras were for the fashions of the time – taming the explosive curves of the series sex symbol Joan (Christina Hendricks) or boosting the straight lines of dowdy Peggy Olsen would have been impossible without the relatively new shaping technology.
A vintage year
It’s no surprise, then, that the Mad Men costume designer, Janie Bryant, should have been a fan of the brand, and would eventually become an ambassador for Maidenform. After designing those pieces, she had become intimately acquainted with the, well, intimates of the era, and of course with the brands that quite literally defined the fashions of the time.
"My favourite Maidenform campaign is the I Dreamed campaign," says Bryant. "I love all the foundations from that time – the quilted bras or the bullet bras; they’re amazing and beautiful pieces."
So when she came to write her book The Fashion File, she turned to Maidenform to provide from their archive of vintage advertising, and was recruited as the brand ambassador. It was a natural fit.
"I am a foundation queen," she says emphatically. "It’s so important for the costume design and for each character in the programme to have their own foundation garment, and it’s still important for us to have that knowledge today about what intimate apparel and shapewear can do for us now."
The result was the 90th anniversary limited edition capsule collection of shapewear, designed in collaboration with Bryant and inspired by vintage underwear – albeit using the most modern and high-tech of fabrics, to achieve that hourglass look without the pain of an original vintage girdle.
"I was so excited to be able to design a collection with Maidenform, because it’s about everything that I love in vintage lingerie," says Bryant. "Their collection is all about beautiful lace, the details of the garters, the shapewear, the luxurious fabrics, the longline bra."
And Bryant is adamant that this was not merely a pastiche collection.
"They’re vintage-inspired but they’re very much designed for a modern woman. The pieces are very sexy, they’re still with modern cuts and modern fabrics; it’s really just the inspiration of the vintage garments. It’s not only really fashionable right now, but also it’s very modern."
Back to the future
Modernity is what it’s all about for Maidenform in 2013, says Denearez. "We’re very proud of our heritage and it’s certainly a strong part of how the brand works. It’s been about shaping from the word go, and all our product is about shaping. But we’ve always been at the forefront of innovation, too; we’re always wanting to try and bring new things to the market.
"And because we have such a large market now in the shaping sector, we get all the best fabric companies coming to us first. We get the best factories and we get the best designers, because if they want to work on something innovative and different they want to come to Maidenform."
Those are big claims but they’re not made lightly: the most recent launch, Comfort Devotion, uses highly technical fabrics to create super-comfortable, seamless intimates, while maintaining an utterly contemporary simplicity, and marking what seems likely to be one of the big coming trends in lingerie: comfort, the polar opposite of vintage-inspired waistcinchers and uplifters.
The new branding, which will be gradually introduced through 2013, is designed to emphasise the company’s forward-looking approach and its relevance to modern, working women, rather than its heritage – albeit without losing the core Maidenform message of shapewear.
"In a very glib way, we say we are focusing more on the ‘form’ and less on the ‘maiden’," says Denearez. "It’s all about the art of form. In fact, ‘the art of form’ is probably going to be a tagline we’re going to use going forward. Because that’s what we do, whether it be bras or briefs or shapewear: it’s about creating a beautiful form and looking beautiful under clothes."
That focus is not about changing the products – those much-loved favourites are going nowhere – but about making the packaging clearer, more sophisticated and more contemporary, and bringing Maidenform’s many sub-brands under one clear banner.
"One thing about being a US company that we can find frustrating in Europe is that the names of the products were 100 miles long, and we had seven or eight brands, and people weren’t sure what they were buying," says Denearez. "So over the last year we’ve very clearly on our packaging said, ‘It’s Flexi by Maidenform’; ‘It’s Controller by Maidenform’. Next year we launch Maidenform as it is – no fancy names, no nothing – and the product will be bannered under five areas: Energy, Body, Soul, Shape and Love."
Packaging will be reduced to simple, sleek black with only the brand and the name of the product on it, and the trade will be offered guidance and in-store fixtures to complement the brand’s new look.
"We’re turning the page and now we’re moving on to a new Maidenform – with all the heritage still there, yes, but you have to move with the times. It makes it a truly global brand, and that’s a difficult thing to do."
Denearez has no fear of alienating loyal customers, but she certainly believes that the brand can return to its former place as purveyor of lingerie to strong, modern women, and bring in a whole new customer in the process.
"One of the things our president says is that, with our product architecture now, we celebrate the female form and we will take the woman from work out, to get out, to make out," she says. "Which is not how people would have perceived Maidenform before."