By  on February 1, 2006

NEW YORK — Talk about from the inside out. Innerwear designers are breaking traditional boundaries, heading into ready-to-wear territory.

In the beginning, there was a simple cotton pima T-shirt, bearing the name adam+eve.

That T-shirt begat a cashmere knit sweater, which begat wovens, such as linen drawstring pants and embroidered basics. From those came outerwear — puffy satin jackets and blazers with jeweled cuffs — and then, four seasons after its launch, the first full adam+eve collection: brocade safari jackets and delicate puff-sleeve blouses, as well as macramé tops, lotus-print pleated dresses and pintucked halters. They're all being launched this spring in stores including Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and Intermix.

Quite an evolution for designer Adam Lippes, whose adam+eve label has become synonymous with his seminal collection of no-nonsense undergarments. "People think of us as the guys who make that really cool underwear," Lippes says. "I get that all the time. When people know the fashion that we do, they're shocked. I saw Samantha Boardman the other day and she was like, 'I saw the coolest stuff and it was yours. I didn't know you did that!'"

As it turns out, Lippes isn't the only one stepping into the sportswear arena. Adam+eve joins a spate of innerwear labels that include Araks, Donna L'oren, Ying Li and Little Joe by Gail Elliott. Some designers, like Lippes, have tested the waters in past seasons by tossing out a silk blouse here, an embellished tank there, while others, such as Araks and Little Joe by Gail Elliott, have tapped into their lingerie's strong innerwear-as-outerwear vibe for a whole new collection. "My lingerie has always had more of a ready-to-wear feeling, so I felt that was the next logical step," says Araks designer Araks Yeramyan, whose new collection is launching for spring. Another logical step for Yeramyan is a runway show, which the Philadelphia native is holding during the upcoming Olympus Fashion for fall. Meanwhile, Lippes is carving out his own two-hour slot on the calendar with an informal presentation of fur-trimmed coats, rabbit vests and wool blazers.

While it may seem surprising that some trenches, trousers and pretty chiffon trappings have their roots in your everyday skivvies, it's actually a logical step, considering that many of these designers come from a sportswear background. Lippes is best known for his time spent at Oscar de la Renta as creative director and Yeramyan for her stints at Marc Jacobs and J. Crew. Even Ying Li-Oshrin, known for her hand-painted lingerie and sleepwear, has had 13 years of experience in the children's and contemporary markets.Yeramyan's debut spring collection, available at Barneys New York, includes everything from Loro Piana cashmere tops to loose cotton gauze blouses and dresses, all wholesaling from $90 to $700. It wasn't until the suggestion of Ana Lerario, a friend and owner of New York showroom Fiftytwo, that Yeramyan decided to make the jump into sportswear. "Looking back, I think I needed the lingerie to start somewhere really tight," she says. "My mind can go to a million places. It was like a good training. Now I'm ready for this."

Li-Oshrin, similarly, followed the advice of a Neiman Marcus buyer, Kate Dubas, who showed her lingerie pieces to the store's dress buyer. Neiman's will test a line of printed spring dresses, which wholesale for $125 to $200, in 14 doors. (Meanwhile, Saks Fifth Avenue will carry her scarves, wholesaling from $55 to $95.) However, Li-Oshrin's rtw offerings go back to early 2005. The blouses, shirtdresses and trenches stemmed from her colorful hand-painted silk garments that already lent themselves to nights out on the town.

Shannon Olson and Crystal Kiteveles, the design duo behind Donna L'oren, also made a formal move based on the crossover appeal of their intimates. "We realized a lot of our customers were taking our corset tops, bustiers and camis and wearing them out to clubs," explains Olson. "And we wanted to give them more of an option to choose from." To wit, a similar mood links the two lines, with the sportswear collection wholesaling from $22 to $49. "We're going with the same themes, a lot of the same motifs and the same details with laces and meshes," Olson adds. "But we're incorporating different fabrics, or showing a different neckline."

For many lingerie designers, a sportswear collection is merely a stone's throw from their innerwear origins. Consider them crossover garments that have, well, finally crossed into new territory. Case in point: Little Joe by Gail Elliott's new line of easy, relaxed cotton peasant tops and printed silk dresses — priced at wholesale from $61 to $128 and available in Henri Bendel's apparel department — which have a strong resemblance to Elliott's flirty camis and slips. She's even using the same production factory for both collections. "The line's a little bit more structured now," the former model says. "I'm using zips, for instance, and adding things like little cap sleeves. You probably wouldn't wear those to bed — that's probably the only difference."That brings us back to Lippes. Will customers recognize the original adam+eve identity in his new collection, which wholesales from $75 to $450? "There is a sense of cleanness, but no," he says. "When I started this company, the idea was that the basis of one's wardrobe today is the T-shirt. The idea was to create the most perfect underpinning and from there to grow it into a full lifestyle collection. That was always the intention."

And according to Roopal Patel, women's fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, "Adam always had a bigger plan in mind," she says. "Ready-to-wear is in his blood." That's not to say that Lippes will reject what he started out with at adam+eve; as with the other designers, he will continue to do innerwear.

The challenge, according to Julie Gilhart, senior vice president and fashion director of Barneys New York, is for designers to maintain their brand's image, while still growing the business and avoiding the all-too-easy "underwear designer" typecast. "If you're strong enough to be a successful lingerie designer and branch out," she says, "you still have to stay strong in lingerie while gradually building your strength in the rtw."

Take designer Jean Yu, for example, who's best known for her collection of feminine, fragile intimates, which she launched four years ago. She owns 37=1, a boutique on Crosby Street in SoHo, where she also sells similarly delicate evening gowns and dresses. In 2004, she expanded her rtw line with a number of wholesale accounts, including Maxfield in Los Angeles, Jeffreys New York and Linda Dresner in New York, after her black-and-white striped silk chiffon gown landed on Gwen Stefani on the April cover of Vogue. "You can't ignore that," Yu says. "I wasn't really eager to [grow] the rtw line at that particular time, but, you know, [the cover's impact] has a shelf life." Two weeks ago, the designer scored an even greater fashion win when Hilary Swank wore Yu's black micro matte jersey halter dress to the Golden Globes.

Despite these coups, some retailers and press have found Yu extremely difficult to work with. She makes no apology, and calls herself "particular.""It's reflected in the lingerie I do. I'm that way with everything," she says, "even with a pencil."

Elizabeth Kanfer, Saks Fifth Avenue's market director for accessories and lingerie, says creative wanderlust is inevitable, and simply a natural development for designers. "With a smaller brand, designers need to be able to make their line as diverse as possible," Kanfer says. "So if the retail spectrum changes, she'll have more assortments to offer."

Even a heavyweight like Josie Natori has stepped into other markets. She flirted with high-end eveningwear in the late Nineties, and exotic-skinned handbags, from 2001 to 2003. But both collections folded. "I lacked the infrastructure at the time," Natori says, adding that she plans to launch a home collection this fall through a licensing agreement with JLA Home.

Innerwear designers do have to overcome difficulties unfamiliar to their rtw peers who are expanding into other markets. "It's easier to do it the reverse, from already being a brand to adding lingerie to your repertoire, because you've already made a statement of who you are," says Gilhart. Certainly, the lifestyle element inherent in a larger collection can help and, as Patel notes, "the idea of rtw is that you can extract elements from it and add them to lingerie."

Indeed, such problems arise not just for innerwear designers, but also for those who make any function garment, such as swimwear or bridal gowns. The one oft-mentioned designer when it comes to crossover successes? Vera Wang. "If you're a great designer," says Ed Bucciarelli, president and chief executive officer of Henri Bendel, "your vision should come through."

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