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Lingerie designer Leigh Bantivoglio has gotten far by swimming against the industry tide.
Chat long enough with Leigh Bantivoglio about her career and you wouldn’t be surprised to hear her call innerwear by its old-fashioned name: unmentionables. “The most annoying thing is when people ask me what I do — especially men,” says Bantivoglio. “It opens up the gamut for all kinds of inappropriate conversation.”
A native Philadelphian, Bantivoglio moved to New York in 1991, when she was 24, and pursued a marketing and merchandising program at Parsons School of Design. She later worked as a fashion assistant at WWD’s sister publication, W magazine. But her aspirations soon digressed from those of a wannabe fashion editor. In 1995, she decided to become “a big fish in a small pool.” She started her lingerie firm on a shoestring budget of $20,000. “There was so much saturation in the ready-to-wear field at the time,” says Bantivoglio. “I felt I didn’t have the competitive drive or the financial backing needed. Ready-to-wear is such a cutthroat business. Now, lingerie is the big thing.” Today, despite a small volume — $2 million anticipated by yearend — Bantivoglio is a star in the intimates pond, with accounts at Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys Japan.
Bantivoglio managed to make her name quite quickly in the lingerie world, despite her lack of formal training as a designer. “Not having a technical background allowed me to break rules,” she says. One such design, Bantivoglio’s signature stretch-lace boy-cut shorts, was initially ridiculed by manufacturers. “Everybody was making fun of me, saying things like, ‘That’s the biggest panty on the planet,’” she recalls. “Now, boy shorts are the biggest item on the planet.”
For trim, Bantivoglio prefers Calais leavers lace, a supple, complexly woven variety often used in couture, and delicate silk ribbons and bows. She also favors unexpected color matches, for example, a lace trim cross-dyed orange and gold.
For fall, Bantivoglio has launched several new styles, including some ready-to-wear pieces: a Thirties-inspired dress and a cardigan that can be paired with a lined cami for a twinset look. Wholesale prices for Bantivoglio’s collections run from $15 for thongs to $135 for dresses. Her upcoming spring collection features a six-piece microfiber group that includes a cami, a thong, a chemise and an Empire-waisted dress.
“Leigh has created a whole new direction in lacy looks. I see a lot of people knocking it off,” says Barbara Cook, owner of Joovay, a lingerie shop in Manhattan.