By and  on January 23, 2012

When Tamae Hirokawa, designer of the Tokyo-based fashion line Somarta, sent a full bodysuit encrusted with some 20,000 Swarovski crystals down the runway in 2007, it wasn’t with dreams of becoming a bestseller. In fact, it wasn’t until three years later that someone other than a model dared to wear the getup. In April 2010, Lady Gaga, the patron saint of otherworldly lingerie, put the look in front of a global audience when she wore it throughout a trip to Japan, later reprising the bodysuit for her spread in Vanity Fair’s September 2010 issue.

Yet even with that kind of exposure, Hirokawa, who sells tamer versions of her suit — gloves, stockings, tops — under the Skin Series label at Japanese retailers such as Ginza Mitsukoshi and Seibu Shibuya, has no plans to put the more extreme pieces into production. But why not? If any subgenre of fashion has permission to push boundaries, surely it’s lingerie, where anything beyond basic nudges at fantasy. A survey of its purveyors found that the riskier designs pay off.

“We’ve been dressing pop stars and actresses for a long time, because we were known for doing extreme pieces that are great for editorial,” says Sarah Shotton, creative director of Agent Provocateur. “Now we do fashion shows once a year, and people call up saying, ‘Where can I get that studded corset?’”

In 2009, Agent Provocateur launched its Soiree collection, a more expensive, luxurious addition to the line that this season includes a black leather cutout bra and waspie (a waist-cinching garterlike belt) with gold-star nipple covers and Swarovski-encrusted chains — prices top off around $4,000. From the main collection, Shotton remembers a series called Katherine from a few years ago. Kirsty Hume modeled its bondage bra with cutaway side cups and a suspender belt that cut under the rear, leaving it entirely exposed. “That sold out instantly,” says Shotton. “We were like, ‘Okay.’”

There are different levels of extreme. Whereas Agent Provocateur is known for engineered kink, Carlotta Danti of the Milan-based label Rosamosario works with silk, lace and linen, all hand-dyed and hand-sewn for a pretty, artisanal effect. When designing her more directional looks, she tries to ground them in a potential real-life situation. For example, she says the Girella jumpsuit — a linen corset with bullet cups traced in circular embroidery, attached to high-waisted slim pants done in French lace and bondagelike cotton piping — would be appropriate for “a modern wedding between two ladies in a cosmopolitan situation.”

Eres is quite understated compared to its competition, yet designer Valerie Delafosse says the customer always responds to what’s newest and most innovative. “They want to be surprised,” she says. In 2008, after years of skimpy Brazilian-style thongs being the rage, Eres introduced the high-waisted, full-coverage Flavie panty, which became the brand’s bestseller. “Maybe it’s not extreme in the way that you mean, but it was extremely different,” said Delafosse.

Then there are those who consider “extreme” a dirty word. When asked for comment on its more outré designs, a rep from Kiki de Montparnasse, the high-end underwear line known for its gold-plated sex toys and such seductive fare as the next-to-naked frame look, pictured on page 23, practically blushed. “‘Extreme lingerie’ isn’t really the right tone for us,” the spokesperson offered via e-mail. “I apologize, but I’ve been informed by higher-ups that they would like to pass this time around.”

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