The Irish Examiner Visits Ali in her Studio

Once upon a time, your average woman’s knowledge of knickers was more or less limited to her own experience of wearing them. But not anymore. I’m not sure when this changed exactly– maybe in the 1990s when the low-rise jean with peeping-out thong became ubiquitous, I don’t know- but it has: now, in 2017 knickers are no longer a secret, writes Aida Austin in the Examiner.

Sheer dresses, leggings, tight jeans, athlesiure wear – over the years, these have granted ordinary women like me a million unsought opportunities to follow the precise outline, to join up the dots, so to speak, of a million other ordinary women’s knickers.

Visible panty-lines are everywhere.

On me, you, the bus, in the post office, workplace and street. Everywhere, that is, apart from upstairs in fashion designer Ali Wheeler’s little lingerie atelier, Clonakilty.

Which, if you ask me — being chock full of women and knickers — is just the sort of place you’d most expect to find them. But then what do I know? I’m wearing one of a five-pack of cotton-rich M&S briefs.

There is no VPL in Hot Knickers Lingerie because Ali, its creator and owner, firmly believes that, “unless it’s meant to be seen, it shouldn’t be seen”.

Now, we all know that knickers are as diverse and contradictory as the bottoms they cover; there’s high-rise, low-rise, contorting, compressing; cheeky, sensible, architectural and naff; baggy hammocks, boy-shorts, barely-there- eye-patches, thermals and three millimetre pieces of string.

But there’s nothing of that ilk in Ali’s tiny weeny hand-made-knicker-factory — just elegant, comfortable, vintage-inspired shapewear lingerie that only the wearer will know she’s wearing, “unless of course she chooses otherwise”.

You might think you’ve heard this all before, but what Ali does in her Hot Knickers studio is actually quite unique: with a degree in fashion, background in bespoke costume design, extensive research, passion, hard work and four sewing machines, Ali Wheeler saves women’s bottoms from the tyranny of ill-fitting, uncomfortable unsexy knickers with VPL.

I’m here to find out exactly how she goes about this business of saving women’s bottoms.

And just as importantly, why.

I ask Ali — a 52-year-old mum and one of the least intimidating women you could hope to meet — how she came to be the only bespoke shapewear lingerie manufacturer in Ireland.

“Where we’re standing now used to be my friend Paula’s hair salon,” Ali says, “I just had a tiny space for my costume-making business down at the back, where my sewing machines are now.

“Paula came to work one morning,” she continues, “having to go straight from the salon to an overnight event after work but she forgot to bring a change of knickers to wear the following day, so I quickly measured her up while she was giving one of her customers a cut and blow-dry, got my pattern-blocks out and had a go at making a pair. She said she wanted smoothing, sexy, comfortable knickers that went up to her belly-button. So I did my best with the materials I had. I remember her face when she tried them on,” Ali remembers smiling. “She just stood there in front of the mirror, actually admiring and caressing her curves. Out loud. She was delighted with herself. I loved seeing that delight. I was hooked. It went from there.”

The inspiration for Ali’s four-part lingerie range — which comprises the Paula Knickers Brief (€40), Ava and Charlie Camisoles (€40) and Liz Slip (€90) — is drawn from the glamour and tap-pants style of the 1940s and 50s (“if Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner were alive now, they’d definitely wear my knickers”) but Ali fuses her vintage-inspired design with the comfort, support and functionality that modern silky European fabrics (all ethically-sourced) provide.

However, the success of Ali’s designs doesn’t merely lie in the style, cut or type of fabric she uses (85%polyamide and 15% elastane in the main feature fabrics, 95% cotton and 5% elastane in gussets for maximum flexibility and support) but in the fact that all Ali’s creations are underpinned by her proper — and by that I mean empathetic – understanding of how women’s bodies actually work.

She holds up a pair of Paula knickers.

“Women bend at the waist,” she says, “ so I cut my knickers to fit perfectly to the waist and they all have a centre back seam, just like a bottom does. By cutting and seaming fabric to follow the natural curves and bends in a woman’s bodyline you end up with a natural, smooth silhouette- and nice, heart-shaped bottom. And they’re short in the leg so there’s no panty line, with a cotton gusset that a panty liner fits and a tummy-smoothing panel, because in my experience, I’ve found that women are most self-conscious about their tummies.” Ali’s knickers also encase both buttocks and give a bit of “bottom support” which, quite apart from reassuring anyone anxious to avoid the upsetting, “cellulite in leggings” look, is also a major practical plus in chilly, windy Ireland.

But Hot Knickers Lingerie is about body-contouring, not contortion.

“We are the shape we are,” Ali says, “if we squish our bodies into underwear too tight, we just end up looking boned and rolled, with lumps in places we never had them in the first place. Besides,” she says, “men have never had to suffer the misery of underwear as a form of physical suppression, whereas throughout history, women have. I mean look at Poldark romping around in comfort while poor old Demelza’s stuck in whalebone corsetry. If men don’t have to suffer it, why should women?” Why indeed?

I examine a pair of Paula knickers. If someone held a loaded gun to my head and said, “post a picture of yourself on Instagram in a pair of knickers of your own choosing,” I’d choose these: soft gold with a black lace trim. Smoothing, not contorting. Clean and simple design. Modest and naughty.

But can comfort really be a happy byproduct of lingerie that is also, essentially, shapewear?

I’m not convinced.

“Take a pair home with you,” Ali says, “and let me know if you think it can.” I’m wearing them as I type: it can.

– Aida Austin

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