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I’ve talked lots in the past about how small indie designers are driving innovations in plus size lingerie, so I wanted to take some time over the next few months to spotlight some of the best ones. We’re starting today with RavenDreams, a plus size luxury lingerie business that does everything right as far as I’m concerned.
RavenDreams produces thoughtful pieces in luxury fabrics up to a US 4XL. They also do custom work, including bra size pieces that go up to a 50JJ. I was lucky enough this week to get some time with Abi Tyrrell to ask some questions about her models, her lingerie and her lingerie philosophy.
Holly: What made you decide to start RavenDreams? What is your background as a designer?
Abi: Desperation. Even three to four years later what I see online is not to my taste. Yes, I am being kind here. Also, for me to look like the girls in the photos I would need to trough on the makeup and a LOT of carpet tape. I have had two kids and am not 16. I want to turn myself and my partner on — not turn the lights off.
Background? I come from tailors on both sides of my family. I was sewing Dior dresses copied from the pages of Vogue Patterns for my Barbie doll at the age of nine. I was head of my High School costumes for every play at 16, and studied at uni. I put myself through school sewing for historical reenactors, Am-Dram, and one memorable Ralph Lauren inspired suit for Ascott that made the top five list that year on BBC 6pm news. It was a 96-hour suit I did in less than 24 — it nearly broke me. I also spent eight fun and frustrating years being a Costume Checker/Elf for Kentwell Hall. Once people knew to what level I could sew and would take almost any challenge, they beat a path to my door clutching a crayon drawing and big hopes.
Holly: What inspires your designs? What kind of women do you see wearing your pieces?
Abi: What my about page and blog says is true! Honestly, after a long and sad divorce I wanted to get laid. But when going to look for lingerie in the stores, it was all granny pants or worse yet, thongs. I went online and in 2011 there was only ebay that had plus sized clothing and it was all nasty and cheap, not classy or sophisticated at all. While stores boasted they had my size and I ordered correctly, it was ALWAYS a disaster. So I design for me — the things I can’t find anywhere. It has to be well made and fit comfortably. I have to be able to get in and out of it easily (or have it taken off easily).
What inspires me? History, obviously. Fantasy as well, but oddly ceramics. I had a teacher once who told me that you had to pick up a pot and feel it in your hands to appreciate that hands made these and the importance of Form and Function. If the form does not have a function then it has no purpose. So I build a lot of function, like bust support and curved seams into my work.
Holly: You’ve shot your pieces on larger models who are not the industry standard, without any photoshop. What made you decide to take a risk on your imagery? How have people reacted to it? Do you feel like your more honest approach to advertising has been an asset for the brand?
Abi: First — have you seen those girls? They are so beautiful! I don’t see how photoshop could make them more beautiful! Second, honesty is the best policy for satisfying the customer. If you lie about the fit then it will get returned and your name blacklisted in the community. My ultimate customer is me and I have just felt destroyed every time I order something. It’s like all the videos lately about how plus size [doesn’t] fit. So I really don’t want to have that happen to anyone who tries my pieces.
I would LOVE to have larger models, but there is a very small number of plus sized women willing to model in the first place. Lingerie takes a special kind of confidence and unfortunately a very thick skin. We have had some really unflattering comments, but they were always out weighed by the positive ones.
Holly: Being an indie lingerie brand comes with its own set of challenges. Does being an exclusively plus size brand make things harder? How do you feel about the luxury plus size lingerie market as a whole?
Abi: What luxury plus size market? You see silk anywhere on a size UK20? ‘Cause I haven’t. Yes, it does really make me very cross to see all the companies jumping on the plus sized band wagon and only going up to a size UK18.
Being smaller means it’s harder to get the word out. Being smaller means wholesale is not competitive with those who get containers of product made in China. As is, I make 10 sizes, 14-32, and yes, how you look at the body HAS to be different for plus size. You can scale sizes 6-12, but then the dynamics really change. I think the most difficult thing is to educate the plus size market as to what quality is and that they can demand better products.
Holly: Tell us about how you designed your new sizing system and how it differs from traditional high street sizing. What design elements do you use to account for the 10cm differential you see over a period of time?
Note: Abi talked about how women differ in size over the course of the month by an average of 10cm in several blog posts, but I wanted to note it here as well. Her pieces are designed to fit over the long term rather than into a more narrow set of measurements that capture a specific point in time.
Abi: Size charts, what bollocks! At one point, one major store said I was a UK32, another UK26 and the third didn’t go far enough, but I could walk into any of those stores and try on a UK24 and it would fit. Sort of. My first thought was to do a study: both phenomenological and empirical. I invited a group of plus sized women for a chat on their experiences with how they shopped and what their experience of what sizes they wore. Then I did an online survey asking women what sizes they actually wore and got them to send me their measurements. After a heck of a lot of Excel spreadsheets later, it became obvious that high street stores HAD NO CLUE how their patterns were being cut or how the clothes were made. There is no current relationship. We all know this, but I can’t make things that will disappoint. So I decided to dump traditional sizing and go with what women actually said they wore. So far so good. Yet again — the new vanity plus size sizing in the US is throwing a spanner (note: a spanner is like a monkey wrench in US terms) at that.
10cm difference? Oh goodness. Everything has to curve. Why have straight lines on a pattern for a body that doesn’t have any? Another secret is the silks I use have 5-10% elastane. Traditionally bras are made with the cups in non-stretch fabrics otherwise they lose support — there are ways around this.
Holly: What do you think about the future of the plus size luxury lingerie market? Do you see it expanding? Do you think plus size women are willing to spend more on luxury lingerie in large numbers?
Abi: Ebay will always be our competition. It sells dreams for under a tenner. With that much flowing through the public consciousness, plus the many decades of indoctrination that we are just not worthy of having quality clothing, the luxury lingerie market is going to struggle. I see it as my purpose to be out there challenging the market to compete with me. Hell, I have even been copied already. I see that as a win. Is the average plus size woman willing to spend more money? The market is expanding and creating better goods — we all must keep demanding a better service.
What do you think of this brand? Do you agree with Abi about the state of plus size luxury lingerie?