IF there is one woman in Edinburgh who never discovers upon the opening of her underwear drawer that it’s stuffed with greying pants and bras so mangled that bits of wire poke through the material, it’s Libby Allan.
Indeed, it would probably be a sacking offence should the former Broughton High pupil ever get knocked over by a bus and be found dressed in anything but the very latest in lingerie.
The 33-year-old from Stockbridge is the brains behind the trends in M&S foundation garments. She already knows what women will wear beneath their summer dresses next year and what the in-colour for bras on show with spaghetti-strap tops will be – as well as the choices male admirers will be faced with come Valentine’s Day gift shopping in 2013.
Her job as trend, fabric and innovation designer with the British underwear institution – which is the biggest player in the smalls market, selling 60 million pairs of knickers annually – means she travels the world to spot new ideas in fabrics and fashion, bringing them back to the high street store’s design team in London.
It’s a long way from the days she spent scouring the shelves of Edinburgh’s Remnant Kings shops looking for material to make her own clothes on her mum’s old sewing machine.
“I’ve always been interested in clothes, in the creative process,” she says. “I think because I’ve always been tall – I’m 6ft – I needed to make my own just to have something to fit.
“Obviously I would have preferred to buy something from the shops like my friends when I was at school, but my height was an issue so it became kind of a necessity. My mum is an academic, but she’s also creative, and she taught me to sew. So we would buy patterns, adapt them and make clothes. I even made my dress for my high school prom.”
She adds: “Despite that, I never felt in school that I was one of the arty ones, I didn’t want to go to art college. But there was a course in textiles and fashion at the Scottish College of Textiles in Galashiels which was made for me.”
It was there that Libby learned the fundamentals of putting garments together and the uses of fabrics and on graduating, the self-confessed homebird wrenched herself from Edinburgh and headed to London. For six years she was employed by a trend consultancy, and it was there that she discovered the intricate world of lingerie design.
“I had this two-week placement which turned into my first job, first as the general dogsbody, but I worked my way up until I was running three accounts, one of which was an Italian lace company which designed lingerie. The job is quite hard to explain, but I didn’t design products; rather, I was the person who researched what was out there, what was available to the designers, and made the predictions as to what would be happening a year from now.
“The clients were paying us to tell them what colour or fabric would be popular in a year’s time, what would be the shape and style – so that they were working on the right products and garments.”
However when her current job was advertised by M&S, Libby jumped at the chance. “After all, it’s the place everyone goes to for undies, isn’t it? So if you’re going to be in the business . . .” she laughs. “My job is still researching and predicting what I feel our customers will want and need in a year’s time.”
If that sounds like a lot of responsibility, it is. Imagine if Libby is a shade out on colour and women want dusky rose knickers rather than pale pink, or she’s a tad out of shape, and women want to be minimised rather than hoisted up in a balcony bra?
“Well there’s obviously a lot of processes and decisions made after my initial ideas,” she says. “Thankfully it’s not all on me. I’d get far too big a head if I said this is what I think and everybody just jumped. We have 16 designers and a head of design who has years of experience, and I have a team which I work with, including experts in colour and print.
“We provide the information and framework and the designers brainstorm with us and the buyers are involved – it’s a team thing so it’s not too scary. And one of the most rewarding things is to travel around the world visiting factories and stores, I’m really lucky to be able to work with leading European lace and embroidery manufacturers who have incredible archives to get lost in and find inspiration – that’s what informs our lace ranges.”
The big news in lacy M&S lingerie was the launch earlier this year of the Rosie collection for the store’s designer Autograph line. Named after the model-turned-actress Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, the range comprised 33 pieces of silk and lace lingerie sets from cami and French knicker pieces to a playsuit. “The Rosie range for winter is beautiful,” says Libby. “It’s classic black and red in terms of colour, with a beautiful floral print and a vintage feel in wonderfully luxurious fabrics. But they’re all machine washable, so practical too, which is what every woman wants.”
Of course not all undies are about luxury, many are about practicality and shape. “We listen to what our customers want all the time,” says Libby. “Which is why we produced our Amazing Illusion Bra. Ladies above a D Cup complained that bras with under-wiring are sometimes uncomfortable, so we’ve developed a product unique to the market which uses a special silicon instead and gives the same support.”
She adds: “The thing I love most about underwear is that no-one knows what you’re wearing except you. You could be wearing some very formal, black clothes, but underneath have a bright neon pink bra on, or some wild print.”
And what about next year, what can women expect to be wearing? “Well it’s all under wraps at the moment,” she says. “But we’re always doing our best to bring beautiful and exciting new products to our customers. So keep your eyes peeled.”
No lack of support for this sector
LINGERIE appears to be recession-proof. Between 2008 and 2012, the volume of sales in the UK is estimated to have grown 0.6 per cent compared with womenswear, which was flat.
The total annual market last year was worth £1.52bn and Verdict Research has predicted a further 2.2 per cent volume rise this year.
Marks & Spencer has the biggest share of the UK lingerie market with a 27.4 per cent share by volume.
It sells 60 million knickers a year, though 230.2 billion women’s pants were sold overall in the UK last year.
This year M&S launched model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s Rosie Collection – which became the store’s fastest selling underwear range ever.
The average price of women’s underwear in the UK is just £4.50.