New lingerie label Ohen combines practical engineering and sensual lace. Jessica Beresford talks to Lu Blade-Bittle and Anja Bucher about how their complementary professional experience is a vital component of the new brand.
Anyone who has ever bought a bra will be familiar with the oft-quoted statistic seen plastered on
“I had had my third and last baby, and I wanted to replenish my underwear drawer with styles that made me feel good after wearing maternity bras for a long time,” says Lu Blade-Bittle of her particular lingerie bugbear. “I started asking people for recommendations, but I couldn’t find anything that did a functional job — because it needs to do a job — and that was also beautifully designed.”
Lu, who had spent her “entire career in corporate environments, doing digital in strategy”, set about filling the gap she saw in the market, and decided to approach her friend Anja Bucher about making a lingerie line — one that catered not only to her own needs, but a broad range of pain points.
Anja is well-versed in this area, having worked as a designer at Lonely for 10 years, before leaving two and a half years ago when she was pregnant with her son. She then worked for Auckland-based underwear brand Awwa, as well as helping to develop Entire Studios’ swim collection, before Lu’s proposition came up. “It was perfect timing, because I had hit this moment of going through quite a full on, high-stress career, to hustling, scattered-around contracting,” says Anja, “and I didn’t want to go back to working for another brand.”
That Anja would launch her own lingerie brand is pertinent not only to her design credentials, but to the need to fill the gap in the market left after Lonely’s well-documented fall from grace. The brand, which launched in 2009 as an offshoot of an existing ready-to-wear line, found global success with its lingerie which resonated with the body positivity movement and backlash against the sexualised, pushed-up image of Victoria’s Secret. The brand released naturalistic campaigns featuring “real” women of different sizes, bearing scars and stretch marks, and boasted a long list of celebrity fans including Lena Dunham, Paloma Elsesser and Alexa Chung.
The bubble burst when a story published in 2020 alleged that co-founder Steve Ferguson was perpetuating QAnon conspiracy theories, including that climate change, Covid-19 and the Christchurch terror attack were fake news. This was coupled by an exodus of staff from the company, some of whom claimed that the positive external messaging of the brand was not reflected internally.
Since then, a rush of New Zealand lingerie brands competed for the space that Lonely once dominated, including Videris, Awwa and Juem Woman. But no one is arguably better positioned to do so than Ohen, which has Anja and former Lonely patternmaker Ella Sarjeant, who also previously worked at Bendon and Stella McCartney, behind its designs.
“That is our [goal], to scoop that customer as well as broaden our customer base, because Lonely didn’t do things like padded bras, and we’ve got some styles that are a bit more inclusive for people who don’t want full sheerness,” says Anja. “My handwriting was all over Lonely, and that’s coming through to Ohen, but this is about how we can do things differently to make it more unique.”
Lu says the styles they have settled on are based on broad research — “we spoke to so many different women with completely different needs and that really influenced how we considered each style. It was so interesting, because I know what I love — I’m fine with sheer styles, and I’m a real set girl — but when we spoke to others, some could never wear sheer, or they didn’t care about sets, they just wanted comfort.”
Launching today, the Ohen range will initially include four bra styles, running through 10-18 band sizes and B to G cup sizes, with a custom wire that is wider and more flexible than the industry standard, so it’s “much comfier — no digging”, says Anja. As well as sourcing Lenzing™Modal for the fabric, they’ve wear-tested a stretch lace that uses post-consumer nylon. “The market is quite flooded with mesh or cotton knits, and styles have been stripped back to be super-minimal — colourful, playful comfy bras,” says Anja. “But I love lace, and I wanted to bring it back.”
Ohen’s shapes include the Teardrop, the Lift, the Contour and the wireless Bralette, which Anja says are mostly inspired by vintage pieces.
“I’ve always got a little lace archive going, stretching as far back as the 20s and 30s. I’ve also got that 90s gal in me that I can’t shake, so there’s definitely a bit of inspiration drawn from those supermodels and runway looks with the more square necklines. I have a bunch of old Vogues and other magazines that my mum has saved, so I delve into those — I love all the amazing colours.” Although for Ohen, the pair is playing it safe, with black and muted hues of fennel and toast.
The underwear styles are based on retro models, such as the lacy French brief, two high-rise styles and a thong. “Lu and I both aren’t thong wearers, but we personally tested this one and it’s actually quite good,” adds Anja. “I’ve been a [visible panty line] person for so long, I think because I went through the high school trauma of wearing dental floss G-strings,” but I’m a convert with our style.”
For now, Ohen is only available online, but the duo has designed the website to make it as easy as possible to buy lingerie without trying it on in-store, including a “Fit Studio”, with measuring guides and information on cup sizes.
“Part of what we’re trying to create is just a really simple shopping experience, so you can see the product. I find it so frustrating when I can’t see the shape of something on a website,” adds Lu.
And while the initial style offering will be evergreen, although updated with different colourways, the pair will be listening to customer feedback to make any necessary improvements.
“That’ll be our next development, to gauge what our market is responding to,” says Lu.
Anja, too, has her eyes on the white whale of lingerie — the strapless bra — which is readily available but often doesn’t adequately perform.
“Our lifestyles are so different, and people have different needs,” adds Lu. “Sometimes you just want comfort because you’re at home for the day, or you’re in meetings, or maybe you’re heading out somewhere in the evening where you want to show off your bra under a sheer top. So this provides the balance of all of those things.” Lingerie for a multitude of occasions and that, hopefully, will also serve up the right fit.
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