(Image: Tine Tiller)
(Image: Tine Tiller)

SocietyNovember 23, 2021

Lonely and tainted: what to do with your cancelled lingerie

(Image: Tine Tiller)
(Image: Tine Tiller)

Late last year, a piece written by David Farrier and Zoe Walker Ahwa in Ensemble exposed the QAnon conspiracy theory views allegedly held by the brand’s owners. The revelations have left many once-loyal customers with a unique conundrum: what happens when your undies get cancelled?

When I was at high school, and beginning to make a tiny amount of disposable income through part-time jobs, Lonely lingerie was one of the first things I spent my money on. Just a few years ago, I took back my resignation from a job in a boutique that stocked Lonely because the new collection looked so beautiful, and I was desperate for that wholesale discount. As a once avid collector, I have a set in every colour of the rainbow and beyond.

Lonely, a New Zealand-founded fashion label that launched in 2003 as Lonely Hearts Club, is best known today for its lingerie. Launched as a sideline to Lonely’s main clothing range in 2009, underwear soon became the focus for the label as demand for its delicate soft-cup bras and jewel-toned high-waisted undies soared.

The label has been praised locally and globally over the years for its seemingly progressive approach to the fashion industry, with everyone from the New York Times to Allure to the Guardian to the Spinoff singing its praises. 

Because of the politicised nature of bodies, especially female bodies, bras have always been political items of clothing. That’s been true from the myth of bra burning in the 60s to the criticism that surrounded the now cancelled (literally) Victoria’s Secret annual fashion show in the noughts. For years, Lonely was both the darling and champion of progressive fashion politics, embracing an aesthetic that broke from the usual pushed-up, air-brushed images offered to women by the lingerie industry. Lonely models were diverse in size, ethnicity, age, genders and sexuality. And the bras and undies they wore were less about “improving” and more about embracing the natural form of real bodies. 

So it was all the more shocking when the brand’s owners were themselves revealed as apparently embracing not progressive politics, but alt-right talking points.

Lonely lingerie was known for embracing the natural form of real bodies. (Image: Supplied)

Almost a year ago, co-writers David Farrier and Zoe Walker Ahwa published an investigation in Ensemble that exposed the QAnon conspiracy theory views allegedly held by the brand’s owners, along with claims of a toxic workplace culture. The article sent shockwaves through the local fashion industry and among a number of bra-wearing millennials – many of whom had grown up with the brand and had been loyal customers. 

There had been murmurings about the working conditions at the company for years. Anyone who had a friend or even a friend of a friend who worked for Lonely seemed to know the dreamy campaign imagery wasn’t exactly reflective of what life was like for the majority female employees in the stores and head office. 

Those murmurings were mostly rumours back then, and so weren’t necessarily a deal breaker for fans of the brand. But after the Ensemble piece, conversations began among loyal customers about how to respond. Is it OK to still buy from Lonely? Should I just buy their garments secondhand? Do I even want to be seen in public wearing their very recognisable designs? 

Christchurch-based photographer Naomi was once a loyal Lonely customer. “It became the only lingerie that I would buy,” she says, “because it was comfortable.”

She found herself drawn in by the diversity of the models and relatable imagery. In contrast to the unattainable marketing of traditional lingerie brands, she could see herself in Lonely. 

The Ensemble article came out at a time of particularly fraught politics in the US, right after the election and preceding the Capitol riots. Naomi says she was feeling a heightened awareness of the choices she was making and the way those choices impacted others. The revelations about the politics of Lonely’s owners, coupled with its alleged treatment of staff, meant “it felt a little bit like I’d been sold something that wasn’t actually true”, she says.

While she still wears the Lonely she already owns, there have been no new purchases for Naomi. “I wouldn’t throw it out and waste it just because of that,” she says. But she describes the response to knowing the reality behind the brand as “almost a social movement”, where she and others don’t want to be seen representing or being aligned with the views of the people who own and run the company.

A selection of various Lonely lingerie styles. (Image: Charlotte Muru-Lanning)

Last week Maggie Hewitt, whose label Maggie Marilyn has been praised for its sustainable focus, came under fire for an opinion piece she wrote for the Herald. In it, Hewitt called for Covid-19 restrictions to be dropped and spoke out against vaccine mandates and certificates. At the same time, other local clothing brands have been vocally supportive of public health measures. 

The rising political tensions linked to consumer choices, Naomi says, “is kind of scary”. She wonders where to draw the line as a consumer. “The selfish part of me doesn’t want to know.”

“That’s the other ironic thing,” she says. “I’m buying supermarket underwear – I have no idea about the ethics behind this.”

Another ex-Lonely customer, Jenny, had just begun university when she made her first purchase: a ginger-coloured bra with lattice detailing on the sides. “I think it’s in my laundry basket right now,” she says.

She says she found herself drawn to the label’s aesthetic while walking past Lonely’s Newmarket store on her way to and from work. 

“Lonely had clout then,” she says. It was a lingerie experience that set itself apart from stale and often uncomfortable bra-shopping in malls and department stores. They served customers sparkling water, the lighting was soft, the shops smelled good and “it was really weird and dark and had this dead branch on the wall”.

Jenny still wears the items she owns – mainly because they’re so comfortable – but she hasn’t  bought Lonely since the Ensemble story was published. It’s the explicit choice to spend money with the company that doesn’t sit right, she says. And while she’s considered buying Lonely items secondhand while scouring Trade Me or Designer Wardrobe, “I look at it and then I’m like, nah – I think I’d just get embarrassed wearing it.”

For Jenny, Lonely became an outward expression of being arty and “not like the other girls”. She’s grown out of trying to buy into that kind of identity, and thinks that perhaps she’s grown out of Lonely too, even without the controversy. “I think I’m just not looking for that any more,” she says.

She’s pivoted to brands like Kmart, Cotton On and Calvin Klein for her undie necessities instead, and reflects on the difficulty of trying to be a conscious consumer. “These brands might be QAnon too, but we just don’t know.”

Lonely bras hung out to dry. (Image: Supplied)

Auckland-based ex-Lonely fanatic Lucy started buying the brand in high school. While early on it was clothing purchases, her love for the brand evolved into it becoming her staple lingerie. She estimates she’s bought around 18 Lonely bras over the last eight years.

It became a go-to for Lucy because of the fit. “I have a funnel chest,” she explains, laughing. “It’s very hard to find bras that fit and for some reason theirs have and so I’ve been a loyal customer. 

“I like that the aesthetic seemed to be designed for women more than for the male gaze,” she explains. Lonely’s social media content, particularly the “Lonely Girls series”, which showed ordinary women wearing the lingerie, imbued it with a deeper meaning for Lucy. “It just felt like you were part of this cult movement – oh, gosh, a bad choice of words,” she says.

She’d heard stories for years about the less-than-perfect workplace culture at the brand before the Ensemble investigation, so her support for Lonely had already somewhat waned. But the QAnon revelations – “yeah, that was shocking”.

“I still wear the lingerie and I’ll wear it until it’s threadbare,” Lucy says. To her, it seems pointless to throw these garments out, despite their now tainted associations. And, she adds, “No one but me is seeing them, so it’s fine.”

Her Lonely swimsuits have been relegated to private pools and spa pools, however – “they’ve become my ‘I-don’t-care-about-these-togs togs’.” The few pieces of clothing from the brand remaining in her wardrobe are reserved for work, where she says no one would be able to identify them. “I wouldn’t feel like I was openly supporting them by wearing it there,” she says.

“I’m at the point where I have this stuff, and I can still wear it and get something out of these items that are still valuable in a literal sense,” she says. But she won’t be buying Lonely any more, despite it being the only lingerie brand she’s found that she feels confident in. “I wouldn’t want someone to think that I was OK with their beliefs and the way they are as employers,” she says.

Adding complexity to the response from ex-customers is just how distinct the visual codes of Lonely are, especially its lingerie. In our post-Carrie Bradshaw (the Sex and the City character is often credited with popularising the visible bra strap) world, Lonely bras were designed to be seen. In the early days, their pieces had gothic design details and hex-inspired criss-crossed straps. When I worked in retail, I needed to rescue customers trapped in Lonely’s cobweb of intricate straps and complex fastenings more than once. Later, the brand morphed into designs that were simpler and more cheerfully coloured, but still distinctly Lonely. 

The revelations about Lonely’s owners have changed the way Lucy feels about her the brand’s underwear as objects. It’s something you can’t help but be aware of, she says, because “you’re wearing it right against your skin day in and day out”. Before the QAnon scandal, wearing a Lonely set out dancing with a visible strap or under a sheer shirt would give Lucy confidence. “I liked that it was subverting what would normally be considered hot.” Now, she says, “it would give me a bit of shame”.

Lucy notes that she’s still got her stash of Lonely items, so for now she’s in no rush to buy anything new. But she’s unsure what her plan will be when she needs new knickers. She’s found several candidates to fill the void that the Lonely saga threatens to leave in her underwear drawer. But there’s an annoying hurdle; often they don’t have physical stores in New Zealand,making it difficult to get the fit right. Or, it might mean a return to traditional bra shops and department stores, she says, where you’re “still paying the same price but not feeling that great about it”. 

On the surface, conversations about ethics around knickers that sell for $60 a pop can seem frivolous, and in some ways they are. But they’re also fascinating. They’re complex discussions, just like those about listening to Michael Jackson or watching Woody Allen films. In the case of Lonely, the conversations are compounded by how deeply personal lingerie is, not to mention how recognisable the garments are if you’re part of the particular section of New Zealand society they once appealed to.

Lonely’s tagline, “for women who wear lingerie as a love letter to themselves”, epitomises the intimate relationship that many had with the brand. What helped to justify splurging on these seemingly superfluous items was a tie-in with third-wave feminist ideology and its “treat yourself” mantra. 

To me, the Lonely saga is a cautionary tale of the limitations of the kind of feminism that helped fuel the desire for fancy underwear. Self-care can be revolutionary and liberating. But it’s dangerous to believe that purchasing “feel good” clothing is an innately feminist act – especially if it comes at the expense of workers and, as in this case, if it’s attached to harmful conspiracy theories. 

What we wear is ephemeral, and often that’s seen as a bad thing. Though we can mend them, our favourite pants will get stretched at the knee and our most trusty leather boots will eventually get cracked and worn-out. Underwear, which demands more wear and more washing, wears out at a much faster rate. Perhaps it’s for the best that some day all our brilliantly coloured Lonely lingerie will fall apart, and we’ll never have to think about Lonely again. 

A new documentary follows Scribe’s grim past, and looks towards a hopefully brighter future. Image compilation: TVNZ/Tina Tiller

Behind the scenes of Scribe’s new documentary

'We knew that potentially it could be an incomplete or unfinished story arc and that the end of the story might well be Scribe's vanished again.'
Mad Chapman, Editor
The Spinoff has covered the news that matters in 2021, most recently the delta outbreak. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

Get The Spinoff
in your inbox

Society