If you’ve ever found yourself wrestling with a pair of knickers, stretching reinforced lycra over your skin as you hold your breath, contorting your body into shapes you never even knew existed, then the chances are you know what shapewear is. Perhaps you like it, perhaps you hate it, perhaps you’ve avoided it for a reason. But whether or not you’ve had first-hand experience with it, it’s difficult to ignore the way in which it’s presented to us all. It’s targeted almost exclusively at women, for starters, and sold to us as a necessity, especially at this time of the year. A concept that has become normalised for so many of us. The language around it is based on the idea of control, restriction and – to boil it right down to its essence – being slimmer. One could argue that, at its core, it’s anti-feminist. It’s also bloody uncomfortable. But could it ever be anything other than that? Could it, for example, inspire confidence? Support? Comfort? This is what Heist, the pioneering hosiery brand, has decided to tackle. It’s reinventing control pants.
With a growing business built on tights, Heist is now making its first foray into underwear. The first product launch is the Outer Body, created by Fiona Fairhurst, the brand’s VP of Innovation. As the woman who invented the Speedo SharkSkin swimsuit when she was working with Olympic teams around the world, Fairhurst is keen to point out that this new product is not just an underwear garment – it’s a feat of engineering. “The technology we’re looking at is ultrasonic bonding at the highest level of chemical engineering you can find,” she says. “We’ve gone for everything bonded rather than sewed, which is just to make it super smooth and flat. I designed it according to the physiology of the body, rather than anything else.” The product itself looks like a black leotard – the bra-like panels are soft, while the section that sits around the stomach is slightly thicker and more structured (but still with a lot of give). It feels unlike any sort of shapewear I’ve ever touched before. But is the purpose the same? “I didn’t want to create something like a Victorian corset,” says Fairhurst. “We’re way beyond that, we’re women who are performing an active function everyday and, just as Coco Chanel in 1909 eliminated corsets because she knew that women couldn’t breathe or dance, I wanted to move away from the existing shapewear that, in many ways, feels like a return to corsets. We want something that performs and makes us feel confident. We want to be able to move, go to work, catch a bus and just live our lives.”
The overarching message of Heist’s shapewear is one of support, rather than an emphasis on slimming or altering the body shape. This, Fairhurst says, really came from her “lightbulb moment” when she first started designing the bodysuit: “I came across some research about fascia, which is basically the biological material we all have in our bodies that supports us. I realised that I could create something that would mimic the fascia and mirror how your body naturally supports you, which is why [the product] feels so comfortable to wear. It’s all about supporting the structure of your body. People always assume it’s larger people that wear shapewear and in a lot of our insights it’s not. It’s actually mostly women who wear a size 8-10. It’s just designed to make life a little bit easier and frictionless.” Fairhurst and her team are not just concerned with revolutionising the actual product but also experience of wearing it. “We had this dream that [the bodysuit] would feel so nice, you’d want to wear it as outerwear. You wouldn’t feel ashamed to be seen in it. All the celebrity shaming on the red carpet is awful and largely propagated by the alpha male press. Like drawing attention to someone like Jennifer Lopez wearing cycle shorts – it’s so misogynistic. You don’t see men being degraded like that.”
Ultimately, what women need is choice. To feel confident and empowered. And also not being humiliated [because] they might want or need a little help with their garments
To develop the product, the Heist team surveyed over 1,000 women, all of whom had the same complaint about existing shapewear – getting it on and off. “And that it’s ugly,” says Fairhurst. “And hot. And that it doesn’t work. I don’t know anyone that would willingly buy them – it always tends to be for an event. I didn’t want something that was just for a special occasion but something to be worn every day. The antithesis of the experience anyone has had before. I’m hoping we’ve delivered and solved all the problems.” In terms of the fit, the body is available from XS-XL, which purports to fit sizes 8-22.
With a diverse team, innovative products and an approach to advertising that feels exempt from the male gaze so omnipotent in most underwear ads, Heist has already established itself as a disruptor among the more established brands. So, how does it navigate the idea some have that shapewear is inherently anti-feminist?
“My interpretation is that I don’t think you should judge anybody and there should be a choice – different people feel differently about their bodies,” Fairhurst explains. “Ultimately, what women need is choice. To feel confident and empowered. And also not being humiliated [because] they might want or need a little help with their garments. I actually feel this [product] empowers my core – I feel better for it, and not because it’s squishing my lumps and bumps. We’re not trying to create a Kim Kardashian waist trainer effect – God, no – we’re not trying to go for that extreme look. This is hopefully something that looks good, feels comfortable and you can wear with ease and not be ashamed about.”
To promote the Outer Body, Heist kick-started a campaign entitled ‘No Thanx’, which sees a line-up of female comedians, including Celeste Barber, film themselves struggling to pull on Spanx shapewear. So confident is the Heist team in their new product, they’re willing to pit themselves directly against a huge, global brand like Spanx. Armed with an advertising campaign that features women actually moving in the underwear (as opposed to merely static figures, there to be objectified), the brand defies the archetypal ideal of beauty that’s been perpetuated for so many decades, too – that is to say, the women featured are not all white, blonde and very thin.
At £120, it’s not cheap. But then, a lot of the equivalent products from other brands (namely Spanx) are even more expensive. Plus, as Fairhurst points out, “the level of engineering involved in this product, I think, justifies the price.” Launching today, the body is available to buy online or, if you’re in London you can visit the brand’s shop on Monmouth Street. There, you can be fitted properly for the body – staff will take your exact measurements to advise on which size you need. “We’re trying to move away from the idea of dress sizes,” Fairhurst tells me as she wraps a tape measure around my shoulders. “Who cares what number is on the label of your clothes, especially when every brand uses a different fit model, which is why we so often find that we’re drastically different sizes in every shop. This is about fit – what supports your body, what feels good. That’s what we’re focussed on.” In the changing rooms, I find that there’s a significant lack of fighting required to put the body on. I find it no more difficult than pulling on a pair of gym leggings, in fact. Once on, it really is very comfortable – I feel supported but not restricted – my ease of movement is not affected and it’s completely seamless, which means I can wear it under any of my clothes. I’m also comforted by the fact that, in place of the alarming hole most shapewear has in its gusset, through which one is supposed to go to wee, there is instead an eyelet, making it easy to undo.
“When I made the SharkSkin suit, I wasn’t actually that concerned with how many gold medals it ended up winning,” laughs Fairhurst. “What became apparent to me immediately is that, even back then in 1996, I’d cracked how to do shapewear – I knew how to use the direction of the fabric to support the body, without distracting you from your everyday function.” With more colours coming soon, followed by a range of bras and knickers, Heist is on a mission to revolutionise our underwear draws. What I personally love about the shapewear is that it’s an intelligent design,” says Fairhurst. “Heist is an integrous brand and we’re really good at listening, interpreting and delivering what people want. With the Outer Body, I think we have done that.”