Lingerie designer Mary Young’s sense of style was cultivated in part by studying the word pastiche and how it’s developed in different artforms. Her vision is somewhat contradictory – removing mainstream sexy from lingerie – but that’s what makes it fresh and relatable. Initially pushing boundaries by turning functional knitwear into fashion-forward loose knit garments, Mary’s work creates new from old concepts, and now she’s organically moved to designing undergarments. Mary Young Canadian-made lingerie and loungewear was born, with roots still in the initial pastiche theme and intellectually and stylistically tied to how the hip hop lifestyle inspired music. A country-turned-city girl, Mary focuses on what all women want and celebrates body images that elevate self-love. Her comfortable lifestyle designs echo the Calvin Klein heyday of the 90s, celebrating women’s curves with simple undergarments that match today’s resurgence of high-waisted jeans. Designing for real women and striving to underline that in her marketing content, she ditches materials and poses she feels traditionally objectify women’s bodies and instead uses imagery that exalts diversity in all shapes and sizes. Mary holds herself accountable as a female entrepreneur in a still very masculine world by opening up dialogue on personal vulnerabilities and by giving back to an organization that works to promote a narrative that aligns with her emphasis on nurturing a positive reality.
Mind over matter
How did you get into designing lingerie?
I actually studied fashion communications at Ryerson University, so I was a little bit more on the branding and marketing side of the fashion industry. Then, during my fourth year we had to produce a thesis and present it in a communicative matter; most students did that in forms of websites, videos or books. I decided I was going to produce a collection and then I presented all of my theoretical findings in a video that summarized my collection.
The collection started with hand knit sweaters – at the time I was knitting a lot and I wanted to design sweaters that were more fashion forward instead of the standard sort of cable-knit sweater your grandma would make. From there I started building up a lifestyle for this sort of new knit sweater concept and with that came ‘comfortable lifestyle lingerie’ that was complementary to a morning on your weekend spent at home – something you’d actually wear. That was in 2014 and I produced a five-piece collection that I presented during my graduating show.
Wait - could you clarify a little on how you jumped from knitting sweaters to creating lingerie?
Part of my thesis was around the theoretical framework called pastiche, which I defined as ‘taking things that have been done before and recreating them into something new by paying respect to where it started.’ Looking at hand knit sweaters, the original purpose was function; it was to be extremely warm, to be layered. Then it was about taking that into something new but still paying respect to tradition, but making it more fashion versus function. The knit sweaters were oversized, loose, and really relaxed. While looking at that, I started to expand on my written thesis, which actually focussed on rap and hip hop and how that genre of music in the late 80s and early 90s was actually formed using pastiche. It was a voice for a group of people who were finally given a platform and space to be heard; it came from different poetry, from graffiti, from dance and all these different categories brought together to make a whole new genre of music. Looking at that and how a lot of hip hop and rap was a bit sexualized, the idea of lingerie fit in, but in a way that wasn’t the standard music video girl parading around in a thong. I wanted a woman being in her lingerie to feel comfortable and confident and not be sexualized for wearing lingerie; I wanted her to just be a human about her own life. I did everything in the colour scheme of grey, referencing Fifty Shades of Grey – the novel – and then the different materials and different cuts referenced different style lines and periods of time, so it all came back to pastiche. I was paying respect to something that had been done before but taking things in a new direction.
Did hip hop personally inspire you growing up?
I actually grew up in a very small town so I grew up listening to mostly country music. All of my childhood musical memories up until age twelve were George Strait, Garth Brooks, Alabama and Alan Jackson. But I think later on, in my late teens and once I moved from my small town into Toronto, I was exposed to different music. Eventually studying rap and hip hop and knowing how and where it was formed and the purpose behind it really gave me much more respect for the genre.
Is a hip hop inspired design scheme still within your scope today?
I would say a little bit, yes. A lot of the designs are relatively minimal; when you think about it, they kind of go back to the designs of the early 90s, like Calvin Klein when they were really big. Nothing is over the top; we don’t use any lace and our only extra details are elastic or mesh, so it’s a bit sportier which I think comes back to hip hop. At the end of the day, hip hop has a bit more of a masculine feel, and you can see masculinity within the lingerie in that it has sort of a sense of power and ease to it.
What kind of woman wears your lingerie?
The woman that we design for and that we obviously interact with the most is an empowered woman who is living a very busy life; she’s looking for function and she’s looking for comfortable garments that benefit her and also work seamlessly in her wardrobe. We concentrate on everything being mix and matchable too. A lot of our garments really focus on making sure that they work with the clothing women are wearing today, so if that’s high waisted jeans, we’re going to offer high waist full bum and thong underwear because it will sit at the same spot on the body and be really comfortable for a full day. We make lingerie for women who really put themselves first rather than dress for someone else, and then it’s about taking that confidence and empowering them to do things outside of dressing, in other areas of their lives. One thing we say is that when a woman is comfortable and confident she is undeniably sexy.
You obviously have a real passion for design; when did it develop?
I knew from a very, very young age that designing and being creative was a part of my life, and not only clothing but with different things. I’d make my Barbies’ clothes when I was as young as four or five. I started off by taping Kleenex around them and making that into outfits and then worked up into crocheting and knitting things as well as hand sewing little dresses. Once I grew up a bit and got my own sewing machine, I started making clothes for myself – that was at as young as age ten. There was never really another plan for my future; I always knew that fashion was where I saw myself. I wasn’t sure exactly what that looked like, but I knew that I wanted to have my own business at some point, not necessarily to be a designer, but to be an entrepreneur to an extent. When I finished school and this opportunity sort of presented itself, I realized that maybe this was a great starting point.
How has business been from start up in 2014 until now?
It’s definitely been a journey; I mean it feels like it’s been longer than three years and then sometimes it feels like it hasn’t been three at all. When we launched we started e-commerce only; thankfully there was space in retail to have an online-based business. We started getting into stores in spring of 2015 and that’s been a slower progression, but it’s been really great to connect with different retailers and build relationships – the lingerie is now available in roughly 30 retailers across North America. Our biggest sales channel is still mostly online because it’s a place that our target demographic can actually connect and relate to the brand to understand it a little bit more. We have a stronger voice online. We make sure we share what we stand for and it fosters a sense of community that you don’t always get going into a retailer. In terms of company size, I have two women that work with me now: one that manages my sales channels and another who does content creation. I’m the only designer and I do most of the patterns as well. We have a production house in Montreal that produces everything; they’ve been in lingerie for about 25 years, so they have a lot of really great experience.
What inspires you on a daily basis?
I’m always paying attention to people to see what they’re wearing and how they’re moving. Underwear is the first thing we put on in the morning, so it’s a big thing – it’s really a moment that kind of defines how we go about the rest of our day. Putting on something that’s uncomfortable or doesn’t fit well means you’re always going to be fidgeting or off. So I watch people – are they tucking their jeans, or maybe rolling their sleeves? How they’re wearing clothes can also translate to what’s under their clothing, so I really look at different things like that to help me design.
I just purged my underwear drawer recently because I was feeling done with some dated options. It seems like we’re finally getting some really great undergarments, but it’s felt delayed in comparison to growth in other areas of fashion - would you agree?
Yes, it has been very, very slow! It was still in this sort of polka dot or leopard print everything, with patterns or bright pinks and fuchsia and ribbons and bows. Growing up, I never found something that really embodied who I was. There were the two categories: your everyday underwear that you would never want your partner to see you in, or the sexy push-up, reshape-and-contour, hold this/flatten that type stuff that you couldn’t wear every day. Ideally that’s the gap that we’re filling.
How do you approach market research?
It’s been hard because a lot of people don’t like talking about their underwear, but it’s something that’s starting to get a little bit better. I usually talk to friends and friends of friends of mine, asking for feedback during purchase and after purchase. I’m always asking people things like: how do you feel? Is there something you’d change? What are you looking for? Also, part of market research is just knowing what people are wearing. For example, there was that big trend of backless or back scoop tops that happened, but a lot of people don’t want to go braless. We give the option of a racerback or a design detail on the back that would work with a backless top but still provide the support of wearing a bra. Just being aware of the trends we see happening in ready-to-wear is helpful, along with talking to women about what they want or what they feel like they’re not getting.
How do you compete with some of the larger companies out there?
I try not to think about competition. As a small brand, I think looking at what other people are doing will never really help you move forward and grow. The way that I look at the industry and at lingerie as a whole is that without other players – big or small – there wouldn’t be space for me to exist. So I need to have competition to an extent; I need to have other brands out there that make consumers look for different options. Buyers then become aware that they can question what Victoria’s Secret is selling them and maybe try to find something else. I really try to focus on what we’re doing and really doing it well, versus what everyone else is doing.
How do you ensure your marketing and messaging reflects your focus on designing lingerie that makes all women feel comfortable and confident?
Obviously the emphasis of the product and the brand is to encourage confidence in comfortable everyday wear, and from that it’s about embracing your natural shape. So, instead of buying things that are reshaping your body, you’re buying forms that fit to your body. It’s really great to see women actually choosing that rather than push up or underwire or padded this or that; it reinforces that there’s agreement that there needs to be change. We’ve been getting a lot of feedback from women who say they’re buying lingerie and underwear for themselves first, before anyone else, and they’re saying they’re starting to feel really comfortable in celebrating their differences. That’s one thing we’ve always strived for from day one. As for our content, you’ll see we don’t always have the so-called standard model. We actually work with a lot of – hate to say it, it sounds clichéd – but ‘real’ women. We have them model for us and we use that imaging online and in our marketing campaigns.
I was really drawn to the Self Love Club on your website. Could you explain this project and how it relates to your work?
It’s taken a while to shape, but we launched the Self Love Club earlier this year in April. It actually started when the brand started though; we wanted to find a way that we could make a difference. It’s not just about having some photos or videos online, it’s actually a movement that isn’t related to our product. It’s not about shopping with us or supporting us, it’s an attitude. We encourage people to open up and have real conversations about things like vulnerability or whatever else. The way that we’re doing that is through both the online content we’re publishing and also by donating $3 from every item sold to a Vancouver organization called Raw Beauty Talks. They promote a positive mental and physical lifestyle for youth by challenging and encouraging young boys and girls to see that their worth isn’t in their physical appearance but rather in the characteristics they have as people. They work with different media outlets and they host events at schools to encourage groups of people to really start to change the narrative that’s predominant in the media.
Could you expand on what you see as that narrative?
The narrative unfortunately is that men are powerful, and it’s all about their bodies – and sometimes their minds – but even when it’s their minds, it’s still really their bodies. The ideal is tall, broad, attractive looking and even if they’re fully dressed, like in a suit, they fill the suit very well. For women, the narrative is that the body is everything and the mind is of very little consequence. A lot of it comes down to women still being photographed as objects instead of as humans. Men are sometimes photographed as humans but whether they’re in a suit at an office or out surfing they’re usually portrayed as powerful.
So with the Self Love Club you’re profiling different types of women to promote real over sexy, is that right? Plus of course the added charitable benefit of donating a portion of your proceeds to an organization that delivers similar messaging.
Yes. Most of the time if you see a photo of a woman in lingerie it feels really sexualized, it feels forced, and it feels like that woman is there to show the garment rather than to be a woman wearing a garment. We’ve always tried to produce content where nothing is sexualized, but obviously it’s still women in lingerie. We don’t have our models bending over looking at the camera pouting or anything like that. We really want to encourage women to question why they post photos like that, and to expand on that topic and others we’re also hosting events that are called ‘A Lesson in Self-Love.’ We had our very first one in July and we’ll be hosting a few more this year. We’re narrowing in on struggles that aren’t only body related but are also just a part of life – things we go through that we don’t openly talk about. We find a lot of people, both men and women, aren’t keen to be vulnerable, but being vulnerable builds community and builds relationships and support. We’re truly just trying to make a place for that offline as well.
How are these lessons in self-love delivered?
For our first one we featured a panel made up of me and three other women, and we all talked about our own experiences with self-love, our doubts and our struggles. For us it related to Instagram and how a lot of people on Instagram might think your life is one way, but in reality maybe when you posted that photo that’s not actually how you felt, or maybe you were just looking for affirmation that your new haircut looks good or whatever it may be. It’s all about asking people to question what they see and to challenge what they’re told. I find a lot of young women and girls look at social media and think, ‘she’s posted this way, now I have to post like that. I want people to think my life is perfect or I want the sympathy when something is going wrong,’ – you know, that sort of thing. It should really be about focussing on who you are and celebrating who you are both online and offline.
Could you talk more about your own experiences with self-love?
When I was younger I never really struggled with any sort of body problems. I was lucky enough to grow up in a very supportive family; I never had issues with my parents doing anything like suggesting I should diet or work out more. When I was in my mid-teens I ended up getting a concussion though, and it set me back a lot. I got post-concussion syndrome, which resulted in chronic migraines and I lost my cognitive skills for about eight months. At the age of sixteen I wasn’t able to read or write properly and communicating was really hard at times. When I started recovering and finding myself at seventeen and eighteen, I started to look at myself with a different set of eyes. I’d gained a lot of weight due to the medication I was taking and I also wasn’t allowed to work out. Doctor’s orders were to not increase my heart rate, so that was really fun – being young and not being able to run or do anything! So I had to learn to find a new sense of normal while at the same time experiencing a lot of chronic pain; I’d have a migraine roughly twenty days of the month. I felt almost trapped in my body, a body that didn’t feel right to me, and not only did I not look the way I wanted to look, but I didn’t feel the way I wanted to feel.
What did you do to get back to feeling good about your body and yourself?
It really came down to changing my mindset, rather than just my physical appearance. That was a process. It started with small things, like writing down things I was grateful for and looking at myself in the mirror and saying the things I liked. Then there was this pinnacle moment where I read a magazine article about someone struggling with the same thing; in the morning when she was getting ready for work or school, she’d stand in front of the mirror naked while she did her makeup and hair, instead of getting dressed first. I thought it sounded a bit crazy but I thought why not try it and see what happens? After two or three months of doing that I felt insanely empowered. Every time I’d see myself in front of the mirror, I’d notice the things that I liked as opposed to things I didn’t. I found it easier to look at the strength my body offered rather than the things that it lacked. That was a huge turning point in my self-love journey; I was able to look at myself differently and it’s something that I still do to this day. You literally only get one body, so you might as well love it from the top to the bottom. I’ve been able to find techniques that work for me; at times when I don’t feel as confident I try to apply love and forgiveness and take the time to understand why. I want my friends and the community in general to know that feeling confident isn’t just something that you’re blessed with, you’ve got to work on it.
Have you come up against any hurdles while growing your business the past couple of years?
I mean, I would like to say that it’s all been a very natural easy growth, and it has been natural in that I haven’t tried to force anything because I wanted to be able to manage the growth. But with that said, it’s definitely been just struggle after struggle. I think any entrepreneur would say the same thing: the first three to five years are the hardest, and when you’re getting bigger so are the problems. It’s been difficult growing in Canada – it’s a very modest and sort of conservative country, especially when it comes to new brands. A lot of Canadians like to buy established, trusted brands that are recommended by family members or friends. Breaking that mindset and mould has been an uphill battle, but it’s also been a lot of fun working toward challenging people to try something new.
I actually think the hardest struggle is that the brand is my name, so I really not only put myself on the line by investing in a company and putting all of my time into it, I also put my name and my face out there. I can’t hide behind the scenes at all. Building something from scratch is a lot of work and my personality type is very Type A, so I’m hard on myself a lot. I’m working toward being easier on myself and learning to accept mistakes not as failures but as redirections toward success. A lot of it is a mental game – a lot of mind over matter – but I think that’s a huge part of any journey.
How do you manage running a business, promoting the Self Love Club values, and having a personal life all at once?
Balance is something that comes and goes. Sometimes I have great balance and sometimes I have none. My family lives about five hours away from me in the Ottawa area – I’m in Toronto – so I don’t have the support system of nearby family but I’m fortunate to have amazing friends and a really strong community here. My personal life is important to me, so I make myself just as responsible for showing up at a friend’s place or out for dinner as I would when I have a professional meeting with someone.
It’s really important for me to make the time and put in the effort to make sure those relationships stay positive. Another really important thing for me is working out; it’s a stress release and it gives me energy too. It helps that sometimes I have my best ideas when I’m running or afterwards when all the endorphins are rushing; it’s great going back to work with new ideas and feeling less stressed and more centred.
Would you describe your lifestyle as unconventional?
I think my lifestyle is relatively unconventional. I’m surrounded by a lot of other creatives and entrepreneurs and so for us it can all seem very normal to kind of decide how and when you’re going to do things. When I look at my other friends who have “typical jobs” in the corporate world, my life is extremely unconventional in comparison. There are different flexibilities that come with being an entrepreneur, but what really comes with it is a lot more personal accountability than I think people realize. Being your own boss may seem glamorous because you can sleep in or wear pajamas or have no one checking in on you, but in order to be successful and pay your rent, you have to be accountable for getting everything done.