Millennial Designer Honors Heroic Women ... With Fantastic Underwear?

When I put my underwear on in the morning, I hardly think about what I'm doing. I've even been known to apologize to folks for the lack of matching bra — as if it's some egregious offense. So when I was introduced to a fantastic new underwear concept playfully called The League of Ladies from designer Shelly Ni, which features historic women of note as superheroes, I couldn't have been more ecstatic. What could be better than turning a mindless task into a fun, informative, and empowering action? (Maybe doing all of the above while eating a cupcake, but putting underwear on one-handed might be difficult.)

I got the chance to ask Ni some questions last Friday about the underwear that will change your morning routine for the better. As in a lot of endeavors, necessity is the mother of invention.

"For an entrepreneurial design class at the School of Visual Arts, I and my Interaction Design peers have been tasked with launching a new venture this semester. I wanted to pursue something both meaningful and playful to keep me revving through months of bringing an engaging product or service into the public eye," says Ni.

Upon perusing Ni's design portfolio, it's apparent that her work gracefully accomplishes the difficult task of being simultaneously beautiful, functional, and socially conscious. While this might seem an easy task for a student of design school constantly asked to exercise their creative muscles, this accomplishment is the result of the extensive background work Ni undertakes in all of her projects. For The League of Ladies, Ni says "I came across the Pink Loves Consent campaign in December ... sharing the article with friends sparked several long conversations about rape culture ... I asked myself, what could I as a designer actually do about them?"

After interviewing friends and classmates about the Victoria Secret prank and her ideas, it was obvious to Ni that there was a desire for underwear that was not just an article to wear but "a place to put a message. And not just any message  a message [women] cared about, a message that made them feel good about themselves, a message they could wear proudly, a cheeky message that feels like a private joke." Thus, The League of Ladies was born.

Below, a transcript of our interview:

Sarah Dropek (SD): Do you consider yourself a feminist? How would you define what it means to be a feminist? What implications does your answer have on the work you've done and the underwear endeavor you're working towards?

Shelly Ni (SN): The short answer is, 'Yes!!'. The longer answer has to do with my dissatisfaction with the flat, prescriptive narrative society writes about any demographic. No group of people is homogeneous enough to compress into a single story, much less the dismissive ones still shared about women today. 

I'm over hearing about what I can or can't do, what women should or should not do, having our opinions / thoughts / intentions / plans condescended to or worse, blocked. I'm all about discovering and then acting upon what I hold to be important, meaningful, and respectful. This project, at the highest (or deepest) level, is about helping women of any age realize their inner truth on their terms.

SD: I am enamored with your work on the Nautilus Bowl and the story behind it. Much of your past work is that which fills a need in a creative way. You seem to have a socially aware bent to your work, how you did you feel the superhero underwear fits in with the rest of your projects?

SN: I'm flattered you picked up on that socially aware thread! Yes, the social impact of this project is something I'm putting a lot of effort towards. I'm designing my pieces to create affirming or playful moments and spark conversations around gender issues. I don't want to promise anything not in the bank yet, but I'm working to build a model that allows me to donate proceeds from sales of underwear, to organizations related to a character's theme. (Marie Curie, women in science, Frida Kahlo, female artists, etc.)

SD: Are you planning on selling the products online only? If so, considering the Victoria Secret prank, will you be using models for the product? What are your thoughts on retouching, both on a personal level and in general retail?

SN: Online only, but there could be in-the-wild guerrilla campaigning in the future! I'll probably use models since there is only one of me, and I'm not that narcissistic. Retouching  for personal photos, I'll make small technical adjustments to improve the color balance. I'll photoshop in a dragon in the background, because dragons are awesome. I'll use Instagram filters. This project is about real women. I would not alter a model's photograph to create something that wasn't there in real life.

In general retail, I'm tired of being sold another vision of perfection that's not relevant to me. I'm not interested in perfection. I'm especially aware of models that don't look like me or people I know. In undergrad, while writing a paper on East Asian eyelid surgery, I counted the number of East Asian models in a decade of Vogue magazines. The numbers were dismal. I loved Pink Loves Consent's models.

SD: Do you have a list of historical women you're building to work with? Are the women represented on the product with their likeness or with abstract designs related to their accomplishments like the Marie Curie teaser looks like it might suggest?

SN: I have a small personal list, but I'm super curious about women other people want to see as superheroes. After all, I'm not designing these for myself.

Currently the designs for the underwear will be symbols, like the Marie Curie teaser. Unless people are really clamoring for faces or pictures of people on their panties, I'll stick with Wonder Woman style iconic / abstract branding.

SD: What is your hope for those who end up wearing your creations? What do you want them to take from it?

SN: Choosing what pair [of underwear] to put on in the morning can be a tiny ritual. If panties are the first thing you put on your body as you start your day, what would happen if they created a small moment of reflection, affirmation, or humor?

Someone told me a great anecdote about buying boys' boxers as a kid, with other girls, feeling rad lounging around in Batman underwear, unavailable in the girls' section. After sketching underwear with different kinds of feminist messaging, the idea of paying tribute/being inspired by real women resonated.

I'm hoping that transforming strong female role models into superhero-scale characters (without distorting their real achievements or personalities), can engage more women with their biographies. Owning undies associated with characters lets you identify more strongly with what you love about that role model. You're embodying what you respect, a little bit, but you also get to shape what your part of that story looks like that day. Superhero Marie Curie could mean anything to you  chemistry, tenacity, guts  the important part is that stepping into your own pair of Marie Curie themed undies reminds you of that personal meaning.

To keep up with The League of Ladies progress, don't forget to join the mailing list! You can also catch up with the project on Tumblr and via Twitter.