If you’re a regular reader, you know that I’m a big fan of Layla’s work: Between the Sheets Lingerie and Specimens of Seduction, her couture label. She’s the mastermind behind one of my favorite lounge-to-outerwear pieces of all time: the playdate (which is on sale right now, by the way, because it’s being discontinued! No need to fret, as I’m told that a new and improved replacement is on the way ). I actually lusted this piece before I even knew Layla, and have included a collage of favorite BTS pieces featured on that je ne sais quoi. I feel so lucky, because through this little blog we’ve been able to find each other and meet in NYC, and now it’s not uncommon for us to grab a cup of coffee (our favorite spots are Birch and the Breslin, both serve Stumptown!) and chat lingerie. We share a love of kitties, coffee and Hayden-Harnett, our favorite NYC-based handbag company, and of lingerie of course. Fledgling entrepreneurs and lingerie designers, take note—she offers excellent advice and anecdotes about what it takes to become a successful designer in New York City. Without further ado, I proudly introduce Layla!
Who or what inspired you to pursue lingerie design as a career?
When I was attending FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology] we picked specializations in our third semester. I enjoyed the challenge of marrying fit and comfort, more than any other specialization intimate apparel seemed to have that focus. I thought with that experience if I ever chose to design other apparel that I could bring that fit sensitivity to the table (when you focus on fractions of an inch tolerance you kind of have to have a detailed grasp of patterns & construction). Once I started it just happened that I loved it.
Between the Sheets (aka BTS) is really the ultimate in lingerie and loungewear that can be worn as outerwear. Can you tell us a little bit about how you factor this into the design process?
I didn’t set out to do that, but I think it came about when I first honed in on my own aesthetic when starting the collection. I wanted to take what I found myself wearing the most in my closet into the bedroom, and by working that way it naturally worked backward as well—those pieces often functioned as inner/outerwear. First and foremost I’ve always wanted the pieces to function in the home.
Who is the BTS girl? Where does she work, hang out, what does she like to do?
Its funny, our customer base has really surprised me—it spans generations. But I think at her core the BTS girl wants to find comfort in her space, her home. She goes home to relax, unwind, and reconnect with herself. She is sensual and like that scene in Amelie where she sticks her hand into sacks of grain just to feel that feeling I suspect she does similar quirky things, she’s connected to things in that way, she reaches out and touches life. That being said I think the broad age range is in part due to the combination of the designs and sensitivity to a woman’s concerns about her body as she grows older (I regularly take feedback/suggestions from my female family members) and that combines with a more youthful styling makes it appeal to a broad age range of women.
Tell us about your background—what did you do before starting BTS?
I studied intimate apparel at FIT, and while in school I interned at several intimate apparel companies—I worked in sleepwear and intimates companies and got exposed to everything from bras and foundations to nightwear. It was a funny thing when upon graduating I found myself designing full fashioned knitwear (sweater knits), which was out of the box from what I spent three years in school specializing in. Knitwear has definitely influenced my current lounge preferences, I’m more aware of the function of things out of the home and perhaps that too has influenced the inner-outerwear appeal of many of our pieces.
Following that design position, I went back to designing intimates at a company that designed and manufactured licensed intimate apparel for large label brands—it was there that I really had the challenge of designing/working on several collections that each needed to bear the essence of the brand it was attached to.
Was there a moment when you decided to launch your own label? Tell us about it (we love these stories!).
It really didn’t crystallize until my last job, it was then that I could’ve sat back and let life drive my career, but I wasn’t satisfied and that made me realize I needed to take the reigns. I have no doubt I would’ve wound up launching my own label eventually, it just happened sooner rather than later.
Luckily I had already planted the roots of Between the Sheets while in school (Between the Sheets Fashion Show was an event I founded and ran for three years that allowed myself and other designers still in school a showcase for our designs). Looking back had that not already been there waiting for a brand to be carved out I am not sure I would’ve taken that leap as quickly as I did. Looking back I am also glad for the many weekends and summers that I devoted to interning/learning along the way, even if it meant I felt like a social failure at times. It all gave me enough experience to really understand what I was getting into. Like other entrepreneurs I think I was not without naivety—I think I greatly underestimated the time factor in reaching business goals, and since I’ve learned and grown by leaps and bounds in that regard. I’ve gained a great deal of patience and perseverant spirit from these first couple of years in business.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
“This too shall pass”—it is so easy to be caught in a rut with your style, relationship, life etc. In my case with creativity or business I use it as a sort of mantra to let go of the hang ups, ignore the road blocks, and just keep moving. If you stop moving you’ll never find what’s awaiting you around the corner.
Every entrepreneur has to take a leap of faith when it comes to venturing out on her own. What were/are your biggest fears?
The first leap to quit my job was by far the scariest, and when I did my biggest fear was that I wouldn’t be able to support myself right away and that would change the way I approached being in business. I took a job working front desk at a hotel, which I did up until our wholesale launch in 2009.
My biggest concerns today are probably about moving towards making BTS something that survives beyond me, and that means so many things. That is also tied in with developing more work life balance and being able to start a family, and part of the reason I’ve put in 12+ hours a day and the last three years is knowing that being successful and a mom will be a beautiful example to set for a daughter or son.
One of the missions of that je ne sais quoi is to empower women and make them feel beautiful starting with lingerie. How do you think BTS helps accomplish this?
I try to avoid the cliché images of women in lingerie that seem geared towards the male audience. I want to bottle up that essence of power that all women have that comes from a mix of their vulnerability and strength, every woman has it in varying combinations.
Me wearing BTS on the blog (upper right is a sneak peek)!
You produce everything in NYC—which is very important to me as a consumer. Tell us a little bit about your sustainability mission.
It was important for me to be a part of our production process no matter where it was produced, and as a design entrepreneur I feel like this is where so many people falter. You are responsible for every piece that goes out your door and in the beginning where stores and consumers are taking a risk on a new brand you really want to ensure quality, so being able to step in early in the process to prevent issues has been so valuable to us. Our goal in the long run would be to source as much material from within the US when possible, and by that I mean there is a price that consumers are comfortable paying and currently with our buying power we have to weigh that in our new developments. Also some fibers/materials can really be superior if made in a country that still has the infrastructure for it. To us the main focus is to balance and be transparent about our choices—that way our customers can make educated decisions. If one collection is less sustainable we explain that in terms of why a fabrication was chosen, even going so far as to explain that it was for pricing.
What has been the best moment in your BTS career thus far?
Every time a piece finds a home Between someone elses sheets.
You design for a couple of different consumers: there are the “play” ranges, and then the arabesque—both beautiful and unique in their own way. What is the philosophy behind each?
Our main brand is Between the Sheets Collection, and all of our groups have names with “play” in them. Our black label is Layla L’obatti, and while it is not our core range it does a lot for me as a designer—it gives me an outlet for a part of myself that I can’t satisfy creatively with knitwear and daywear. I truly love challenging myself in design so I don’t put it on the same schedule as Between the Sheets, instead I create when I come up with something that inspires me.
BTS pieces must be wearable affordable luxuries that are practical in terms of care (nothing like dry cleaning) whereas Layla L’obatti’s tagline is “specimens of seduction” and those pieces need to live up to that, and my goal is to make them special and unique.
This is my favorite arabesque piece, it’s so stunning: did you design it to be for the boudoir or to be worn out (or both)? I must know the story behind it.
Boudoir first, but keeping the hem longer was a conscious choice knowing that a certain customer might be daring enough to wear it out!
It was inspired by the golden era of belly dancing in Egypt with dancers like Samia Gamal who made tons of films and wore these elaborate costumes that were really quite western (it mirrored the golden age of film in the USA). I love parallels between belly dance and burlesque, so the single hook closures and ties that you can use to undress like a dancer. It’s cut on the bias so it also moves beautifully, which I think captures the essence of dance – the silk dances with the slightest and catches the light in this way that nothing else can.
What is your style signature and who is your style muse?
I love the way models look when they’re on go-sees, they dress simply with flats, jeans, and tee. I like to go to this with different accessories. That being said working in fashion my style is always changing, a couple of years ago I didn’t own sneakers, before that in high school I didn’t own a single pair of jeans… the only thing that has stayed consistent and grown is my appreciation for well crafted well designed clothing, whether its vintage or new.
On that note, are there any fashion rules do you love to break?
I’m pretty good at coloring between the lines… but are there any lines in fashion anymore?
What lingerie are you wearing right now?
BTS of course!
If you’re not in studio designing lingerie (or any of the other things that come with being Creative Director of BTS), what can we find you doing?
Cooking, baking, occasionally Netflix bingeing, or visiting NYC museums and parks.
Where is your favorite NYC cocktail spot?
Aurora in Soho or Williamsburg—both locations are great.
The weirdest thing in your handbag?
Band aids and measuring tape
Layla’s favorite things:
Band: Imogen Heap
Drink: Coffee in all its glorious forms. Tea is a close second
Ice cream flavor: Mint chocolate chip (has to be green!)
Artist: Serra & Brancusi
Photographer: Lillian Bassman—so much of fashion photography of women in lingerie looks at it from the male erotic perspective, her photos are intimate moments captured on film
Also Diane Arbus—not fashion related but I love the way her work captures unique personalities
Designer: Currently Ulyana Sergeenko
Lingerie Brand (other than your own!): I appreciate Made by Niki’s recent collections, the String range is stunning
Shoes: Flats currently, too much running to do!
Restaurant: Nizza in Hell’s Kitchen
Beauty product: Benefit’s HighBeam & Buxom Lash mascara
If you could only choose one…
Pair of shoes: Fond of Tretorn sneakers, I didn’t own a sneaker until my late 20’s and these were the first I liked, now I can’t imagine not having them
Top: Playdate tank (soon to be our Matchplay tank coming in FW13)
Jeans: Buffalo by David Bitton
Bag: Hayden-Harnett satchel
Lingerie brand: um… Between the Sheets!
Fragrance: Creed, Spring Flower
Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten?
Somewhere just outside NYC…. The nature and trees just outside the city remind me of where I grew up and the longer I live in the city the more I think to start a family that’s going to have to happen. I can’t imagine my future kids not playing in the dirt… I’d love to find an abandoned warehouse or manufacturing space to convert into BTS headquarters. But so far life has taught me that every time I make plans to expect the unexpected so I’m not ruling anything out.
Thank you so much for your sharing a bit of your lingerie life, Layla! Your answers were so thoughtful, and it’s just wonderful to have the privilege to see behind-the-scenes of BTS!
Photos of Layla L’obatti courtesy of Layla L’obatti.