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Saturday August 1, 2009

Bringing up unmentionables

Naomi McGill conducted the first ever lingerie workshop for women in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, creating history in a country where lingerie shops are manned by men.

Australian Naomi McGill calls herself a lingerie expert. She knows the A to Z of lingerie and all her designs are custom made.

The 33-year-old former investment banker recently scored a first and created history by conducting a “boob camp” for ladies in Saudi Arabia.

Australian lingerie expert, Naomi McGill.

In ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, lingerie shops are staffed entirely by men despite the government passing a law in 2006 to allow women to work in shops selling women’s items. Still, women are shying away as traditional men don’t like their wives working, preferring them to stay at home with the tots.

Changing rooms for women and fitting services are not available due to Saudi’s religious laws. If a customer wants to try an item, she has to pay for it, then run to the public toilet to see if it fits. If it doesn’t, she can get a refund but the hassle often leaves her embarrassed. Or, the women are forced to buy products that don’t fit.

Fed up, finance lecturer Reem Asaad, 37, started a Ban Men From Selling Lingerie campaign this year via Facebook to get the system changed. The world sat up and paid attention.

“The way underwear is being sold in Saudi Arabia is simply not acceptable in the modern world. This is a sensitive part of a woman’s body. You need to have some discussion regarding size, colour and attractive choices and you definitely don’t want to get into such a discussion with a stranger, let alone a male stranger,” she was quoted as saying to the BBC in February.

But how would women sell lingerie without proper training? Enter McGill who caught wind of the situation and contacted Reem. Together, they organised a two-week training session last month at the Dar al-Hikma Women’s College in Jeddah, where Reem lectures.

Twenty-eight participants attended the course. They learnt about lingerie styles, how to measure cup sizes, what a bra size is, how to do a proper fit and understanding the sales cycle and psychology of sales.

“An improperly fitted bra leaves people with headaches and backaches. Women must be fitted properly so they can then fit their female family members to feel physically better and be confident,” says McGill.

Initially, the participants were quiet and shy. They couldn’t speak English so a translator helped out. To break the ice, McGill removed her top and stood there. All went silent and students glanced around nervously. She invited the ladies to measure her bust.

“They started laughing and asked me if my breasts were real. They wanted to touch them!” smiles the well-endowed McGill.

While the folks in Jeddah are a little more liberated than in other cities in Saudi Arabia, she says Muslim women still faced many challenges there. For example, it’s illegal for women to drive and some are not allowed to go to stores alone. Their husbands will accompany them to lingerie stores as they don’t want their wives to interact with other men.

She says, “They have no access to knowledge, no customer service and buy bras according to what the salesman thinks is the right size. The Saudi woman’s body is a curvy hour glass one so these bras are either too big or too small but women are often afraid to speak out.”

McGill with the participants of the lingerie workshop she held in Jeddah.

During the session, McGill asked her students, aged 21 to mid-40, to measure each other’s cups so they had to remove their tops. She was horrified to see many of them wearing ripped bras. Underwires were sharp and twisted. They had sagging breasts, stretch marks and were under the impression they had to wear the same size for the rest of their lives!

“I cried in my hotel room that day. I was extremely saddened. They didn’t realise their weight could fluctuate and pregnancy causes the body to change and increases cup size,” says McGill, appalled.

Arab men were traditionally the salesmen in Triumph, Nayomi and various other stores in Jeddah although since Reem started her campaign, this is now slowly changing.

McGill says, “I visited one store located in the famous Thalia Street and discovered they now have changing rooms for women. They also offer a measuring service but it is not widely publicised and something customers are not demanding.”

She advises women to measure their sizes every six months or once a year if they have no weight swings. Women need to know how to scoop, tug and tuck their boobs into cups to get a perfect fit.

“It’s been over 30 years since women began burning bras to establish themselves in the community and now in the 21st century, we see a resurgence of the bra and the impact it is having on women in society again.”

As a child, McGill’s fascination was with women’s intimate apparel, not dolls.

“My mum and grandma owned a number of stockings and undergarments so at every opportunity, my sister and I would dress up and have fun,” she recalls. Whenever the family shopped, McGill would gravitate towards the lingerie section.

However, she pursued a degree in computer science and obtained a postgraduate in finance. She worked in the telecommunications industry selling mobile phone services and eventually ended up as an investment banker at Merrill Lynch in London. It paid well but lingerie remained at the back of her mind. Something was missing.

McGill then acquired an MBA, quit her job — much to her family’s horror — and secured a sales job at Selfridges in London in 2006, earning a paltry £6 an hour. Combining her financial knowledge and sales skills, she sold the most expensive two-piece lingerie for £1,300. She was thrilled.

“I’m good at selling lingerie and realised there is a market for selling expensive lingerie. Women want to come home and be glamorous lounge kittens,” she says.

During the night, McGill worked at Selfridges and by day, she designed lingerie to start her business. She travelled to France to learn about the fashion industry and sourced for material.

“My family thought I was insane and it took my mum some time before she eventually came around,” shares McGill who has over a hundred pieces in her bra bank.

McGill did extensive research, mastered the art of selling lingerie and struck out on her own. Harlette Luxury Lingerie (www.harlette.com) was born, selling housecoats, knickers, bras, outrageous feathery tops, etc — all custom made and for private clients only. Prices start at £250 for a basic bra and knickers set.

Because her products are exclusive couture, McGill says it will not sell in Australia as the Aussies simply won’t part with their cash. Hence, she looks out of the country for business markets. She has studios in Sydney and London but viewing is by invitation only.

For now, investment banking has taken a backseat but McGill believes her expertise lies in lingerie. She hopes to develop a retail line in France using embellished laces and eventually, expand to Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.


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