As you’re probably well aware, models and sex workers represent a huge part of the market for lingerie stores and designers. In fact, lingerie brands big and small often borrow from sex-work-inspired imagery, like BDSM or exotic dancing, to sell their clothes. But when it comes time to actually support the people whose imagery and personality they profit from, many brands keep their mouths and wallets shut.
I spoke with Celina of Belle de Nuit, who’s looking to change all of that, one bodysuit at a time.
If we could, let's just start with your story. So, who are you, what's your career arc been like, how did you end up where you are now?
My name is Celina. I'm the owner, founder, and designer of Belle de Nuit Lingerie. My arc is kind of interesting. Since I was a kid I was really into theater, drama, so maybe it was the costuming that led me into fashion. It's been several factors. Watching old Hollywood movies and just getting really into clothing and fashion, and I spent a lot of time sketching outfits. And a lot of times, that turned into sketching lingerie. The outfits underneath the outfits. But I wasn't already sure that I wanted to design lingerie; that took a couple of years. Because of the old Hollywood stuff, I kind of veered towards pin-up, and especially Bettie Page. I was on Tumblr and I was like seeing all these vintage, burlesque pin-up images, and I was really fascinated and excited about the lingerie.
I moved from the Bay Area to L.A. to pursue fashion. I actually didn't go to school initially, I just worked a bunch of internships and jobs, trying to decide if I really wanted to pursue design. I didn't wanna be that person that was like, “I'm gonna be a designer,” and then go to school and figure out that I couldn't do it. So, I worked a lot of the behind the scenes jobs, marketing and PR and styling before I realized, oh, I actually do wanna do design. I went to a trade technical school, and they taught me womenswear. So lingerie, I actually still had to learn on my own time through interning with a lingerie designer in L.A. I still work with them actually, when my own orders are a little slower.
The designs were there, it was more the construction that I needed to learn, because bra-making, and intimate apparel in general is a very different animal when it comes to fashion design and pattern making. It was very different from dresses, or menswear, or anything else.
I always knew I needed a niche, and I had always been really drawn to lingerie and especially the fabrics used in it. So, it just seemed natural to me. I’ve always been into these very feminine and subtly, if not overtly, sexual designs. But always to empower the wearer. It was never like, “Oh, I wanna make this because I want my customer to attract a partner or a man.” It was always that I want the wearer to feel really good about themselves, and strong and beautiful, and to have this secret under their clothes. Another part of their identity that the world doesn’t always get to see.
You talked a little bit about your inspirations. At one point it was classic Hollywood and pin-up styling. Are there any movies or costumes in particular that really inspired you?
Actually, the inspiration behind the name of my brand; I read the book first, and then I watched the movie, "Belle de Jour." The movie is with Catherine Deneuve. Her fashion in that movie was all done by Yves Saint Laurent. And oh, man, I mean, I was obsessed with her looks - she had this Peter Pan-collared dress, like a very classic black and white Peter Pan get up, and I was really into that. And this black vinyl trench coat, and her lingerie in that, too. That movie in particular. I like the Alfred Hitchcock movie with Grace Kelly, "Dial M for Murder." I loved a lot of these kind of like very feminine-fitted silhouettes. But "Belle de Jour" I liked a lot because I love the story, and I loved the styling of the clothes in that. You could see the story arc in her clothing as well, how she kind of like went from this repressed house wife, and her clothes were a little bit more reserved or uptight, and then you could kind of see it blossom along with her. The story is very dark, but the fashion is amazing.
Are there any contemporary designers, outside of the lingerie world, that you're inspired by?
Yes, oh my God! I've always really liked Valentino. I know it's so corny to say Chanel, but that was definitely an influence - I read a lot about that fashion line, obviously Gabrielle Chanel, Coco Chanel, her life. Obviously these are like the big fashion houses, but there are a lot of small brands that I like. Adam Selman is a recent favorite and inspiration. I think I've just been so wrapped up in lingerie, I think everyone that I'm thinking of is lingerie.
Vivienne Westwood. Jesus Christ. I always loved Vivienne – her pieces are more avant-garde than even what I design, or maybe even would wear, but I've always been drawn to her. This punk, sexual, feminine, powerful, empowering, image that all her stuff resonates.
Tell us a little bit about the brand's ethos, its mission, the guiding principles behind the brand.
I have a few underlying principles. My tagline is "Multifaceted lingerie for multifaceted women," and people always ask me, “What does that really mean?” It goes hand-in-hand with what I was saying about how I want my customers to wear stuff for themselves. I've just always rejected this idea of women being pigeon-holed into certain types and categories. In a lot of the movies and TV shows and books I consumed as a young girl, women were sorted into categories: this is the hot girl, this is the smart girl, this is, whatever. But personally, I feel like I embody a lot of these different qualities.
Victoria's Secret put out this collection, for PINK, their younger line, called Bright Young Things. And it was all because this dad wrote a letter about how he didn't want his daughters having to feel like their worth was tied to wearing these underwear, these little thongs. He was basically saying, “I want my daughter to focus on what school she's gonna get into and what her career path is gonna be.” He was almost making it seem like a daughter wanting and liking cute lingerie, and being a professional working woman, or going to school, was mutually exclusive. It’s that type of idea that I totally reject.
A lot of my customers are professional women in science and medical fields. And they like to wear lingerie too. I think it's kind of against this idea that only a certain type of woman wears sexy lingerie. And also the idea of who you wear it for, or what you wear it for - it's all about that. I think first and foremost it should be for you. I don't think it should be something that you give to your partner. Of course you can, and you should – but only if you want.
The name of my brand, Belle de Nuit, I took that from that movie and book, "Belle de Jour." I remember telling friends or colleagues that I wanted to name my brand that. And in French, that's actually slang for woman of the night, which is supposed to be a sex worker. I remember a ton of people who knew that, and they were like, "You know what that means, right?" "Are you sure you wanna make that your brand name?" I'm like, "Why not? I know what that is, and that's actually the whole point.”
In the name of it, I'm already shedding light and showing my admiration and respect, and acknowledging the fact that sex workers are some of the top clients of the lingerie industry. I try to really make that a big part of my brand mission, to not shy away or shun sex work as a means of using its imagery in my pictures or even in design. I also make a point of hiring sex workers as models.
Lingerie is supposed to be uplifting and empowering for all kinds of women, so it’s important to me that my pieces be accessible - whether that’s through sizing, or hiring different types of models. To me it's a no-brainer - obviously it's nice to get the credit and have people say it's cool, but to me it was always something that I knew I wanted to do, even before I launched. I wanted it to seem accessible to all kinds of women. You don't have to be a certain type. You don't have to buy lingerie to do a certain thing. It doesn't even have to be for the bedroom, it could just literally be for yourself. Like your secret superhero costume.
Obviously, sex workers are gonna be a huge market segment for any lingerie business. What do you think are the implications of being a business with a marginalized clientele? Do you feel that you have any sort of responsibilities that come from that, or are there any ways that you should be or shouldn't be talking or advertising yourself as a result of that?
I think even if I wasn't in this business, I think that I would try to be as vocal as I could about these issues. But because of this being my career path and my passion, this is what I've chosen to do, I think it is particularly my responsibility to uplift and support sex workers. Especially because a lot of lingerie brands, mainstream and even small ones, they still try to exploit and profit off the imagery of sex work, but don't actually uplift and acknowledge and support sex workers, or even hire real sex workers as models in their campaigns.
I have like a sex worker discount on my site. I think it's an important thing as a lingerie designer and as a business, because you see so many popular mainstream lingerie lines that do lookbooks and campaigns where it's this very pro-dominatrix vibe or a red light district, strip club kind of vibe. But they use regular fashion models. And it always has kind of this vibe that she's not actually a stripper. Like, she's not actually a call girl. “We don't want you to associate with that, but let's go profit off the imagery of it.” It’s really gross, and I think it actually heightens this negative stigma, and it just keeps them marginalized. I think if you're gonna be using that imagery, like, the least you could do is express support and solidarity and admiration and respect to the people who inspired you.
Or at least pay them.
Yeah, at least pay them!
Let's talk a little bit about symbolism. Do the symbols that are used in your logo have any significance?
I have kind two logos; the text logo, the one that says "Belle de Nuit" was designed by a long-time friend of mine from high school, actually. Her name is Anya and she's a killer graphic designer. We were working on that together for a long time, I wanted it to be really perfect. I was always very into the crescent moon, you see that in the image logo as well. My name means goddess of the moon, Celina. I've always just been very drawn to moon symbolism, feminine energy. I have a crescent moon tattoo, I was always very drawn to it. Belle de Nuit, woman of the night, beauty of the night, the moon, it all ties it together in one concise symbol.
The cross, the way that it's formed, it's actually supposed to look like the Venus symbol. It's all about that kind of like strong, feminine energy.
And then the logo of the girl on the moon, too, is done by another friend of mine, Hannah, also a great designer, animator. I wanted a pin-up girl on the moon. A very 1920s, paper moon image, but I wanted to twist it into something that resonated more with me and tie in a little bit of my own culture. The imagery of the woman, I wanted her to have Middle Eastern features, because I'm half Iranian. It was inspired by the character of Scheherazade from "A Thousand and One Nights" or "Arabian Nights," to inject a little bit of my own culture into it without being super overt.
If you had $10,000 to invest in your business today, what would you spend it on?
I've actually been thinking about expansion a lot recently, because my business has been massively expanding in just a year. I would invest in a good local team of seamstresses. Hiring some outside help, but still keeping it local. I would definitely find people to help me with marketing. I would just really try to build a good, strong team, all women, just to further expand my brand, and at the same time helping the women that I'm also trying to help with my designs by actually hiring them, if I can.
What's a business lesson that you learned the hard way?
There's been a few of those. When it's your own business, your baby, it hurts a little bit more. But I always really quickly turn it around into a good lesson. Now I've learned this and I'm not gonna make the mistake again. One example is that I was afraid to be too bold or demanding. I think this is something that's ingrained in women; you don't wanna come off as aggressive or bitchy, especially when you're in a leadership role.
I always try to give everybody chances, and I'm very nice, and I wanna always see the best in people. But I have done that in times where I've actually been taken advantage of, or I have worked with someone who I was trying to give a chance, and the work that I received just was not really what I wanted to pay for. Losing money that way definitely teaches you to be a bit more discerning of who you work with.
Just try not to dwell on those things, and just keep it pushing, and learn from your mistakes.
For your marketing strategy, are you able to run digital ads on mainstream platforms? Are you able to advertise on Facebook, for example?
You know, it's funny. I've already run into some trouble with being on Facebook, because any shred of female sexuality, like lingerie, even if there's no nipple, it’s considered to be basically showing porn.
When I was trying to name the URL, I was trying to say, "Belle de Nuit Lingerie," because "Belle de Nuit" was taken. And it told me I couldn't because it violated their guidelines. They basically said using the word lingerie was pornographic, and I was like, "What?" So, I haven't even really tried to do Facebook ads. I made the page, but I really kind of neglect it because Instagram is my, you know, best form of marketing, and it always has been.
So, I haven't really tried to do a lot of mainstream advertising. I really do everything on Instagram. My big thing is I send products free of charge to women who have a lot of followers, who I think represent the brand well.
I actually recently sent stuff to the porn star Charlotte Sartre, and she's been so sweet. I sent her a set a while ago, and then she just posted pictures, and it bumped me up - so many followers, I got so many orders and I just sent her another thing she wore to the AVN Awards. To me, it's like the cost of making the free lingerie and sending it to them is like my paying for advertising.
If you could make one change to the lingerie industry that every other company had to abide by, what would it be?
Representation. Representation of not only having a large range of sizes, but also of working with all kinds of different women. And it's not just sex workers, it's also women of color, queer women, trans women. It's just making it very accessible to everybody.
I want to represent lingerie as something that’s for you - we want you to feel good. Not like, “you'll get the guy of your dreams if you wear our lingerie.” Well, fuck you, that's not what we're about.