What lies beneath: Marlies Dekkers' strong, sexy and structural lingerie

The days when shopping for underwear meant an uninspiring choice between sensible not-so-smalls at M&S and racy but cheap Ann Summers fare are thankfully a dim and distant memory for British women. But although the arrival of high-end lingerie label Agent Provocateur 15 years ago brought with it an exciting new feel and aesthetic, and attracted a slew of copycat brands in the process, the sector has remained surprisingly static compared with the changing moods of fashion that influence the rest of a woman's wardrobe.

While department stores and boutiques are overflowing with undeniably beautiful styles, the vast majority still tend to fall along two well-established lines: retro glamour or plain functionality. For women seeking something that offers the resolutely modern brand of sexiness found in contemporary outerwear, however, the choices are more limited.

It is that gap in the lingerie landscape that the Dutch designer Marlies Dekkers has been quietly working towards filling since founding her eponymous label almost a decade ago. Her signature pieces are her bras, which use distinctive strapping around the neckline to frame the décolletage. Rendered more often than not in her favourite black micro-fibre ("there's already enough lace out there"), the look is at once futuristic and retro, avant-garde or classically elegant depending on how it is worn – a fact attested to by the diverse range of celebrities who have been spotted in her designs – from Britney and Rihanna to Juliette Binoche and the burlesque artist Dita von Teese.

Originally a womenswear designer, Dekkers found herself returning again and again to elements of swimwear and underwear before deciding to dedicate herself solely to lingerie. She now tries to bring the more conceptual perspective of a fashion designer to the industry:

"I'm interested in exploring what is sexy purely from a contemporary woman's point of view," explains Dekkers. "That doesn't necessarily mean pretty or girly. The strapping on my pieces works on a practical level to frame and reshape the body, but because it is visible above the neckline of your clothes, it becomes part of your whole outfit. It is a strong visual statement, but it is also one of pride in the female body."

Dekkers admits her designs can be outside women's comfort zone at first sight. "I think a lot of women are a bit scared to try them, as it is such a strong look, but when they put them on, you see something change in them. I deliberately focus on details that make women look at their bodies a little differently – the arrangement of straps over the back, for example, might draw their attention to a part of their body that they haven't been taught to consider beautiful."

Kenya Cretegny, the former model and graduate of Central St Martins School of Art & Design, is the woman behind London's latest lingerie emporium Apartment C, which stocks Dekkers' line. She believes that the label's non-traditional approach represents an emerging new trend in women's underwear: "It's a very exciting time right now, I feel like we're on the cusp of something genuinely new. There are lots of young designers who are making lingerie that is much more directional than we have seen before."

It was the idea that lingerie could be as much a part of fashion as any other garment that underpinned Cretegny's vision for Apartment C as a totally new kind of environment in which women could shop for underwear. "What I didn't want to do with the boutique was that whole French boudoir theme," she explains. "That has been done before – and done well – by lots of brands. Those places are very much about the erotica side of things and about the experience side of lingerie. I wanted to create a store that was very much a fashion store, but one that just happened to sell lingerie. A lingerie Browns [which has a reputation for finding and nurturing cutting-edge fashion labels], if you like."

Other young brands Cretegny sees leading this new wave include Bordelle, whose use of body-conscious elasticated ribbon reinvents old-fashioned corsetry and shapewear, and Berlin brand Wundervoll, which combines clean art deco lines with the softest organic cotton in space-age metallic shades.

"It's no longer just the sex kitten or 1950s pin-up look, and the women I see in the boutique really enjoy that," say Cretegny. "It's fantastic that we're finally seeing underwear which reflects that women are a lot more multi-faceted than that."

For more: www.marliesdekkers.nl, www.apartment-c.com, www.bordelle.co.uk, www.wundervoll-underwear.de

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