Bras top the list of fashion items that magically change the way women look. Ask Poupie Cadolle, whose company invented the bra and who has unparalleled expertise in pushing, squeezing and flattering breasts.
Or ask Monica Bellucci, Sophie Marceau or Sharon Stone, dressed by Cadolle for films or magazine covers to bring out the best of their torsos.
"I'm fashion's top cheat," says the bright-eyed blonde of 63, the fifth generation of women at the helm of a family firm known for made-to-measure bras at a cool 640 euros (902 dollars) a piece.
In pride of place by the company entrance is Cadolle's 1889-patented bra - ancestor of the artful cleavage unveiled at the same venue and at the same time as Paris' Eiffel Tower.
Initially called a "Well-Being", then a "Chest Corset", it was advertised as "providing support for the abdomen while leaving the stomach free".
"It didn't sell very well," Cadolle said in an interview. "Bras only really took off years later."
Like other top French lingerie labels Simone Perele and Chantelle, Cadolle started off as a specialist corset-maker. At a time when many fashion brands have been gobbled by conglomerates, these three leading bra-makers remain in family hands.
"What we do is based on know-how," Adeline Desjonquieres, who manages the Chantelle brand, told AFP. "Corsetry is close to couture, we have generations of know-how behind us."
"We magnify the body, we perfect the silhouette, we help to cheat," she said of push-up and padded bras and the other tricks of corsetry.
Leaders of these French corsetry dynasties are true believers in the bra - in its virtues and its quality and cut as well as its beauty.
"People forget that the whole point of a bra is to provide support," said Cadolle. "It is there to stop the sagging that comes if breasts bounce about due to poor straps or loose cups and material."
Concern over sagging bosoms is such that British label Freya has extended its cup sizes from the routine A to D right up to a K to give women more depth. It also now has a special fitting expert who travels to lingerie boutiques across Europe to help saleswomen help clients choose the right bra.
"More and more young women need bigger sizes yet four out five women don't even know their bra size," said Freya's Marie-Laure Vasquez. "The right size means better posture and less strain on the back."
Freya, which is also bent on producing attractive models in large sizes, has been named the top 2010 lingerie designer by Paris' Salon International de la Lingerie, taking place this month.
Underwear, said organisers of the Salon, is poised to sell three percentage points better than outer wear in 2010 despite the crisis. And women aged 45 to 54 have outstripped 20-year-olds as lingerie's top buyers.
"They buy better labels and look for better-made bras," said Cecile Vivier, manager of the Salon. "There is demand for know-how and people are ready to pay the price."
Bras are complicated things, however, made of a total 14 different components - from hooks to lace to elastic - and 11 to 18 pieces of fabric.
"Bras are very complicated and each woman is different," said Cadolle of her Rolls-Royce-like models made of 16 pieces of fabric.
After panty-hose in the 70s almost destroyed the girdle and garter business - "the bottom half of corsetry" - the feminist onslaught against the bra all but razed the entire trade to the ground, she said.
"Women were supposed to go out and conquer the world without nice undies," added Cadolle. "The bra was vilified, it became well-behaved and very very dull. It was no longer supposed to be pretty, or lacey, particularly in North America."
More than half of France's lingerie makers went bust at the time, but Cadolle, then run by her ageing mother, continued to turn out sophisticated undies with plenty of lace for a faithful if shrinking clientele.
To sell her custom-made models, Poupie Cadolle nowadays travels to Dubai and New York several times a year, measuring up customers, returning for fittings, and finally sending the finished item through the post.
"They might be expensive but no two women are the same and, if washed properly, a good bra can provide the proper support for a couple of years."
"Today young Russian women are replacing our American clientele of the 1920s," the era when well-heeled American women sailed the Atlantic to pour into Paris for the jazz, the clubs, the jewellery and the clothes.
In those days, Cadolle had a staff of 600 who might spend 200-300 hours stitching together a night-dress for the wives of Indian Maharajas or members of the dwindling Ottoman court. It also owned a long stretch of the up-market street in the heart of Paris where it now runs a lone boutique.
Though times are hard, France's bra dynasties remain optimistic for the future.
"France still has a reputation for refinery and elegance, and we are surviving," says Cadolle, who hopes for a return of the pointy bra, the kind of breast flaunted by Brigitte Bardot in the 50s and 60s.
Says Desjonquieres: "By flattering a woman's body we help her express her femininity."Reuse content