Janet Reger

Extravagantly glamorous lingerie designer
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The Independent Online

If the lingerie designer Janet Reger had been born just a bit earlier, and had she not decided she wanted to design undies for a living, she would have made a very good Hollywood starlet.

Janet Phillips, lingerie designer and businesswoman: born London 30 September 1935; married 1961 Peter Reger (died 1985; one daughter); died London 14 March 2005.

If the lingerie designer Janet Reger had been born just a bit earlier, and had she not decided she wanted to design undies for a living, she would have made a very good Hollywood starlet.

She was extremely, extravagantly glamorous. It was not unusual to see her in a full-length fur coat (an "old mink" she had had for years), with perfectly manicured nails, diamond engagement ring on one finger and immaculately coiffed hair, riffling through the bagged salad in Marks and Spencer. You could imagine her trading gossip with Bette Davis, or telling Jayne Mansfield that her bra did nothing for her.

Although Reger had a reputation for being blunt and outspoken, it was rare to hear her getting cross or impatient. She had a deep, rather soothing voice; she used to ask very nicely if something could be done and it usually was. "My mother," her daughter Aliza once said, "is very good at getting her own way without making the other person feel like they are giving in." In 1998 Aliza took over the family business, excited but also tremulous at taking the helm of a lingerie label that evoked three decades of glamour, intrigue and sex. "There's so much to fuck up," she said at the time.

Janet Phillips was born in London in 1935, the eldest of four girls; they were brought up in Reading. Her parents made bras for Littlewoods during the Second World War, using rayon off-cuts (the use of silk was banned, other than for making parachutes). In the early 1950s Janet enrolled at Leicester Polytechnic on a course that had only launched a few years earlier: "contour fashion", a euphemism for underwear and swimwear design. Her final-year show was fairly revolutionary at a time when underwear was very much regarded as functional: a pretty, co-ordinated set of pants, bra and suspenders.

After leaving polytechnic, she worked for a while for swimwear and underwear manufacturers before deciding to go to Israel in 1959, staying on a kibbutz. It was there that she met the charismatic, all-or-nothing man who was to become her husband: a German called Peter Reger, a chemistry student who later became an engineer. The attraction was said to be instant and powerful. She moved to Munich to be with him and they married in 1961.

Janet continued designing and making underwear, working from home. Their daughter Aliza was born in 1962 and four years later they moved to London. In 1967, Janet Reger Creations Ltd was launched, selling initially from the Reger home. Even before the London shops opened, glamorous women of the day such as Angie Bowie and Bianca Jagger were visiting the workshop in Paddington to collect their orders.

The lingerie world had seen nothing like it. Prior to this, women had the choice of being hoisted and flattened into underwear that was deeply practical and rarely pretty, or wearing colourful, skimpy bra-and-pants sets from sex shops in Soho. Reger designed for women who liked their undies to be pretty and sexy but wearable, and wanted them to be in a colour other than white (although, ironically, cream remained a best-selling colour).

The timing couldn't have been more perfect; London was swinging, fashions celebrated skimpier underwear and sex was no longer something to confess to your family priest. By 1970 Reger had a staff of 20, and sales of £40,000; business doubled every year and in 1974 the Knightsbridge shop opened and with it a factory in Derbyshire. By 1977 there were four shops and a staff of 120. In 1978 Janet Reger underwear had a starring role in The Stud, as worn by Joan Collins.

But, personally, things were not so rosy; Peter Reger was notoriously and repeatedly unfaithful. "The happier he was with me," Janet once mused, "the more he lusted after other women. When life was wonderful, he wanted every woman in sight out of the sheer joy of it." The final straw came when Peter asked if a friend of Aliza's (then 20) could come on holiday with them. The "friend" turned out to be his mistress. Pete and Janet separated in 1982.

The business too had overstretched itself by this time, expanding too soon, too fast, and in 1983 it went into voluntary liquidation. After the business went bust, Berlei, with whom Reger had a licensing deal, purchased the Janet Reger name and Janet lost the right to use it; which hurt her deeply. (After years of litigation and a £100,000 loan she was able to buy it back in 1986.) Then, in late 1985 and after two previous suicide attempts, from which he was saved once by his wife and once by his mistress, Peter took a drugs overdose and died. After days of not being able to reach him, Janet found him by the telephone. "I always wondered if he had been trying to call me."

In 1991, Janet Reger was diagnosed with breast cancer. The disease prompted a change in life style and she moved to a beach-front house in Mauritius. "I feel tired," she said last year, "I want to spend the rest of my days lying on the beach and meeting friends for lunch." On 1 January 1998, Aliza became chief executive, determined to honour the company her parents had set up, but also to bring in a new, younger customer.

Every evening in the run-up to Christmas, the shop was open for men only, to come in and buy beautiful, expensive silk lingerie sets for their wives or mistresses. The staff had to be extremely discreet. "With some famous men, I sometimes see pictures of their wives afterwards," Janet once confided, "and realise that what they'd bought was not the right size for the wife." Some particularly canny men bought the same underwear for wife and mistress, just in different sizes.

In late 1997, I interviewed Aliza just as she was preparing to take over the family business. Her mother (whom she had ceased to call mummy some years previously) called her from a mobile phone. "Oh yes, Janet loves her gadgets," Aliza gushed proudly. "She's just got one of those Psion organisers! She'll hate me for saying this but I can just see her, aged 80, still as bright as a button, still yelling, still shouting, still saying, 'That's not right and get this straightened out.' "

Annalisa Barbieri