The woman who drove millions of men mad with lust

Janet Reger, who died this week, single-handedly introduced the concept of lingerie to Britain, writes Susannah Frankel
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The Independent Online

"I allowed Pandora to visit me in my darkened bedroom. We had a brilliant kissing session. Pandora was wearing her mother's Janet Reger full-length silk slip under her dress and she allowed me to touch the lace on the hem. I was more interested in the lace near the shoulder straps, but Pandora said, 'No darling, we must wait until we've got our O-levels.' "

"I allowed Pandora to visit me in my darkened bedroom. We had a brilliant kissing session. Pandora was wearing her mother's Janet Reger full-length silk slip under her dress and she allowed me to touch the lace on the hem. I was more interested in the lace near the shoulder straps, but Pandora said, 'No darling, we must wait until we've got our O-levels.' "

So writes Sue Townsend in The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, and suffice it to say that her most famous creation was not the first or last male to be undone by the mere whiff of a Janet Reger petticoat. Instead, Reger, who died of cancer earlier this week, will go down in fashion history as the woman responsible for introducing the concept of "lingerie" to the British public, duly driving a million men in particular mad for her pains.

Until Reger founded her company in the late 1960s, and in this country at least, erotic underwear was almost entirely the preserve of Soho sex shops. Young women for the most part wore dull stretch-jersey beneath their clothes - this was prior to the invention of Lycra, remember, and stretch jersey didn't really stretch. Those of a certain age, meanwhile, were forced into flesh-coloured "foundation" garments: conical bra and girdle combinations which looked more like particularly unforgiving orthopaedic devices than anything aesthetically pleasing.

Reger's approach was revolutionary. Her secret, first and foremost, was to look to the golden era of Hollywood for inspiration, and recreate the bias-cut slips of the 1930s in fine silks and satins trimmed with lace. Overnight, London's beautiful people, who had hitherto been expected to rifle through the rails of second-hand clothing stores to find the originals that inspired Reger in the first place, could buy the new and improved version. And it was fitted to them personally.

Reger is also credited with giving the world sets of colourful co-ordinated underwear for the first time. For her diploma at Leicester College of Art and Technology, where she studied corsetry and underwear design, she presented just that: a matching set of bra, knickers and suspender belt, to be precise, with inset panels of olive green embroidery. Later, Reger's chic Beauchamp Place boutique boasted silicone "curves" nestling among all the chi-chi finery, designed to enhance madam's cleavage with none of the mess that plastic surgery entails. These days they're called "chicken fillets" and are available everywhere from Selfridges to Knickerbox, but Reger stocked them first.

"Janet Reger underwear was the sort of thing a man would buy that was very beautiful and would therefore also be appreciated by their partner," said June Kenton, owner of Rigby & Peller. Part of the same generation as Reger, Kenton stocked Janet Reger underwear throughout its heyday in the Seventies and early Eighties. "Janet Reger used the finest silk and in wonderful colours, all designed for the bedroom," she said.

The catalogue Reger produced to sell these designs at the time was, by all accounts, as popular if not more so than the product itself.

Reger founded Janet Reger Creations in 1967, producing her stock in a tiny workshop over a garage in Paddington when London was in full swing and its residents were happy to put aside any prudishness in favour of an unashamedly glamorous, even licentious mind-set. Her designs were first bought by the London department store Fenwicks and Miss Selfridge.

She was both famously pragmatic and hugely single-minded with regard to the business, and later said of that period: "When starting a business, you need to be self-sacrificing. It's a bit like starting out with a new lover - he needs to be treated well. Otherwise you'll lose him."

It wasn't long before the designer had her own shop at 2 Beauchamp Place. The young Bianca Jagger shopped at Janet Reger. So did Angie Bowie. In 1978 Joan Collins wore Janet Reger underwear in the screen adaptation of her sister Jackie Collins' The Stud, a film that, perhaps more than any other, encapsulated the vision of the world's young and beautiful people being promiscuous and proud.

Reger's designs suited the zeitgeist to perfection: the fact that they comprised barely more than a wisp of silk but cost about as much as the average overcoat only added to any appeal. In at least some cases the "sliders" - metal fastenings adjusted to make the bra straps longer or shorter - are crafted in 18 carat gold to stop them tarnishing.

In The Cutting Edge: 50 Years of British Fashion 1947-1997, Maxine Smitheran wrote: "Janet Reger's sensuous colour-co-ordinated lingerie incorporating silks, satins and lace appliqué, perfectly fitted the 1970s mood for nostalgia and glamour. Then, as now, her favoured styles included seductive, wide-legged french knickers and suspender belts. An ivory satin bias-cut mini-slip with lavish lace insets testifies to the continuing romantic appeal of such garments for the wealthy home and international markets. Biba's underwear and rich dark colours, such as terracotta, represented the other extreme of 1970s glamour design."

Janet Reger, née Phillips, was born in the mid-1930s in the East End of London and, legend has it, began dressing up in her mother's evening dresses and high-heels at an early age. She also crafted bras with off-cuts of waste fabrics bought by her textile manufacturer father. Reger spent her childhood years in Reading, and after collegein the late 1950s travelled to Israel, where she worked on a kibbutz. There she met the Swedish chemistry student Peter Reger. They were married in 1961 and moved to Zurich, where they had a baby girl, Aliza Reger, who runs the family business to this day.

Back in London and with £5,000 in savings, Janet Reger set up shop, with her husband running the business side of the partnership. It was, by all accounts, the perfect match. No more than a decade later, the company owned a factory in Derbyshire and had small but perfectly formed shops in London's most prestigious shopping districts, Bond Street and Beauchamp Place in Knightsbridge.

By 1983, over-expansion forced the business the pair had started into liquidation facing debts up to £1m. More importantly, Janet Reger lost her trademark name in a disastrous licensing agreement and was forced to start out all over again. And, if her business was suffering, her personal life was more harrowing still. In 1985 her husband, a serial adulterer, committed suicide after their marriage finally collapsed.

"Although Peter ran the side of the business that went wrong," Reger once said, "we had discussed it together. We were both pretty ignorant, and thought we were being very clever by expanding in a recession."

Explaining her husband's infidelity more than 10 years later, she said: "It was mad curiosity. He wanted to know what someone would be like in bed. And he expected me to accept him as he was, for us all to go out to dinner. Some of them would ring me up asking why was I still hanging around since he loved them. Maybe another woman would have tolerated it."

It is a mark of her tenacity that while still grieving over her husband's death, Reger was also forced to raise money to buy back her name, by that time under contract to the underwear manufacturing giant Berlei. After years of litigation and a £100,000 loan, she finally was able to do so.

In 1991 Janet Reger was diagnosed with breast cancer. But more than a decade later and with the help of treatment and drugs she still had an active role in her empire. She died at a London hospital with Aliza at her side.

Today, Janet Reger, the company, still has a store in Beauchamp Place, and the powers-that-be there also design Reger by Janet Reger for Debenhams. Aliza Reger is responsible for running the company that bears her mother's name, however, and has been for some years.

Competition is fierce, however, with young upstarts including Agent Provocateur and Myla moving in on the act. Janet Reger started it, however. Her family was unavailable for comment yesterday but Rigby & Peller's June Kenton put it neatly: "Janet Reger was really the woman who put sexy lingerie on the map."

HER HIGH STREET LEGACY

Bodas

A relative newcomer to the British underwear scene, Bodas bras are neither oversexed nor frumpy, but subtle and machine-washable. Understated Bodas lingerie also avoids "lumpy lines" which is why it is hailed by fashion stylists as the ultimate "invisible" underwear, appearing (under clothing) in fashion shows including Zac Posen, Luella and Roland Mouret. Set up in 2000 by Helena Boas, a former analyst at Mercury Asset Management, and her friend Donella Tarantelli, Bodas has also collaborated with the architect Jan Kaplicky of Future Systems on swimwear.

Marks & Spencer

Good old M&S is still No 1 in the UK , controlling more than a quarter of the total market share and offering a comprehensive range of underwear, at prices starting from £7 for a bra. With special collections for teenagers, new mothers and larger busts, M&S aims to provide underwear for every occasion, and usually in a handy multi-pack of five or more. To keep pace with the times, and attract a younger clientele who have been tempted by lingerie sold by high-street chains such as H&M or Topshop, M&S has in recent years sexed up its designs, most notably for Salon Rose, the capsule collection created with Agent Provocateur.

Rigby and Peller

Rigby and Peller, makers of traditional lingerie and official corsetières to the Queen since 1960, value fit above all else. Established in 1939 by Mrs Rigby and Mrs Peller, and since 1982 run by the Kenton family, R&P offers both fine lace and a firm foundation for larger busts. The company still sells made-to-measure corsetry and insists that, even for off-the-peg bras, customers spend up to an hour getting the fit just right. In an attempt to create a slender figure, Renée Zellweger's character squeezed into a Rigby and Peller corset in Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.

Agent Provocateur

Unashamedly erotic, not to mention nostalgic, (Fifties pin-up look-alikes staff the stores), Agent Provocateur makes lacy underwear sets - suspenders included - specifically designed to "arouse both wearers and their partners". Founded by Joseph Corré - the son of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren - and Serena Rees in 1994, the racy brand now includes perfume, scented candles and boasts stores from Dubai to Las Vegas. Both Kylie Minogue and the model Dita Von Teese have recorded raunchy ads for the company, perhaps the most fashion-led of the newest crop of underwear labels.

Myla

Arguably closer in spirit to an upmarket sex shop than a lingerie boutique, Myla, which was founded by Charlotte Semler, an advertising executive, and Nina Hampson, a management consultant, opened its first store in 2000. Myla sells barely-there underwear alongside designer sex toys to the west London set through three boutiques and to the rest of the world through its website. In 2004 Myla opened its first store in New York and its signature garment, a G-string made entirely from pearls, once had an entire episode of Sex and the City devoted to it.

Susie Rushton

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