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CFDA-Approved Lingerie Designer Ari Dein on Launching Her Own Line While Waiting Tables

Ari Dein, one of the buzzy labels involved in CFDA Incubator program, launched her eponymous lingerie brand in 2010 after studying design in Florence. Since then she’s kept extremely busy running the company entirely herself (not including some very helpful interns). She juggles designing, sales and production with the awesome travel opportunities the CFDA provides (including an eye-opening inspiration trip to Russia earlier this year). She also has her very first collab up her sleeve—“it’s a good one and I’m incredibly proud!”—and has plans to expand into the world of ready-to-wear. Read on to learn how her glamorous grandmother, ballet and Faberge eggs have all influenced her and why it’s cool that she’s 27 and married to her work.
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Arielle (Ari) Dein is something of a walking contradiction. She’s a fast-talking New Yorker--but grew up in rural New Jersey down the street from a llama farm. She isn’t into fashion at all and yet she runs her own label and is currently part of the highly respected CFDA Incubator program (hard to get more fashion than that!). It’s these contrasts that make it impossible to pigeonhole Dein’s namesake line of high-quality intimate apparel and sleepwear. When discussing her collection of versatile chemises and luxe pajamas, one minute she is describing the ‘badass’ process of hand cutting Galloon lace and the next she's referencing the industrial revolution.

Dein launched her label in 2010 after studying design in Florence. Since then she’s kept extremely busy running the company entirely herself minus some very helpful interns. She juggles designing, sales and production with the awesome travel opportunities the CFDA provides (including an eye-opening inspiration trip to Russia earlier this year). She also has her very first collab up her sleeve—“it’s a good one and I’m incredibly proud!”—and has plans to expand into the world of ready-to-wear. Read on to learn how her glamorous grandmother, ballet and Faberge eggs have all influenced her and why it’s cool that she’s 27 and married to her work.

So your family is no stranger to fashion. Tell me about your grandparents. Ari Shapiro: My dad’s parents immigrated to the US through Ellis Island and started working in New York’s Garment District. They realized the mark-up in fur was really substantial, and endeavored to start their own business. So they built a family fur empire, and the flagship was at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, which was a really posh place for fashion at the time. My grandmother would get her hair blown out upstairs and Jackie Kennedy would be there too. It was a really amazing era.

So glamor and fashion run in your family… Actually, my parents are academics—my dad is a physician and my mother is an opera singer. My childhood was very much about playing in the woods, wearing overalls, very rural. It was a nice contrast because my parents would take us into the city a couple of times a week to go to the opera, the ballet, the symphony. My parents are sophists and art geeks, not fashion people! I think it skipped a generation; for me [fashion] is really genetic. I catch myself doing and saying things that are so typical of my grandmother and her generation.

Your grandmother sounds like a character. What is she like? She’s 95 and wonderful. She still has her taste level, despite being at the tracksuit phase of one’s life. But she certainly was fashionable. I keep her Christian Dior dressing gown in my office. My grandmother was kind of a novelty in the family; even though the business was luxury goods, she really stood out as the glamor-puss of eight siblings. The others were more low-key. So, I grew up in kind of in this very granola household that was not fashion focused--more hippies and art and music driven. I guess I always sort of felt like the oddball. I was really into ballet, just like my grandmother, and into clothing. I thought I was a huge anomaly, but it turns out my grandmother was the same way.

So did you always know you wanted to follow her footsteps? Were you always into fashion? No, not really. I am not inspired by fashion. I take everything that is inspiring to me and turn it into things that I can wear, so it’s a different kind of approach. I was a ballet dancer in high school and was very enamored with ballet and costume design. Certain costume designers have influenced me a lot, and got me interested in how clothing can play a role in creating an identity. Then as a women, when I started wearing lingerie it really changed my whole post-ballet body image. It made me really celebrate everything that I am, and it was a very liberating, fun experience.

So when did you discover lingerie? Post ballet your body changes a lot, and suddenly I was no longer like a 12-year-old boy. I was wearing really boring stuff and designing all these really fantastical lace pieces, but it wasn’t a business yet. I guess at that point I just didn’t know anything about the industry and what was available in different sizes. I went to Journelle—this was about 5 years ago—they fit me into this bra that was lace and a size that I didn't know existed. I have a 30-inch rib cage but quite a full cup size, and they managed to fit me an amazing bra. It was so elegant and not trashy at all. Sometimes for bustier girls, the lingerie gets to be inelegant. I’m not a vulgar dresser … I’m very modest. Lingerie is something I do for myself that I enjoy. I went home and threw out all my old bras. Journelle ended up being my very first stockist.

Did you have any design experience? I did a year of design school in Florence. We were in a class learning to render lace and everyone was making these basic things and I went all out and was making these crazy bra and panty sets, and my teacher was like, ‘you’re going to be a lingerie designer!’ But I didn’t want to be pigeonholed so I was like, ‘No I’m going to make dresses!’ Lo and behold, she was right. I think it can be very obvious what you’re meant to do.

So when did you accept that your teacher was right? Literally, it was a calling. You hear people say that and it seems so intangible, but it was literally like Jiminy Cricket--a voice inside my head! My first job out of college was for a couture jeweler, and lingerie was just in my head all the time. The man I was working for was amazing, a genius, but I didn’t want to work for him, I wanted to be like him. I wanted to run my own ship.

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So you how did you turn the calling into your business? It happened sort of organically. I did slave though. I quit my cush job and waitressed, bartended. All the while I was making samples and doing 20-hour days. That hasn’t even really changed and might never. I feel most alive when I’m making the work that I love to do. I mean yes, I still want a vacation for a couple days now and then!

You were so young to launch your own line; did you feel prepared? Yeah, I didn’t know much. I had basic ideas about cost, but not about merchandising or anything. I had no idea what was going on in the world of lingerie and didn’t follow any designers. I guess I just marched to the beat of my own drum, and there are times when that has really worked for me. Initially, what I designed was very original and distinct. It’s quite architectural. It was a total fluke to me that it even caught on! After a season or two you have to kind of get real and figure out what your place in the market is.

What was your first collection like? The first collection was in a way my best, because I was so focused. Later on you get more diluted and strung around, so I go back to that first collection all the time. It was just very to the point: one chemise, one camisole and short, one long robe, one short robe, a high-waisted panty and a camisole. My interns always ask me, ‘How has your design sensibility changed?’ And I’m like, ‘It hasn’t.’ And when it does I go back to my first season and who I really am.

Did you have a support system at the start? I was sure the collection would bomb! Claire Chambers from Journelle really believed in me and gave me a lot of advice when I had no mentors, so that was important. Knowing that she was supportive was very validating, and I didn’t want to disappoint. Right out of the gate the lingerie blogs really launched me. They are so enthusiastic—it’s an amazing community, the lingerie girls! It’s a different world than high fashion.

What have been some major milestones for the label? My designs being on Gossip Girl stands out, but nothing compares to the day I got into the CFDA incubator program. I applied on a total long shot. It was like applying to college, so intense both creatively and on the business side. They took a chance on me, it’s amazing. And when I got carried by department stores—that really changes everything. It’s such an education. The cool thing about this industry is that you hit one milestone and you feel rejuvenated and like you’re again at the beginning.

Do you feel connected to the fashion world? I don’t know? I don't follow trends much or anything. Being a part of CFDA has been incredible and really changes things. It's put me in a completely and puts me in a different ballgame. It’s crazy when you start suddenly dealing with the opinion of Vogue!

What’s currently inspiring you? A big part of the fall ’13 collection, which will probably blend over to spring ’14, is Russian-inspired, but very subtle. I was especially taken by the idea of Faberge eggs, all the amazing, geometric patterns that appeared throughout the hotel. I sort of adapted that into lace and color stories. What was fascinating to me in Russia were the surprises. When we arrived at the W in St Petersburg it didn’t seem like anywhere a W would be. In fact, a lot of the city is so rundown and the buildings don't seem special, but then you go inside to find the most opulent, Empirical, beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. The element of hidden treasures lends itself nicely to lingerie. I guess I sort of went back into each item and hid something that maybe you don’t see from the outside, but the wearer will love.

Who do you design for? I like to think that she is very smart and value-driven. Someone who appreciates not just specialty items, but something truly special. What does luxury mean to you? I think about this a lot. It doesn’t mean status to me. I’m not the girl that carries the new $3,500 handbag that makes me feel like a different person. For me, it’s the ply of my toilet’s stuff you use everyday that doesn't necessarily cost a ton but makes a difference. It’s buying the $15 milk soap from Jo Malone with the fragrance of your favorite perfume. It’s about every day upgrades, and that’s sort of how I live my life and how the collection is structured. Sometimes people look at it and think, this is too special and they’ll only wear it once, but for me it’s about how you adapt it to your daily lifestyle.

What’s your personal style like? I’m the behind the scenes girl for sure! When I have to clean up for a meeting I have a very different style than day-to-day at the Garment Center, which is pretty filthy and gross. I’ve always had a sweet way of dressing, quite girly. Now that I’m getting older I’m trying to be a bit edgier, not so prissy. I like Rag & Bone at the moment.

Any plans to expand the collection? I feel a lot more interested in expanding into ready-to-wear than into more traditional lingerie. There are steps that I’ve taken to make the pieces more like regular clothing, like adding cuffs and buttons and drawstrings. I love making things more versatile. For me, that’s what is so great about loungewear: You can have a camisole and wear it with shorts to sleep or wear it with a blazer and jeans, and it’s totally different. Maybe that’s just me being lazy, but I love stuff that multitasks.

You seem to do everything yourself, do you have a team? I have interns, but really it’s just me. In 2014 I’ll finally start hiring. I can get it all done myself, but I would love to have help so I could eventually add more products. When I have to go out of town now, there’s nobody here to manage the website or do production, so a second person will really help streamline things. But I mean, this is what I know, and what makes me happy. I think this is a city where it’s totally cool to be 27 and married to your work.