With "Fifty Shades of Grey" fever nearing an all-time high, it's only natural that consumer curiosity about intimacy and sexual experimentation is on the rise as well. However, not everyone is comfortable with jumping right into the purchase of revealing lingerie or sex toys, but there's a burgeoning New York brand that's hoping to change all of that.
Curriculum Vitae, a label that specializes in lingerie and discreet "pleasure kits" at a contemporary price point, aims to help modern women get more in tune with their sexuality through its super-comfortable signature pieces -- like the one-size-fits-all Sparks panties -- that are sexy without being fussy. But that's not all: CV also offers pre-assembled sensual kits (for use with a partner or alone) that share the same sleek aesthetic as the garments it carries. Creative Director Christina Viviani had a vision early on about turning her design background into a retail concept surrounding couples and singles who were looking to heighten the experience of shopping for toys and lingerie, and what she came up with is a vertically integrated brand that provides customers with the best of both worlds. A number of notable retailers -- Barneys, Journelle and Shopbop among them -- are already carrying the label, which is just two years old.
Entering the market at an accessible luxury price point, CV is an ideal brand for those looking to dabble in upscale lingerie and loungewear, especially since many of the loungewear options — like silk pajama tanks, slips and onesies — can easily double as ready-to-wear. Even when a piece is hidden under your clothing, Viviani insists that it should still be chic. "You never know when you're going to get busy," she says. "You should always be feeling and looking good."
Speaking of getting busy, her discreet kits (which are available for purchase online, as well as at The Standard and the Greenwich Hotel) are a booming part of her business and emphasize the look and feel of the materials, using leather, satin and grosgrain to create toys that are as chic as they are sexy. "Plus, we do same-day delivery in NYC for 25 bucks which is fun — if you need pleasure right away, we can bring it over." Just in case you were in need of a Valentine's Day surprise.
Read on for our interview with Viviani about how her slightly out-of-the-box business venture came to be, her experience with building a fashion brand and why helping women own their sexuality is one of her greatest goals.
Will you tell us about your design background and what you studied in school, and when you first thought that you might want to be a fashion designer?
It started really early on because my grandfather was a sculptor and a painter. I kind of grew up around him and mixing his paints and helping him with whatever he needed to do and he taught me how to sketch — that’s something that generally I’m good at. He was really adamant about me constantly practicing that. One of the first things I ever sketched was this girl that’s in a champagne glass. I don’t know what ad it is, honestly, but he made me sketch that and immediately it felt right. I just became kind of consumed and obsessed with reading Vogue and wanting to move to New York at an early age, and then I came here when I was 19 to go to school.
How I actually got into the business is a very funny story — it’s a very New York story. I was coat check girl at New York Athletic Club and I was, you know, hanging coats and doing my work for class. I’m sitting there crouched into all these furs, and I noticed this woman’s shoes, and I was like, “I really love your Manolos.” She’s like, “Honey, what do you do?” The next thing I know she wanted me to come in for an interview as part of a showroom.
So I’m sort of working in the business at 19 and you know, worked my ass off. I studied womenwear and then it just kind of organically grew from there — every job that I’d gotten was based on someone that I’d met in the business and someone that knew my work ethic. I wasn’t one of those kids that went home at six … I was there at 8 in the morning, I stayed until 10 p.m. every night and I didn’t mind working on weekends. I wanted to learn every single thing I could possibly absorb because I knew that in the long term, like it would definitely help me. And it totally has.
What other branches of the industry have you worked in?
I worked for a yarn mill in Italy — I worked in the New York office but they would send me to the mills, I’d work with them during Pitti. From there I met a designer that I’d worked for and I was his assistant designer for many years, Neal Sperling; we sold to Colette and Ikram and Barneys and it was awesome. He ended up going under — it happens to a lot of designers. But I went to Donna Karan from there. I was there for three and a half or four years, and then from there, Adrienne Vittadini, I became like the senior designer of that. She was like the Tory Burch of the ‘80s to me, a super cool, exquisite woman, and so was Donna. Then I just decided, you know, I’d kind of learned all the things I needed to learn but I wanted to do something a lot more personal, that’s how the brand came about … I’d tweaked and thought about it for a while but to actually quit corporate is a big deal. To really quit and to leave into something that you don’t know if it’s going to work or not. It’s just such a leap of faith, but I’m so happy that I did it.
Had you saved up money to do your own thing?
I saved my money and I will tell you, you will never save enough.
That’s what we hear!
Yeah. I saved, I’ve cashed in all my 401K, everything that I’d ever like put in. The catalyst for the whole thing was I got hit by a car on a date — a first date, actually, from OKCupid. I was in the hospital and called my grandfather and I was like, "I’m like I’m so lost, what am I doing?" He said, “You’ve always chosen the wrong things in this career. It’s not about any of that, it’s about following your passion and what you know you’re really good at. And you have always been entrepreneurial. You just need to do your own thing.” So I was like, fuck it. I came back to work and I was like, “I love everyone, but it’s time for me to move on.”
What did you do first to lay out the plans for your brand?
I started going hardcore into the business side of the whole thing. I was traveling to tech conferences and women’s conferences … I met with so many different investor-types that were helping me with my business plan and refining it. How I started the business and how it’s pivoted to what it is now is such a different thing. You think you’re going to do one thing but the journey leaves you — you think you’re leaving it, but it kind of just dictates you a bit.
I will say that you will never finish doing your planning and you will never finish your deck. I’m a nerd and I love to sit at home at night and write a new slide or I’ll change things around. But there’s also an investment game — you’re really raising all the time, so you’re campaigning for yourself and it’s not easy to have awesome investors. But you’re still looking for the next round and you’re just … you’re tweaking that. So it’s important to be on top of your actual plan, like when you go and see the cash flow and your turnaround investment and you know how much money you need to put into each collection. There’s so much business to the whole thing that I feel like I went to business school for the last two years, it’s shocking.
Would you say going to business school is a must for an aspiring fashion designer?
I don’t think that you have to, but you have to be willing to do the homework yourself and for your outline because you can sign a bad deal and it sucks to get out of it. So you really have to know legalities, have an amazing lawyer and have a team around you that you can trust — that will help guide you and lead you and you can confide in. That’s definitely helped me.
How did you go about researching lingerie design?
It's tricky, it has been such a learning curve. I’m so obsessed with construction in general and I’m very technical; I’m into the math of the whole thing. But there’s so many components of a bra, you’ve no idea. At first I would buy something like Agent Provocateur, I’d come home and immediately cut it apart — cut the bows off, changed the straps. I thought, "Something is wrong here, I need to do this for myself." So I just started researching construction, I worked with a really great pattern-maker and I was like, “I don’t want to just hand you a sketch and wait for it to be done, like I want to learn the whole thing." So now I’m doing some of my own patterns, I’m really diving into the process.
Once you had completed your first collection, what was the first thing you did?
I called Barneys and I was like, “I really would love to see you guys, I’m going to go to Paris.” Meanwhile I had no ticket to Paris. I had no place in Paris. And I wasn’t planning on joining Paris Fashion Week. But they said yes, and I was like, "Holy shit, we have to be in Paris in three days." So we got tickets and stayed with a friend and it was a bit of smoke and mirrors to make it happen. Our little spot was right by Colette's office; it was beautiful and it was perfect and it was so intimate. Everyone that came through was like super sweet. And it was just very humble — just a girl and a rack. It was the right product, right time, right price point, right fit, I don’t know, it was just really refreshing and different so it was cool.
What niche do you see yourself filling in the market, especially since CV is at a more contemporary price point?
I love Agent Provocateur and all those luxury labels, but, you know, we're made in America, New York primarily, and that’s huge to me. But just pricing things right… I think it’s just making a quality product that people want to come back to, having more of a loyal customer base. I think that’s a really hard thing to have in 2014; people are not brand loyal. You can get fast fashion anywhere but it falls apart and that’s not what I’m looking to do. I want something that you can have for a long time. I’m really obsessed with vintage construction. I have a lot of vintage that I use as references and it’s just very inspiring to me. So to be able to look at a garment that was like 100 years old and it’s still intact says everything. That’s like my goal. I don’t want to just throw away.
Once you went to Paris, you met with Barneys — how was everything received and how did you meet your other accounts?
It was really cold calling. I don’t have a sales team, a friend of a friend was helping me with sales. But we were seriously picking up the phone old-school and emailing and then finding out buyers' contacts. I just made a list of the 10 stores I really wanted to be a part of and I respected the businesses of, and that I felt the brand had synergy with. And then it ended up working out. Now we’ve just signed with a showroom, so I’m really excited, it’s a big leap for the brand.
And all of your production is done here?
Yeah, everything’s done here, it’s really cool to be hands-on with everything and I’m obsessed with quality control. That’s also super-important when you’re a small brand, because, first of all, minimums are huge when you’re overseas. Second of all, you get the product back and then one thing can fuck an entire run up. There’s so many variables to it. So this way, you can always catch it and, you know, maybe you’ve ruined a garment or two. But you can stop it and fix it. I love my factories. I’ve known them since I started my business; people that I have great relationships with that I trust immensely with the business.
Were the pleasure kits always a must-do for your brand or was it an afterthought to the lingerie?
Definitely the lingerie, the whole kind of "essentials" element, was definitely number one, and that’s for sure how the business plan and the model is to this day. But the whole sensual pleasure element is such an important part because it’s hand in hand; I mean, we’re all doing it, let’s be honest. I was always really comfortable with my sexuality, a lot of people I know aren’t… in terms of like being closed off and not wanting to go to Babeland or something. It was always something that I felt like if I could make an experience out of it and an empowering thing — like owning your sexuality — then I’m doing something right. I had different investors during the process be like, “I don’t know, we don’t feel comfortable. Maybe you should just focus on lingerie and maybe it’s taking something away from that.” And I was like, “No, no, no. It’s not.” So I do think you need to stand your ground on certain things. And it’s selling — if it’s not selling then maybe you should rethink it,
How are the kits different from what you might find in a random sex shop?
Let’s say, everything about those kits is thought out. I'm really into presentation and how something feelings when you’re experiencing it. That’s what’s missing from the entire industry as a whole for the most part. No one’s thinking about the box and just that moment — you have to put yourself in that situation, like you’re going to like rip open a kit, you don’t want to be ripping up plastic and then thinking, "How do I figure this out?" It’s a whole drawn out thing, it’s the most unsexy thing you could ever experience. So I try to really think this through and make it so it’s really foolproof and it just makes you have an amazing time.
Many of your pieces look like they can double as day-to-day clothing as well as lingerie — do you plan on branching out into ready-to-wear?
No, I think it’s important to do something really well first and not try to please everyone. Is that to say that that’s forever? No, but I want to be known for this first and really have people trust me with the things that they’re putting closest to their skin — that’s really exciting. And then once that happens then we can move on to do other fun things.
Are there any pieces of advice that you've received that really have stuck with you this whole journey?
I would say you really have to have such thick skin and you really have to love it more than anything in the entire world. There are days that are really incredible and so fulfilling. And you know, and you can get caught on the highs and the lows, you really have to try to stay pretty neutral. You might get excited, but you just have to be pretty level-headed about the whole thing and decide if this something you really want to commit to, because once you start it’s important to see your journey through. So a lot of people say they want to start that, but don’t have the stamina to do so.
This interview has been edited and condensed.