Mills ’05 alumnae Marin Camille, an art history major with a double minor in studio art and film studies, has finally been able to reconcile two seemingly disparate parts of herself — she is both a passionate feminist and a Lingerie Designer.
Thanks to a successful kickstarter campaign and a serendipitous personal connection with her business partner Julia Zolinsky, their company, Blackbird Underpinnings, is launching their first line of vintage-inspired lingerie in 2014.
Part of Camille’s inspiration for this collection originated at Mills. The architecture of the stucco buildings she lived in and being able to work in the library archives, especially the Heller Rare Book Room and special collections, stuck with her.
“It was an amazing and important part of my time there [at Mills],” Camille said. “I was so invested in the archives there. It’s beautiful, I didn’t want to leave.”
Janice Braun, who runs the Heller Rare Book Room and the special collections for the F.W. Olin library, said she remembers Camille well.
“She was bright, creative and a pleasure to be around,” Braun said.
Camille says the creative space at Mills and its long history of supporting the arts is the basis for this new project. As an art history major, Camille says she spent a lot of time in visual culture classes looking at the female nude.
“We were always dissecting images of women,” Camille said. “It really took me a long time to get to the point where I had the agency to make my own images.”
Camille, who describes herself at that time as an “angry feminist,” struggled to bring together her ideas of being comfortable as a straight woman who likes to wear make-up and a feminist.
“It wasn’t serving me anymore to be angry. I needed a little time to mature,” Camille said. “I realized I can rewrite history. I don’t have to worry that if I wear lingerie I’m pandering.”
She was particularly empowered after reading works by Anais Nin, who is best known for being an author, particularly of erotica in the 1930’s and 40’s.
“She was a feminist not because of what she wrote but because of who she was. She was unapologetic. I [realized] it’s all about being true to myself and enjoying who I am and honoring who I am,” Camille said.
The collection itself is inspired by Nin’s quote: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
The collection is called Mavens; each piece is named after a creative woman of the 1920’s or 30’s, including Josephine Baker, Marlene Dietrich, Edith Piaf and Coco Channel.
“I enjoy finding expression through these things,” Camille said. “I realize that [lingerie] is not the key to empowerment for everybody.”
This is lingerie with a feminist twist, envisioned for a variety of body types with the intention of expanding their size range as the business grows. This is not the form-crushing style of, say, a Victoria’s Secret piece of lingerie. These pieces are flattering for all types of women.
After what Camille and Zolinsky describe as a lighting bolt moment to partner up, they hit the ground running to learn everything they could about the apparel industry and local manufacturing while holding down their jobs in fundraising.
“We spent the first year [of building the business] taking classes and immersing ourselves in the apparel industry,” Zolinsky said.
Camille works in individual fundraising with SF MOMA and Zolinsky currently works in corporate fundraising at the Oakland Museum.
“We were like sponges.” Camille said. “Reading lots of books and just learning an entire industry.”
They have received a surprising amount of support within the Bay Area. In an industry that has a reputation for being “cutthroat and backstabbing,” they have experienced nothing but camaraderie.
“It’s shocking how much people want to help and get excited about what we are doing,” Camille said
The 1970’s and 80’s were the heyday of clothing manufacturing in the Bay Area, but when the big companies like the Gap and Levi’s moved production to China, it left behind an infrastructure of factories, vendors and subcontractors who started taking up smaller clients.
“This is a particularly good time to be in the industry in the Bay Area,” Camille said. “But it’s not like you can just look up vendors on the internet or in the phone book.”
Networking and joining industry associations like People Wear SF has helped them learn about sourcing materials and which vendors work with small designers.
“It’s a small dynamic community and there is plenty of room for everyone,” Camille said.
One aspect of manufacturing locally Underpinnings is particularly proud of is that San Francisco is the most compliant in the country in terms of labor laws, fair practices and work environment.
“It’s really important to us that people are treated well, and that we are supporting the local economy,” Zolinsky said.
They got their seed money from family and friends, and then were able to raise $40,000 on Kickstarter.
Because of the PR required to have a successful Kickstarter campaign, Blackbird Underpinnings got noticed in the industry and were invited to participate in New York’s Lingerie Fashion week. They were showcased in an exhibit of emerging designers and participated in a group runway show on closing night.
Again, this proved a very supportive and inviting environment where people really want to lift up small businesses and send a positive empowering message through lingerie.
“It was a childhood dream come true,” Camille said. “It took me, like, a week after we got back to process that this had just happened. I wanted to be a fashion designer when I was a little girl and into my teens. I never thought it would happen.”
Look for the launch of their first collection coming in the next month or two. To view and purchase lingerie go to www.blackbirdunderpinnings.com.