Lingerie and literature don’t come together that often, but when naming her intimates brand, fashion designer Laura Mehlinger ’01 turned to Vladimir Nabokov. Lola Haze™ alludes to Lolita, the subject of Mehlinger’s senior honors thesis in English. “Lola” was another of 12-year-old Dolores Haze’s nicknames. “It’s a reference to my admiration for Nabokov,” Mehlinger says, “for the way he plied his craft in such a playful, seductive, and completely masterful way.”
The same adjectives could describe the way Mehlinger plies her craft. Consider, for example, the Ruffle Teddy from her Wabi Sabi City collection, whose sheer black bodice is hand-painted with tattoo-like ornamentation. Or her Colorfield collection, whose combinations of fuchsias, oranges, and violets were inspired, Mehlinger says, by Morris Louis’s paintings and Prince concerts. Along with panties, camisoles, slips, and rompers, Lola Haze offers one-of-a-kind hand-painted silk pieces produced in collaboration with New York-based artist Charlotte Pinson. To care for all these delicates, Mehlinger created the Launderie Bag™, a lacy pouch for washing, storage, or travel.
For Mehlinger, each new collection offers the chance to express her deepest sensibilities. “Unexpected juxtapositions are what’s most interesting to me about design,” she says. “When something’s visually expected, it blends into the background. If you’re designing clothes for that purpose, that’s great. But it’s creating something visually jolting yet also somehow harmonious that truly inspires me.”
In 2009, its second year, Lola Haze expanded into 34 stores, including Victoria’s Secret, in 11 states. (Prices range from $25 to $80, for basic items, up to several hundred dollars for silk chemises with complex detailing.) “Lingerie for American women is tricky,” Mehlinger says. “They’re not raised to be comfortable with the idea of display.” Her clientele, she adds, are women who feel empowered and confident, and dress for themselves.
“I always wanted to be a fashion designer,” she says. “As a child, I would spread fabric on the floor, lie on it, trace myself, and cobble together weird little outfits.” Growing up in suburban Alexandria, Virginia, she filled her closet with vintage finds and clothes she sewed herself. Harvard, Meh-linger acknowledges, has never been fashion-forward: “It’s neither a place where you can study fashion, nor a place where people care much about fashion. But I loved that—the serious-mindedness of it. I loved that during reading period everyone walked around in sweatpants and dirty hair.”
Nevertheless, in her senior year, Mehlinger staged a fashion show in Pforzheimer House. “I assembled a 40-person volunteer team of students, including all the models,” she recalled. “I designed and sewed the outfits in my bedroom. It was lots of fun, but it was also a test. I wanted to gauge whether my love for fashion was something I felt strongly enough about to throw myself into.”
It was. After Commencement (her graduation gift was her prized Bernina sewing machine), she worked for Gap in San Francisco, then Manhattan, designing women’s wear and intimates. In 2005, what began as a three-month trip became a yearlong journey traversing North Africa, Europe, Australia, and Asia. The travels bolstered her independence. “I returned with the confidence to start Lola Haze,” she says.
Each collection begins in the imagination. “I sketch and sketch and sketch,” she says. “I start pushing ideas to see where they’ll take me.” For her “I Love/Hate Lucy” fall 2010 collection, “I was working with the concept of destruction,” she says, indicating fabric samples patterned by burning and discharge dying (a chemical process that removes color in a controlled manner).
Next comes the stage Mehlinger calls “creative discipline.” With her drawings tacked to the wall, she conceives the collection. “I chop what doesn’t make sense,” she says. “I assign colors and fabrics. I make sure there’s unity and relevance, that the pieces don’t eat at [work against] each other, and that nothing is superfluous.” This phase embodies Mehlinger’s highest aspirations. “I’m not talking about the discipline it takes to work hard, because that’s a given,” she says. “I’m talking about making creations that suit the consumer. I want to design things that wearers will love, that will become emotional for them and work within their lives.”
Mehlinger has refined her understanding of the relationship between commerce and creativity. “I used to think it was like a Venn diagram,” she says, “with a place where both could coexist. But ideas that push fashion forward, that really make you think, do not have mass appeal. So I’ve come to see it more as a spectrum.”
In determining her position on that spectrum, Mehlinger has looked to other designers she admires, like Issey Miyake, whose lines incorporate both innovative and commercial pieces. Each Lola Haze collection includes designs that are more intricate and higher priced (“a little more fun and interesting,” she says) along with more commercial, “everyday-comfortable” pieces. “I’m still learning, but I’ve been surprised at how many people end up buying the crazy things.”
As a one-woman operation based in Brooklyn, Mehlinger sews her own prototypes, which she uses to market her goods. Sales are primarily wholesale, generated by word of mouth, through the company’s website (www.lolahaze.com), and at the twice-yearly CURVExpo lingerie trade show. Mehlinger supervises production at a factory in the city’s garment district. “I go there carrying my bolts of fabric,” she says. “I love being such a garmento!”