Kate S., 27, a slim, attractive event planner who lives in Chinatown, was recently getting dressed for a high-profile party. “I always wear a black pinstriped suit,” she said. “I give away my womanly rights to wear stilettos and a low-cut shirt, so I have do something, you know? I knew there would be men around. You don’t want to look like a corporate person; you want your hiney to look cute.”
And so she did what an increasing number of New York women are doing every night of the week: She wiggled into a pair of Spanx, the nylon and spandex undergarments that cinch a gal’s waist and thighs, eliminating underwear lines and shaving off anywhere from 2 to 10 pounds, depending on whom you ask. “They look like The Crying Game, but I do feel better when I’m wearing them,” Kate said. And she knows she is not alone. “If anyone ever catches a glimpse in the bathroom, they’re like ‘Omigod, I have those in black and I love them!’”
“They’re like hosiery crack!” said Suze Yalof Schwartz, an editor at Glamour who puts Spanx on all the women she styles for the magazine’s TV makeover segments. “They’re addictive. I would say hold off as long as you can.” She estimated that she herself owns 10 pairs of the tights. “Who knows, I’m scared to even go into that drawer!”
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Scores in Manhattan society now swear by Spanx, the moderately priced innovation of one Sara Blakely, 36, an entrepreneur based in Atlanta who has been widely credited with reintroducing girdling to the masses, thanks to comfortable fabrics; cheeky packaging; 100 different styles that reach as far up as the bust and as low as the ankle, eliminating the flabby overflow known as “muffin top”; and plenty of celebrity endorsements. Oprah was an early convert (“Spanx really changed the way I wore clothes. … I’ve given up panties,” she once told her audience) and Gwyneth Paltrow owned up to wearing two pairs at a time after giving birth. The company, which launched in 2000, recorded over $150 million in sales in 2006.
Oddly for a city that long scorned nylons, Spanx are particularly coveted in New York, where they have become ubiquitous at benefits and photo shoots. “It’s such a fashionable, stylist-oriented city,” said Ms. Blakely, adding that she does the most business here. “And the stylists have become Spanx’s No. 1 fan.”
Daniel Lawson, costume designer for NBC’s forthcoming series Lipstick Jungle, has dressed the show’s entire cast—some of who request it specifically—in the special undergarment, as well as Kate Winslet in a forthcoming movie. “We just Spanx everybody right up!” he said. “Without a lot of effort, they take off five, eight pounds immediately.” Not to mention “everything slips on smoothly. It’s become the Kleenex of the girdle world.”
“I’m in my 40’s, and I’d say definitely probably 80 to 90 percent of my friends wear them,” said the designer Pamella Roland. “Especially with evening gowns.”
‘Not Your Grandmother’s Girdle’
Ms. Blakely is not surprised that New Yorkers, surely among the skinniest women in America, are her biggest fans. She was a size two when she invented Spanx, she said, and she was primarily trying to eliminate the dread Visible Panty Line.
“I didn’t like the way my own butt looked in white pants,” she told The Observer in a phone interview. “I went shopping for body-shapers at the age of 27, and I was completely horrified by what was out there.”
She started her company with $5,000 she’d saved selling fax machines door-to-door. The response was immediate. “There was a whole new interest from the consumer in wearing shapewear that wasn’t your grandmother’s girdle,” said Elizabeth Hospodar, divisional merchandise manager for Intimate Apparel at Bloomingdale’s. “Imitations and new innovations have proliferated, but Spanx remain the best seller,” said Ms. Hospodar, who estimated that nationwide, Bloomingdale’s Spanx sales have increased between 30 percent and 50 percent in the past two years. Ms. Blakely said she gives Spanx, which retail for $20 to $40, to friends and acquaintances like socialite songwriter Denise Rich and socialite designer Tory Burch. Over the summer, she said, “Madonna’s stylist called us and said, ‘Madonna’s such a fan of Spanx, she wants her entire outfit for Live Earth to be made out of Spanx material; can you FedEx it to us?” And so they did.
Meanwhile, a Spanx representative estimated that sales have more than tripled in the past two years in New York alone.
Could the confinement of Spanx actually be a liberation of sorts, allowing us to cheat gravity for an evening, skip the gym occasionally or at least eat a big lunch?
“In New York it’s all about perfection,” said a prominent socialite who asked not to be named. “But the fact is, we’re not in perfect, toned shape.” With Spanx, she said, “you feel like you’re being covered before you put on a dress. You can dance. You don’t feel so self-conscious about your stomach sticking out.”
Whether they’re nude “High-falutin’ Footless,” which extend to the bra line and hook to the bra, or black opaque “High-waisted Tight-End Tights,” Spanx are relatively easy to wiggle into, provided you choose the correct size (they extend from A to G). But they become increasingly laborious to stretch over a rear with each trip to the bathroom. By the end of a long workday, one could imagine fighting the urge to rip the damn things off and stash them in a purse. But Spanx, which have a cotton crotch, are actually meant to be worn every day in place of underwear. “It’s like a thong,” said Ms. Yalof Schwartz. “When you first put it on it’s very uncomfortable, but two weeks later you forget you’ve ever worn regular underwear.”