"The 50 States of Style 50" highlights influential American designers, buyers, crafters, and other intriguing creatives.
What: Hanky Panky
Co-founders: Gale Epstein & Lida Orzeck
Pioneers of: "The world's most comfortable thong"™ (shown)
Made in: New York
For their first 25 years in business, Hanky Panky co-founders Gale Epstein and Lida Orzeck were perfectly content selling their colorful collection of undergarments to mom and pop shops. "We were growing slowly and steadily, but we were happy and we were comfortable, which was all that mattered to us," says Gale. Then, one June morning (10 years ago yesterday to be exact), they woke up to a front page story in the Wall Street Journal highlighting their lingerie company and now famous "world's most comfortable thong"™ which immediately catapulted them into a different sphere. "We were caught completely off-guard," she says. "We knew the story was coming, but we didn't expect it to be on the front page." What happened next? All the department stores came calling on the same day, of course! I recently chatted with Gale about how they kept up with the new demands, how she and Lida have maintained such a strong partnership and friendship all these years, their upcoming collaboration with L.A.M.B. by Gwen Stefani, plus the importance of being hands-on as a designer no matter how big you grow.
So it's 2004 and suddenly you're in every department store in America. How did you manage that virtually overnight transition?
It was a real balancing act because we were a tiny company of 30-50 people at the time. We had to ramp up everything: the fabric buys, the contractors, and planning for merchandise. And we had to build departments within our organization, so that was much more difficult than starting a business. But we were happy to have the recognition and we enjoyed the challenge. Now we have 165 employees, and that number doesn't include independent contractors such as our sewing shops.
How did you and Lida get into the lingerie business?
I've been making and selling things since I was 12 years old. Even when I was working for other companies, I always had a couple of machines at home. One day, I saved up my pennies and bought hand-embroidered handkerchiefs from a beautiful linen store that used to be in my neighborhood. I cut them up and reassembled them into a bra and bikini set to give to Lida for her 30th birthday and she loved them. She was working in social psychology for the city at the time, but she was ready to do something new, so she took around a set of my prototypes to stores, they gave her orders, and she gave me orders to produce.
Hence the name Hanky Panky?
Yes, the name came from the original handkerchief designs.
Tell me about your relationship with Lida. How have you made it work for nearly 40 years?
We were friends for 10 years before we started Hanky Panky, so we knew we shared the same business ethic, the same outlook on life, and the same sense of humor. Our partnership and friendship is the success of our business. And the other key piece is that although we share all aspects of the business, my expertise is creative and hers is everyday business affairs.
So you each bring something different to the table.
Exactly. Two designers don't always work. It's better to find two people who complement each other. For example, Lida's very organized and I'm not. Also, we're not in the same office. Lida's in the corporate office and I'm on the floor with my designers and graphic designers. I work very closely with everyone to protect the brand and to oversee all the creative that comes out of here.
Was manufacturing in America important to you both from the beginning?
Always. We haven't done it any other way. Maybe for some designers, going offshore was expected, but I was never comfortable with that. There are definitely some limitations to working here, but our contractors are in New York which is great because it allows us to be involved in all aspects of production. We can ensure a great product.
What's a typical day like for you?
I never know! Prior to 2004, when I was the only designer, I knew what would happen: I would struggle with something with the patternmaker and go to the sewing floor and get it tweaked. Now I oversee the work of my two designers. I'm still very involved in patternmaking because I have a lot of knowledge there, so I can eliminate a lot of steps just by knowing what does and doesn't work.
It's amazing how hands-on you are with your team!
We're in a position to be, which is so exciting. A lot of designers don't have that luxury nowadays. Most of the young designers coming out of school don't understand how the design process translates to production.
Is that because manufacturing overseas is so common nowadays?
Right, and as a result, they don't understand how a design can evolve or even be made by human beings. For me, the best design is the most simple statement, and fresh designers who come in get very frustrated with me because I'll say, "Show me an idea," but then I'll ask them to eliminate most of it to get to its essence. It's one message, not more, and that makes the best design in my opinion.
At this point, your designs have been knocked off numerous times. I'm curious how you've handled it.
It's part of being in business. If you have a great idea, it will be copied. Unfortunately in the garment business there is no copyright. Our fabrics and prints are copyrighted, but our design and construction cannot be. I've always been copied and I take it as a compliment. What else can you do? It drives you to be the best you can be in all aspects of your business so that you have your customers' loyalty.
What would you say is the secret to staying in business this long?
I think I've sort of been plugged into the universe and I've been able to find voids in the market. I get very inspired by fabrics, starting with the hankies in 1977 and the soft stretch lace in the '80s. I've always managed to come out of plateaus with new designs.
How do you decompress?
I have a house in Putnam County, and a horse farm across the county in Kent. I get away to ride or drive my four horses every weekend, and that keeps me sane. When you're around those large animals you can't think about anything else.
Can you share what's coming up this summer for Hanky Panky?
We're doing some really fun co-branding. We're launching Hanky Panky x L.A.M.B. in mid-July which we're very excited about. There are three prints and they all look very Gwen.
Fun! Any advice for emerging designers or ones who might be just starting out?
Enjoy what you're doing and focus on the mission. When I first designed the shoulder padded undershirt in the late '70s, the sales reps would not even show it. And the thong took from 1986 to 2004 to get real recognition. It was growing in acceptance and our numbers were growing all the time but not exponentially. Finally: Measure twice, cut once!
Thanks so much for sharing, Gale! Read on for her favorite things, after the jump.
Gale Epstein's favorite things:
Favorite American bar, restaurant, and shop:
Bar: The bar in a local restaurant, OUEST, for the neighborhood ambiance. Restaurant: I’m a vegetarian and eat to fuel, but when I go out, I gravitate to Hangawi, a Korean vegetarian restaurant, where you check your shoes at the door. Shop: I love wandering in ABC Carpet, the rich NY bazaar.
A few of your favorite artists and designers:
Too many to name so I’ll narrow it to a few women: Louise Fili, typographer and graphic artist who designed the Hanky Panky logo; The highly imaginative contemporary artist, Elizabeth Murray, who was like a big sister to me; Morgane Le Fay and her whimsical, feminine clothes and color sense.
Best trip you've ever taken in the US and why?
When I was 14 years old, my parents piled the whole family (9 kids) into an RV and headed for New England and New York. It was the big city that captivated me and lured me back.
One or two of your favorite American-made brands:
Shinola, in Detroit, makes watches and bicycles. Craft cider companies in the Hudson Valley, like Slyboro Cider House and Tuthilltown Spirits.
Several American-made products that you own and love:
My All-Clad cookware. The Aeron Chair. My Lyon & Healy harp.
Four things that make you happiest:
A horseback ride in the forest, fresh percale sheets, seeing a dedicated employee blossom in their job, double rainbows.
Your most treasured possession:
A bird nest made from my horses’ tail hairs.