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Michaela Stark lingerie designer Beyonce collaborator
@michaelastark

Michaela Stark’s lingerie accentuates body parts we’re conditioned to hide

The Beyoncé-approved designer’s delicate underwear subverts archaic beauty ideals and celebrates our so-called imperfections

Historically, when it comes to picking out lingerie, most of us have been conditioned to look for the most flattering options, with garments that lift and support, highlight our ‘best bits’, and definitely don’t dig into our flesh all high on the agenda. It goes without saying that these outdated ideals of perfection, imposed on us by our patriarchal overlords and the mainstream media, are complete and utter bullshit – our lumps, bumps, and rolls are not the ‘imperfections’ we have been led to believe they are, but a completely normal side effect of being a human with a body, and even something to be celebrated. 

Doing just that is rising Australia-born, Paris-based designer Michaela Stark, whose unconventional, couture-level lingerie accentuates and highlights the fleshy form and folds of the body. Crafted from delicate lace, silk, and chiffon, her corsets and bustiers are detailed with criss-crossing ribbons, straps, and seams that cut into their wearers’ breasts, torsos, and bums, with the soft, distorted mounds they create often feeling somewhere in the realm of sculpture. 

With Stark’s namesake label born from her frustrations at not being able to find decent bras in her hometown (“an outlet store called ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry (Anymore)’ was the only place in my whole city that sold my size, but despite the name of the store, I cried literally every time I went there”), the designer started out making simple silk knickers and bloomers. Over time, her work evolved into the body-morphing styles currently making waves on Instagram. 

Inspiration, she explains, comes from her own body hang-ups. “I’m inspired by all the parts of my body I feel insecure about. For me, that’s my stomach, my ‘love handles’, my ‘hip dips’, my boobs, the cellulite on my thighs, my butt and… I also want to say the tops of my arms, but this is a relatively recent thing,” she says, adding that working through her feelings of insecurity is a major part of her design process. “It can be an emotional process, as some days I just want to avoid my reflection altogether.” 

Counting Beyoncé as a fan, after she created looks for 2018 video “Apeshit” and upcoming visual album Black is King, later this year Stark is also set to open her first exhibition. Here, we get to know her a little better.

Hey Michaela! Could you tell me a little about the themes of your work and what it’s all about?  

Michaela Stark: My work is about celebrating the parts of the body that society usually makes us feel insecure about, through lingerie that accentuates the ‘imperfections’ of the body – the fat rolls, bulges, cellulite, uneven breasts, body hair etc. My aim is to counteract all the prescribed beauty norms that have been force fed to us through the fashion and beauty industries. 

How did you get your start in fashion?  

Michaela Stark: I started out as a seamstress in London, working in-house for several young British fashion labels. It was really exciting for me at the time, as I was so young and had just graduated from fashion school in Australia. Being thrown into the London scene like this really opened my eyes up to the opportunities of the industry and the endless possibilities within  it.  

Eventually, I started working with celebrity stylists as a personal tailor and costume designer, which gave me so many majorly exciting opportunities, like going on tour with Beyoncé and Jay Z, and working with big fashion brands to design and tailor garments seen on a world scale. I think mostly though, it gave the skills to be able to sew intricate and very technical garments for an array of body types – not just fashion models.  

Why did you make the move from clothing into lingerie? 

Michaela Stark: I’ve always loved lingerie – it makes me feel sexy and just gives me a lot of confidence. When I’m wearing it, I feel like I’m playing out a fantasy, almost tapping into an alter-ego. Being a plus-size girl, whose 32FF breasts came pretty much right on puberty, I’d always felt a bit left out of the lingerie game. From the age of 14-19 I had to shop at an outlet story called ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry (Anymore)’ because it was the only place in the city that sold my size. As I’m sure you can imagine, stores like this don’t stock the beautiful, delicate lingerie that I so desperately desired, and every experience going there was totally mortifying. 

“My work is not about hiding – it’s more enhancing, enhancing, enhancing! I use the same techniques couturiers use to make the parts we usually don’t want others to see bigger and more prominent. I want to celebrate the body, not hide it away” – Michaela Stark

Can you tell me a little about how you create your lingerie? What is the process behind it? 

Michaela Stark: Each piece is completely one-of-a-kind and can take up to a month to make because they’re so intricate. I guess you could say I’m working as a ‘counter-couturier’ of sorts. Couturiers engineer their garments to solely focus on hiding and enhancing the body. My work is not so much the hiding – it’s more enhancing, enhancing, enhancing! I use the same techniques couturiers use to make the parts we usually don’t want others to see bigger and more prominent. I want to celebrate the body, not hide it away. 

In terms of aesthetics, I would say my lingerie is unapologetically feminine. The pieces are soft, romantic, and colourful, and I love to use delicate silks and very feminine, sensual silhouettes. It’s really important to me that each piece is specifically designed to perfectly fit and complement the body of the person who is going to wear it, whether that’s myself or a client. 

Where do you find inspiration? 

Michaela Stark: I mostly use myself as a model and I’m inspired by all the parts of my body that I feel insecure about – working through my feelings is a major part of my design process. I always start with my own body and a loosely fitting garment, which I drape over myself while looking in the mirror, although some days I just want to avoid my reflection altogether. When I’ve draped the garment over myself, I try to sculpt it to accentuate the part I feel most insecure about in that moment. I’ll continue to manipulate my body until I feel I’ve made my ‘imperfections’ look beautiful. When I feel happy with my cellulite or fat rolls or whatever, then I know I have my final shape and can move on to the pattern cutting part.  

You talk about feeling insecure about your body, but your pictures evoke a huge amount of confidence. How do you channel this energy when you’re being photographed? 

Michaela Stark: Wearing lingerie is kind of like wearing armour for me. It makes me feel confident and allows me to channel this fantasy alter-ego version of myself. My photographs, which are usually self-portraits, are as much a part of my art as the lingerie is. By the time I’ve reached this stage, I’ve already been through all the emotional labour. I’ve tackled my insecurities and created a garment that allows me to feel beautiful in my own skin, so in the photos I emanate a sense of confidence because I really am feeling confident. It also helps that I’m taking the photo – it means I’m in control of the image and of how my body and sexuality is going to be portrayed. It’s important I feel confident in the photos, because the whole point is to help others who see my work to feel safe about their own insecurities and imperfections. I hope my confidence rubs off on them!

What about when you collaborate with a photographer? 

Michaela Stark: Oh there’s a huge difference, and you can really see it in the images. My work is already quite vulnerable and it can have a lot of sexual connotations, so when someone else photographs me, I feel like it’s very easy for me to become an object of desire. I am modelling, almost naked, for someone else, and they’re pushing their vision of beauty on me – I’m no longer in control of how my body and sexuality is going to be portrayed. But it’s nice to give up this control sometimes, and I love seeing myself through someone else’s lens. It just has to be the right team, and a photographer who’s willing to understand my perspective and hear my creative input. 

The way you present your lingerie and images feels incredibly sculptural to me. Is this something intentional? 

Michaela Stark: I’m actually working on an exhibition where I’ll be hanging and selling my lingerie as sculptures, so you’re spot on the money. Inside Me will be shown through Gillian Jason Gallery in London at the end of the year, in collaboration with Alina Zamanova, a painter and sculptor from Kiev. After I’ve worn an item I’ve made, and photographed myself in it, I don’t consider it an item of clothing, but a sculpture that reveals a certain part of my body and my mind. I feel that, even without a body inside, they can stand as beautiful art works that are as intimate as a nude photograph.  

Given social media’s censorship rules, it must be hard to present the kind of work you make. How do you navigate this? 

Michaela Stark: It’s insanely difficult! I think this a big challenge for most artists trying to liberate the female body. At this stage, Instagram removes pretty much any photo I upload, even if there is no nudity. They have absolute power to police my body however they like. The sad truth of the matter is that women, and plus-size women particularly, are being censored more than anyone else. It’s sad because I think the fact that they have this power means artists are forced to comply by their rules. 

When it comes to your clients, who is the person you’re designing for? 

Michaela Stark: I love the challenge of designing for other people. It’s not something that I do regularly at the moment, but definitely something I’m working towards. It’s quite intimate to think about what someone else is going to want to wear, and what will make them feel beautiful. Beyoncé has been pretty much the only client to date I’ve had since launching my own brand! Now, I want to throw myself into it, and start learning about other people’s flaws and insecurities. If I could regularly design for other people like I do for myself, it would add a whole new dimension to my work. 

@michaelastark