Gentry Lane upstairs at l’Hôtel Crillon in Paris.

A photograph of Gentry Lane in the December 2005 edition of “Easy Jet Magazine”.

Looking for something traditional but sexy this Christmas? Heather Stimmler-Hall meets the Californian woman behind the lingerie that’s beating French boutiques at their own game.

Somewhere above the fashionable boutiques of the trendy rue St Honoré in Paris is a room decked in the most delicate of fabrics: silk, fine lace, the softest cashmere. There are feather boas draped over banisters, a cat peering out from beneath tangles of satin ribbon, and some of the most heavenly lingerie covering every surface. But this is no boudoir. It’s the atelier and world headquarters of Gentry de Paris, a French luxury lingerie company headed by the designer Gentry Lane (yes, that is her real name), a quintessential Parisienne in vintage clothing and a pug named Napoléon, her petit accent the only concession to her Southern California roots.

But how did an American, and one with no fashion school degrees under her belt, end up upstaging her Gallic competitors by showing the world the proper way to create French lingerie? She certainly didn’t take the traditional route. Aside from the home economics (i.e. sewing) class taken when she was a teenager (and the subsequent endless days spent sewing in her room after being grounded by her parents), Lane had no formal training in fashion or design. She was, however, a fiendish collector of vintage clothing and lingerie.

“I have, and wear, clothes that are more than 100 years old,” she says, pointing out that most mass-produced clothing today barely lasts through two seasons. “It taught me to appreciate good quality construction and fabrics.” But a career in the fashion industry still wasn’t on her agenda. After receiving degrees in psychology, journalism and literature, Lane headed off to Paris—with a small fortune amassed during the boom in San Francisco—to write a book on 1920s Paris, a topic she researched extensively for her master’s degree.

If I wasn’t doing this I’d be

Miserable. Or a vintage clothing dealer.

Best piece of advice I’ve ever been given

It takes money to make money.

She supported herself with freelance writing assignments and even landed the coveted “job” of being a designer’s muse. But being paid in clothing wasn’t in her career plan, so Lane used her new contacts to land a job as Chef de Produit—the person who invents the rationale behind a product, working between the designer and sales team—in a Paris fashion house. This led to her last job as Vice President of Marketing for a new brand that she saw go from nothing to €6m (£4m) in two years.

Gentry Lane upstairs at Crillon Hotel in Paris.

One of her tasks involved researching expansion lines, from shoes lingerie. “They flew me around to talk to all of the buyers for the department stores, and I found that lingerie was the most welcoming niche.” But the brand’s investors subsequently pulled out and the company closed in 2002.

“After all that I had learned, I decided to start my own company,” says Lane, who felt the gap in the market for classic, luxurious lingerie was too good to pass up. But she knew she’d need launch money to cover the first year and any unforeseen expenses. “I put samples of a pair of pyjamas and two panties in a pretty box and took it around to investors for eight months, asking for money.” She got 10 investors and €80,000 (£54,000) in the first round, which was enough to cover the prototypes for the first two collections (prototypes cost five times the production price), pay a PR agency, and send out press kits. Although she was picked up in her first season by Bendel’s, Liberty and Bon Marché, Lane admits she was still naïve. “My first collection only had three styles of panties, two night gowns and one set of pyjamas. Buyers told me I’d need to develop a larger line quickly.”

The Gentry de Paris line, now with 30 pieces in each collection, is very classic, harking back to the glamour of Hollywood sirens. Exquisitely cut pieces bearing names like Kept Woman and Heiress are “sexy enough to seduce, modest enough to sign for a package”, while the signature cashmere jersey panties (with fabric by Loro Piana), get softer after each hand-washing.

What makes Gentry de Paris stand out is its dedication to luxury. “We don’t cut corners,” stresses Lane. For example, her lace is made by Sophie Hallette on the same Leavers lace machines they’ve been using since 1870. All of the buttons, rosettes, straps and beading are carefully sewn with silk thread—it lasts longer—by French manufacturers. Finding a “Made in France” label on French lingerie is getting harder these days, but Lane is convinced that it not only guarantees her high standards of quality, but also makes good business sense. While her competitors found their collections blocked at customs after the newly-imposed limits on Chinese textile imports last fall, Lane’s buyers knew they could count on Gentry de Paris making it to the sales points. “It’s a definite selling advantage.”

Unfulfilled ambition

To have flagship boutiques in strategic markets that aren’t already oversaturated with luxury lingerie shopping. Monaco, Cannes and Zurich are all under consideration.

Now well into her fourth season, Gentry de Paris is no longer the fresh-faced flavour of the month. It’s the make-or-break period that will decide whether the brand flourishes or flounders next to its more established competitors. “We wanted two years to test the market, refine the product, and verify we were in the right niche,” she says. “We’ve got positive feedback from buyers and press, as well as affirmation within the industry by being awarded the prestigious Trophée d’Evian des Créateurs de Mode.” But for Gentry de Paris to make it to the next level, the company has to grow, and for that Lane needs to raise more capital. “That’s the part that stresses me out,” she admits, “finding investors is almost a full-time job.”

Her plan is to solidify the company’s place in the market by developing three different revenue streams and she’s also working with a major French retailer to develop a diffusion range—basically, her style and quality construction but in less expensive fabrics. “I don’t think it compromises the brand. I think it’s a fun challenge to develop the brand in a different way.”

—Heather Stimmler-Hall