Kate Kemp-Griffin is a connoisseur of breasts. From the moment she arrived in France in 1990, the former Canadian PR director launched her own lingerie company to compete with French manufacturers. Struck by cancer in 2010, Kate immediately focused her attention on healing herself, determined to overcome the sickness and stigma of breast cancer.
Pink Bra Bazaar, a charitable association, was born out of her struggle with cancer and its aftermath. Since its inception, this mother of five living in the countryside outside of Paris has become the poster child of Breast Cancer awareness in France. Her message to support women with breast cancer has spread, using the bra as a strong symbol to promote its programs for early detection of cancer among women of all ages. Every spring, she organizes the popular Pink Bra Toss at the Place du Trocadéro in Paris. Join the celebration this year on May 14th, 2017!
For her latest project, Kate is returning to her original passion and written her first book: Paris Undressed: The Secrets of French Lingerie. How delicious is that? The beautiful book with user-friendly illustrations by lingerie designer Paloma Casile is now available in Canada, Japan, Czech Republic, UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and beyond.
We caught up with Kate between road trips and lingerie tours to find out more about why women – and men – are fascinated by French lingerie.
Kate, where did your passion for all things breast related begin?
It all started with a coin toss. Twenty-five years ago my husband and I flipped a coin – heads Paris, tails, San Francisco – and moved to Paris four weeks later. Neither of us had jobs and neither of us spoke French, but we didn’t care. We were young and in love and in search of adventure. Almost immediately, my husband landed a fashionable job with the European team of Ralph Lauren. My search for employment, however, took longer. Much longer. Months went by, but jobs were scarce for those who couldn’t roll their r’s properly.
On my way home one day after a particularly humiliating interview, I walked by a lingerie boutique with a gorgeous window display saturated in silk and color. The bras in the window couldn’t have been further from the faded and stretched out one that I was wearing. I was the sort of woman who only bought a new bra when the washing machine ripped my old one to shreds. I didn’t pay much attention, or money, on underwear.
To me, a bra was a basic necessity – functional and nothing more. But something about those delicate lacey underthings in the window inspired me and I thought, maybe it was time to refresh my attitude…and my lingerie.
I pushed open the door of the tiny boutique and soon afterwards found myself in a minuscule changing room. The boutique owner selected an ivory satin bra with small pleats that was trimmed in lace and deftly adjusted here and tightened there running her fingers over the bra like she was tuning a violin. She handed me the matching panties and told me to put them on, which I did. And when I turned to face the mirror, I couldn’t believe what I saw.
I’m 5 ft 7 in — but had I suddenly grown taller? My back was straighter. My breasts were lifted and fuller-looking. And what was that on my face? A smile. Shopping for underwear had never made me smile before.
And so began my inauguration into the French attitude to lingerie. Underwear isn’t just underwear, it’s “lingerie” and reflects an art of living.
A new bra initiated my passion for everything breast related.
When you first arrived in France in 1990, your first major business venture was manufacturing lingerie in a country renown for its silky, lacy undergarment creations. Why venture into the world of French lingerie?
While the French certainly knew how to design beautiful lingerie, caring for it remained problematic. With the help of a chemist, I developed a delicate fabric wash and started my own company, Soyelle, specializing in lingerie accessories and beauty products. It seemed like the perfect way for me to gain legal working status and learn to speak French.
Why do you think French women are more comfortable and conscious of their bodies at any age?
I’m not sure French women are any more comfortable with their bodies than elsewhere, but the culture of delight that prevails in France allows everyone to pursue a sensorial experience. They also know how to mettre leurs atouts en valeur, show off their assets. When talking about lingerie, this means, drawing attention and highlighting one area of your body instead of dwelling on your perceived faults. It’s knowing how to use light and shadow in combination with different textures to create intrigue and possibility.
Why does lingerie make us feel sexy and sensuous?
Lingerie has the ability to trigger sensations, which ultimately heightens our awareness and experience wearing it. When we feel connected to our bodies, we feel confident and inspired to extend our experience beyond the familiar and into realms of dreams and possibility. And it is this desire and expression of our bodies’ whispers that make us feel sexy and sensuous.
What sparked you to write about the secrets of French lingerie?
Over the years, my passion for lingerie grew, but so did my confusion. The more I learned about this exciting industry, the more questions I had.
Like, how can you tell the difference between a 40€ bra and an 80€ bra? Do bras and panties really have to match? Why do some laces scratch and others don’t? Why do my shoulder straps keep falling off? How can I tell if my bra fits? What the heck is a sister size? What’s the difference between Spandex and elastane? And what is so great about Calais lace? So many questions. And if I didn’t know the answers after so many years in the business, how on earth could a consumer make any sense of it?
I set about finding answers and quickly realized there was a need for many of us to approach lingerie in a totally different way and I began to conduct lingerie tours of Paris. More than a shopping expedition, women found themselves, like I did, transformed by lingerie. I was amazed at the renewed sense of confidence that women felt simply by having a quiet moment in the right context to ask herself, “What does lingerie mean to me?” I started to write down some of these conversations and experiences, which came together in my book, Paris Undressed: The Secrets of French Lingerie. Part stylebook, part diary, part art journal, “Paris Undressed” combines cultural and historical references to awaken the senses and explain the language of lingerie. Lingerie should feel accessible, not abstract.
The question “What does lingerie mean to me?” is essential, and one I invite every woman to answer in 2017.
Read an excerpt from Kate’s book, “Paris Undressed: The Secrets of French Lingerie.”
What are the origins of sexy undergarments, and how has it evolved?
Sexy underwear as we know it (black bras and panties) is relatively recent and it required a series of technological advancements to happen first. Corsets and underpinnings of the past were designed for fashion. A famous French corset maker, Marie-Rose Lebigot is famous for saying, “the figure makes the woman, the waist makes the figure, the corset makes the waist.” The invention of Nylon in 1938 made lingerie more affordable and popularized the color black, which had previously been problematic to set due to dye-fixing problems. Lingerie also needed stretch and that didn’t happen until Lastex was invented in the late 30s. Matching bras and panties didn’t appear until the 60s with the miniskirt and pantyhose, and the 70s were about celebrating freedom, wearing pants, and the idea of being unisex. Not until the 80s did lingerie styles begin to blur the threshold of what is considered erotic. French lingerie designer, Chantal Thomass is credited with inspiring this irreverence and fantasy.
Over the years, sexy has picked up a collective meaning, one that mirrors a male fantasy rather than reflecting our own. Women aren’t asked, we are told what sexy means – and we buy into it hook, line, and sinker. Romance becomes a euphemism for sex, with flowers, music, and lingerie serving as stage props rather than acting as independent sources of pleasure and delight.
The success of lingerie chains and their ability to merchandize romance – and romanticize merchandise – is a telling example of the lingerie narrative and message.
More than being “sexy”, lingerie is about sensuality. Sensuality is the beauty and mystery that lies in the space between modesty and provocation. It is entirely personal. There are no rules, no guidelines, just an invitation for women to make lingerie decisions based on their tactile potential and the ability to provoke sensations and inspire feelings and emotion.
How did you learn that you had breast cancer?
I was adopted at birth and met my birth mother years later. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she urged me to get a mammogram that revealed early-stage breast cancer. Her own cancer would tragically claim her life. Mine was easily treatable.
You created Pink Bra Bazaar to promote breast cancer awareness in France. How has your association helped to encourage women to go for regular check-ups and live with their breast cancer?
Pink Bra Bazaar puts the bra in the center of highly visible awareness programs to educate and empower women to play an active role in their own breast health.
In collaboration with medical professionals and the creative energy in us all, our breast health and support programs break down barriers, encourage dialogue and create an environment of solidarity and sense of belonging. For example, our Pink Bra Ateliers are a series of creative workshops developed using textures, colors, words, and a variety of design and mixed-media techniques for participants to learn about breast health.
Can French lingerie make any woman feel beautiful?
Good lingerie can make any woman feel beautiful. Many women mistakenly believe that if they could change their bodies, they would feel better about themselves – more confident, attractive, elegant, sensual, or sexy. They see lingerie as a reward rather than a means to feeling good right now. But here’s the lingerie paradox: by focusing on how you feel in your lingerie instead of how you look, you’ll improve your body image…without changing your body.
Different fabrics evoke different sensations and feelings, and the right fabrics enhance your body, finding expression in the choreography of your movements – as your legs take you home from work, as your arms wrap around your best friend, as your knees bend to tie the laces on your child’s shoes, as your hips shimmy and shake during Zumba class, and as your body presses into the contours of the one you love. Good lingerie moves with you. It transforms the routine of getting dressed from a linear experience to a sensorial one that has a ripple effect throughout the day. Both take the same amount of time, but dressing with intention adds layers and dimensions.
What is the most beautiful piece of lingerie you have ever seen and what do you look for in good lingerie?
I think the true beauty of lingerie happens when a woman is actually wearing it. Lingerie needs the female form to bring it to life and give it dimension. Because of that, true beauty is when both the body and the garment are in perfect harmony; and that is as individual and universal as every woman.