Vintage lingerie stuff of sirens and legends

Kate Martin in her home studio surrounded by images,  materials, patterns and her finished...
Kate Martin in her home studio surrounded by images, materials, patterns and her finished garments. Photo by Emily Cannan.
A mannequin sporting some of Kate Martin's lingerie.
A mannequin sporting some of Kate Martin's lingerie.
Garments from Kate Martin's Cupkakes range.
Garments from Kate Martin's Cupkakes range.
Garments from Kate Martin's Cupkakes range.
Garments from Kate Martin's Cupkakes range.

A Dunedin designer is turning out vintage-inspired, handcrafted lingerie that is both edgy and classic, Emily Cannan reports.

Kate Martin provides a sweeping-arm introduction to her home studio, simultaneously laughing off the quaint but style-stuffed space from which she works.

Tall rolls of fabrics in a range of paisleys, lace, polka dots, silks and ruffles obscure the wall, while a rack is loaded with custom patterns, feather boas and some original vintage garters and corsets. A large suitcase spills retro paper patterns on to the floor, and pink and black striped boxes with satin ribbons are piled against the wall.

Martin points to a montage of images on the wall as she enthuses about her 1950s pin-up muses, the likes of model Bettie Page, as I peruse a rail of lace, velvet and silk.

"I love having a theme, a mood and feeling towards each collection," she explains.

"My current collection 'Black Betty' is all about feeling luxurious. So I wanted to enhance this by the fabrics: silk viscose panels fused with smooth cotton lycra ...

"High-quality fabric is so important, you want these pieces to last and feel good for a long time. Also you want the first layer you put on every morning to feel good against your skin.".

The lingerie is truly glamorous, "with a romantic, fun and flirty twist", each item perfectly finished with silk bows, velvet trimming or even a tassel. The range of matching bra and brief sets are endearingly named Clara, Ava, and Lillian, and the Peggy Day Garter Skirt is a classically retro piece.

A rack of garments confirms Cupkakes' pitch-perfect period styling, with its distinctive 1920s-1950s flair, the rich fabrics and emphasis on high-quality, handcrafted construction.

Cupkakes' clientele are a diverse lot, including synchronised swimming clubs and burlesque performers, as well as those simply looking for a special set of custom-made lingerie.

Martin says her line is "for any woman that wants to indulge in beautiful handcrafted lingerie".

She also produces a popular beach wear range.

"Dunedin women loved the swimwear, even with our crazy weather! They are unique compared to what you would find in your normal store, so my clients were happy to find something different and flattering."

Martin is a stickler for quality control, so she handcrafts everything herself, and most of her designs are custom-made for her clients, so they fit and feel perfect.

"Construction in lingerie is so important; everything used has a very specific reason - underwires, soft underwire casing, elastics, straps, fastening hooks, it's really technical."

After leaving school at 16, Martin was determined to study fashion and completed a certificate in fashion design at Otago Polytechnic. Not content, she added a bachelor of fashion design degree in 2010, when she was only 19. Martin also received the "most marketable range" Waughs prize for her final-year collection at the polytechnic.

"I am very focused and determined.

"As soon as I started making lingerie, I wanted to make a job out of it. So I started in a business mindset.

"Brainstorming business strategy was a real focus in the last year of the degree. I spent the whole year researching and learning the techniques of bra-making."

The designer is now the store manager at Global Fabrics in Dunedin. After working at several lingerie retail stores in Dunedin she was inspired by what was on offer, "but I always felt I could push the boundaries more and have a point of difference to add to the market".

Martin says her training in bra-fitting has been crucial in designing lingerie, understanding how to fit the body, the curves of women and how particular styles work for different shapes and sizes.

"I love the feeling of creating and then constructing something from scratch; seeing the final outcome is very rewarding. When I see someone wearing a Cupkakes garment and see how good they not only look, but feel, that's the best part."

Martin nods enthusiastically when I ask about the difficulty of sourcing the right materials, and learning what has become a rare craft.

"It was just researching and teaching myself different techniques and playing around with fabrics, stitches and shapes, et cetera. The best way to learn is finding out what works and what doesn't ... looking at what was for sale already and seeing how they were put together and what women needed and wanted.

"Starting my business was a lot of hours locked away in my sewing room and learning as I went through the process, but I think that's the fun of it, not following set rules. Just doing what I love - my passion is my business."

Martin has plenty of support at home and says she has been receiving great feedback from all over New Zealand.

"I feel the opportunities are always growing. I'm always planning a day ahead - you have to. I still want to be diverse for all types of customers."



• See the full range at

• Cupkakes is stocked at Above Ground Studio and on

- Emily Cannan.

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