The Joy of Spanx

Sara Blakely founded a multimillion-dollar company by posing a simple question: “How does my butt look in this outfit?”

“It’s all about the fanny.”

Sara Blakely was explaining the form and function of Spanx, the footless, butt-shaping pantyhose she invented, to an English journalist on the BBC.

“Spanx is designed to lift, smooth and separate the fanny,” she gushed. Blakely is the animated type who speaks with her hands, so she made some lifting and smoothing motions as she spoke—oblivious to her interviewer’s reaction. Finally, the panicked Englishman interrupted, his plummy accent turning firm: “I think you mean ‘bum.’”

Blakely shrugged off the semantics until after the mic was off, whereupon he clarified them for her.

Photograph by David Stuart; makeup by Viktorija/L’Agence; hair by Radmila Borkovic; spread from our June 2004 issue

“He explained that ‘fanny’ is British slang for vagina,” says Blakely, rolling her eyes over the mortification of inadvertently telling “the entire United Kingdom” that her product would essentially perform the function of a gynecologist’s stirrups. It is a classic anecdote from the archives of Spanx corporate culture—ultra-femme, self-mockingly funny and nearing naughtiness without quite placing a pedicured toe over the line.

With her blond good looks and quick comic timing, Blakely, 33, evokes a starlet from the screwball-comedy era, a woman who could slip on a banana peel and fall, arms flailing, into the embrace of the leading man. A woman boldly willing to make an ass of herself.

Her success with the almost four-year-old, multimillion-dollar company has been anthologized in the business press as a parable of plucky, feminist entrepreneurship—what would happen if Horatio Alger paused to check his derriere in the mirror before pulling himself up by his bootstraps.

In her 20s, Blakely was selling fax machines door-to-door by day, doing stand-up comedy at night and generally leading the life of a fun-loving Atlanta fashionista with big ambitions. Her eureka moment came when she faced a bugaboo that confronts every clotheshorse at some time or another: a pair of cream-colored summer pants that showcased her drawers along with “every physical flaw” in glaring bas-relief. Appalled by her rearview reflection, but without time to hunt down another outfit, Blakely simply cut the feet off her control-top pantyhose and wore them as an undergarment. No bulges, no dreaded VPL (visible panty lines).

Inspired by that revelation, she scoured stores for footless pantyhose, but that quest proved futile. “People would say, ‘What a great idea,’ but that was as far as it went.” So, eyeing a market niche, she secured a patent and, with her savings of $5,000, hit the road for North Carolina, where much of the world’s hosiery is produced in textile mills. As she pleaded with mill owner after mill owner to consider her idea, she bumped up against the patriarchy of pantyhose. “The industry is run by men,” she says. “And they don’t wear pantyhose—or if they do, they don’t admit it. A man’s solution to panty lines is a G-string. They put underwear in the exact place we’ve been trying to get it out of.”

Finally, one of the mill owners who had turned her down called back with an offer to make a prototype of her “crazy idea.” When Blakely asked what changed his mind, he simply said, “I have two daughters.”

Blakely was fussy with her design. She demanded a cotton crotch and a waistband made with special webbing that does not feel like a tourniquet. “All of these men were just looking at me when I made these specifications,” she says. “So I leaned over and said, ‘Have you ever spent an entire day in a pair of control-top pantyhose?’ That shut them up.”

With a sample in hand, she met with a buyer at Neiman Marcus. “I had no shame,” Blakely says. “I asked her to follow me to the ladies’ room where I personally showed her the before-and-after effects in my cream pants. Three weeks later, Spanx was on the shelves of Neiman Marcus!”

Her insight into certain feminine preoccupations paid off. Last year, Spanx made $31 million (and showed a 135 percent increase in sales in the United Kingdom; whether attributable to Blakely’s BBC faux pas or not is debatable). Oprah, who also used to cut the feet off her pantyhose, has endorsed Spanx as one of her “Favorite Things.”

While Spanx owes its success to Blakely’s inventiveness and persistence, it also has enjoyed good timing, stepping out to the cultural bass-beat of “Baby Got Back.” Every era anoints an It Girl, and Jennifer Lopez was starting to shake her callipygian assets (rumored to be insured for $1 million) to mass-media domination when Spanx got its footing. American beauty standards seem to be shifting away from the anorexic, Barbie doll look toward the shapely, fly flesh of hip-hop videos. From low-riding jeans to an increasing demand for gluteal implants, we are a nation that worships the “bootylicious.”

Enter Spanx, with its motto: “Don’t worry, we’ve got your butt covered.”

From Blakely’s signature footless hose, Spanx has expanded its wares to offer a variety of hosiery, including reversible trouser socks and comfortable—really!—fishnets; body-shapers, including “Power Panties,” billed as “the first-ever ‘performance underwear’”; and a clothing line called Slim-X, of which every item aims to mold its wearer into a sleeker, more aesthetic silhouette without the python-like discomfort of other foundation garments. All of this is marketed in a “You go, girl!” spirit.

The official mission statement of Spanx is: “To invent and enhance products that promote comfort and confidence in women.” Blakely gushes, without a trace of irony, that “Spanx has moved beyond just footless pantyhose. It has become a brand dedicated to improving the lives of women. The empowerment we feel in providing empowerment to other women is strong. We get letters from women all the time saying we’ve changed their lives.”

All of which raises a question. Is a woman empowered when she voices that age-old landmine: “How does my butt look in this?”

You won’t find any glass ceilings at Spanx headquarters in Buckhead.

You will find lots of red (the company’s signature color); lampposts made of mannequin legs wearing fishnets; and a decidedly distaff management and staff. Of the 24 employees, only three are men. Laurie Ann Goldman left her job as director of worldwide licensing for Coca-Cola to serve as CEO, and several other women have followed her, from Coke and other high echelons of corporate America, to work for the fledgling company.

Like the founder, the employees are highly motivated, high-energy head-turners, the sort of leggy, burnished women with foil-wrap highlights who roam Buckhead like Appaloosas, the kind of women who don’t appear to need body-shapers (Blakely is a size 4). They hear that observation a lot, but protest that Spanx is not about size. “Whether you’re a size 2 or 22, Spanx can give you that sexy extra edge,” Blakely says.

The Spanx offices double as fitting rooms, with staffers constantly trying on and modeling samples, camping it up and giving the place a sorority-house atmosphere that could fondly be described as a hen party. “We’re talking about boobs all day, how does my butt look, constantly trying things on,” says Lauren Walsh, associate sales and account manager for specialty stores. A typical workday involves free-flowing brainstorming to create a shopaholic’s Disneyworld. How about a soft-textured, wireless-but-supportive bra that minimizes unsightly “back fat”? Look for “Bra-llelujah!” soon.

Blakely’s sense of humor sets the laid-back tone. Before Spanx, she worked as a stand-up comedian who specialized in observational storytelling. Blakely landed regular gigs at the Punch Line in Atlanta and at improv clubs across the South, with material such as “You know why they call it a Wonderbra? Because, when your date takes it off, he wonders where . . . your boobs went.”

She grew up in Clearwater Beach, Florida. Her father was a lawyer and her mother an artist. “I’m what happens when those two mate,” she says. Early on, she showed signs of becoming a taste-making mogul. As a kid, she sewed charms onto socks and sold them, launching a “charm sock” trend at her elementary school. By the time she graduated high school, she had started a newspaper, a Putt-Putt golf course and a lucrative babysitting business. “Thinking of ways to make money has always been a game to me,” she says. “It’s my entrepreneurial drive, combined with my sense of humor, that led me to Spanx.”

Blakely is serious about one thing: “making the world a better place, one butt at a time.”

Of course, saving womankind from cellulite does not exactly put Blakely in the league of, say, Marie Curie. It can be tempting to dismiss the self-help, girl-power spin and argue instead that Spanx capitalizes on women’s insecurities. Restraint garments traditionally have been, by definition, symbolic of women’s societal restrictions.

Indeed, high-end department stores are not the only places where Spanx has found a toehold. A pair of the pantyhose and “Power Panties” can be seen at the Atlanta History Center in an exhibit titled “Gone with the Girdle: Freedom, Restraint and Power in Women’s Dress.”

The show includes a quotation, as troubling for its syntax as its meaning, from Martha Lumpkin, eponym of “Marthasville,” an early name for the city of Atlanta: “Women should be early accustomed to submit themselves to a certain restraint, for on their power willingly to accommodate themselves to the wishes of others depends their happiness in life.”

In the History Center’s continuum of rib-cracking corsets that induced “the vapors,” Delta’s early flight attendant tunics (for which control undergarments were mandated) and tales of politically incorrect employers—like the boss who held “girdle checks” in which he’d flick buttocks with an index finger and put any staff with a suspicious juggle on suspension—Spanx could be classified as just the latest incarnation of straitjacket-like oppression.

To old-school feminists, the idea of better living through better-looking butts is not all it’s cracked up to be. It has the same ring of cognitive dissonance as a recent beauty pageant winner’s community-service platform of “raising awareness of eating disorders” or a Georgia saloon’s wet T-shirt contest held as a benefit for a domestic violence shelter.

Then again, a present-day lace-up garment in the girdle exhibit displays the caption: “Since women are no longer expected to wear a restraining corset, some choose to wear it as a symbol of their feminine power.” Neo-feminism wrestles with an internecine schizophrenia. To help the cause, should women celebrate their bodies or de-emphasize them? Burn their bras or revel in lacy push-ups? Just look at the academic dissertations on Madonna.

Comments in the girdle guestbook at the History Center were evenly divided between ladies who pine for whalebone stays (“Too much freedom of dress has led us to a land of sleazy people”) and visitors who say (whew!), “I’m glad I live in this century!”

Accordingly, Spanx can be seen as a natural outgrowth of Third Wave feminism, which hatched the lusty “do-me feminists” and the rowdy “riot grrrls” and finds a voice in ’zines such as Bust. And with its product focus on comfort, Spanx has a leg up on its restrictive predecessors.

“I don’t think of Spanx as a girdle,” says Susan Neill, curator of textiles and social history at the History Center and curator of “Gone with the Girdle.” “You can take the same body and put it into corsets from different eras and they will give that body a completely different shape each time by several inches. I think Spanx is about improving, not reshaping.” Besides, Neill adds, “I remember my grandmother wiggling into and out of her girdle. I don’t have that problem with my ‘Power Panties.’”

The lingo of Spanx marketing materials illustrates sociological twists and turns, says Allaine Cerwonka, an assistant professor of women’s studies who teaches a course called “Thinking the Body” at Georgia State University. “It’s interesting the way companies in their marketing today have co-opted the language of feminism—a movement thought of as anti-fashion, anti-fun, anti-frivolity—and equated women’s ‘empowerment’ with consumer choice and being able to look as good as you want,” she says. “I like the idea of celebrating aesthetics, but when marketers sell an image of what a good body is and it diverges from what the medical establishment says is healthy, that’s an impoverished notion of empowerment.”

Blakely points out that her company combats the pressures of the “beauty myth” by using humor and whimsical cartoon drawings instead of airbrushed supermodels in its advertising.

“Oh my God, I don’t want to make women feel deficient or to feed into the neurosis of it all,” she says. “This is just a quick, easy, comfortable way to feel more confident about yourself. But I think it’s just as beautiful when a woman feels she doesn’t need Spanx and walks down the street with a big smile, with her cellulite jiggling and her pantylines showing. More power to her!”

Blakely’s empire does not seem like a player in the cultural conspiracy to send women into a frenzy of carb-counting and Pilates. It presents a comradely, supportive and vaguely subversive feel, much like ladies’ room gossip. “It’s more like sisters sharing this wonderful secret with you as opposed to your mother saying, ‘You can’t leave the house without a girdle because you’ll jiggle and be thought of as a loose woman,’” Neill says. “Spanx is not about propriety, which is what the girdle is about.”

The bottom line is that sisterhood is powerful, especially in super-supportive fishnets.