While sitting in an Italian restaurant during New York Fashion Week last month, I struck up a conversation with Elana Rivera of the Upper East Side. After a few minutes of idle banter, she spied my red shopping bag.
"Spanx!" said Rivera, 21. "Ooohhh - you have Spanx! Can I see them? I always wanted a pair. I'm a singer and that's what everyone in the entertainment industry wears - Spanx!"
It certainly seems that way. Six years ago, Sara Blakely invented the slimming footless pantyhose when she needed something to wear under white jeans, and realized nothing existed.
"There just weren't the right undergarments out there," said Blakely, 35, whose Atlanta-based company grossed more than $100 million in retail sales last year. "It [Spanx] broadens a woman's wardrobe, regardless of size."
The most fascinating thing about Spanx is not that Blakely, who worked as a saleswoman for a copier company, is at the helm of a small fashion empire (yet big enough to hold an open house at the Bryant Park Hotel during Fashion Week).
Or that celebrities from tiny Gwyneth Paltrow to curvy Jennifer Hudson to America's favorite endorser, Oprah Winfrey, wear them.
What is fascinating is that thanks to clever marketing and nifty packaging, we will not only admit to but boast about wearing, searching for and coveting what are, in effect, heavy-duty control-top pantyhose without feet.
Rivera is a case in point. Not only is she just 21, an age when few women need body shapers, she is 5 feet and a little over 100 pounds. And even she is lauding Spanx.
"This product has helped body shapers come out of the closet," said Liria Mersini, the plus-size expert for About.com.
The need for Spanx and its kin is not surprising, since more than 62 percent of American women are in the plus-size category, Mersini said.
"But she [Blakely] put together a smart marketing campaign that made control and shaping hip," she said. "She didn't focus on the fact that Spanx are about figure control. Instead, she focused on the footless and no-panty-line aspect. Everybody felt they could relate to it and get the benefit of smoothing out."
Spanx isn't the only undergarment purveyor benefiting from these lush times. Other companies, from Victoria's Secret to Sears, are constantly adding products that curve and cinch waistlines. Mail-order company Newport News has been promoting its Shape FX line for just about two years now, and Pennsylvania-based QVC Network has had success with Connie Elder's Lipo in a Box.
Part of the success may have come from a name change; instead of giving the figure-enhancing pieces nasty labels such as girdles or foundation garments, we lovingly call them shapewear.
According to NPD Market research, shapewear sales were $739.88 million in 2006, up 26 percent from $586.33 million in 2005. Within the intimate-apparel category, which racked up more than $10.5 billion in sales last year, shapewear grew the most (followed by bras).
"It's not just about control, it's more shaping and definition, and that applies to a cross section of body types and sizes," said Sandra Saffle, fit specialist at Seattle-based Nordstrom, which has seen growth in its shapewear sales over the last three years.
It's not just because of celebrities, Saffle said. Technology plays a big part, because the new shapewear allows the wearer to cinch the waist sans the pain.
"It's comfortable to wear it now," she said. "Nothing pinches. Nothing bunches on the legs, and you still don't see any lines. It fits for daywear and evening wear."
Women have been "controlling" their figures since the corset, that painful restricting device phased out in the late 19th century. In the 1920s, the first bra and girdle combination, the corselet, debuted, primarily to cinch waists and flatten behinds for the boyish flapper trends, said Philadelphia University's Sigrid Weltge.
Girdles sufficed for the next three decades, holding up stockings and giving women the Marilyn- Monroe shape popular at the time. Pantyhose were invented in 1959, followed by control tops.
"All these items do is shape the body, and they shape the body according to the fashions of the time," Weltge said. "It was something you knew everyone wore, but you never talked about it."
The ideal figure now is Beyoncé, with tiny waists and ample hips (sound familiar?). "Now we are moving into a cycle where women are going to want to look sleek underneath their dresses and more tailored suiting," Weltge said.
For whatever fashion you may wear, Spanx has introduced dozens of products, from Spanx capris to Spanx reversible tights to fishnet Spanx. There are wedding-day Spanx and Spanx for pregnant women.
In addition, the company makes bras, panties, trouser socks and running socks that all offer women some kind of support. There are slips and camis, with and without straps.
It isn't just underwear anymore either. Outerwear is part of the collection now, with Bod-a-Bing! pants and Bod-a-Bing! tops, both equipped with slimming liners.
Are there no more secrets?
That evening, I handed over two pairs of Spanx to Rivera to try out; she reported that the flesh-colored pantyhose did the job, slimming her thighs under a chunky knit sweater dress.
Later that week, I slipped the Hide & Sleek girl shorts under a pair of Jordache straight-leg jeans (yes, I finally bought them). And like magic, the inches around my hips disappeared.
Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or e-mail her at ewellington@philly
news.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/elizabethwellington.