When an enterprising Danish model named Brigitte Nielsen wanted to meet Sylvester Stallone in 1985, so the popular story goes, she sent him a photo of herself just barely clad in a La Perla bikini. It worked. Then they got better acquainted, but that's another story.
The powers of positive undressing, for good or ill, come as no surprise to Ada Masotti or her son, Alberto, the founder and president, respectively, of Italy's La Perla lingerie empire. For more than 30 years, the Masottis have been turning out elegantly wrought underthings of the finest silk, satin, cotton and lace that money can buy—and pricing them accordingly. Among those willing, able and happy to pay, apart from Brigitte, have been Mariel Hemingway, Linda Gray and Victoria Principal. "It's not just plain, dumb-looking underwear. It has detail and design, plus a fabulous fit," says Maria Scotto, operations manager for Montenapoleone, a chichi Manhattan boutique that, along with Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue and 39 other stores, carries the La Perla line here.
From one small office in Bologna, La Perla has grown into a $200-million-a-year phenomenon, made up of four companies that produce the world's lushest and costliest bras, panties, teddies, camisoles, nighties, bodysuits and swim wear. Prices range from $30 for itsy-bitsy undies to $1,000 for a silk nightgown and matching peignoir. But now the money goes for fashion, not just something you wear under the good stuff. "Underwear is no longer taboo, thanks partly to Madonna
, but also to a whole new postfeminist mood," says Alberto, 51. "There has been a rise in female consciousness and the desire for self-gratification."
Judging by the current U.S. boom in fancy-lingerie sales, Masotti may have a point. Ultrafeminine clothes are making a comeback, and undergarments are following suit. Even Calvin Klein, purveyor of no-nonsense women's boxer shorts, has started offering black silk teddies and slinky robes edged in lace, and expects his lingerie sales to reach $40 million this year.
As for the Masottis, their success is based on a simple philosophy: "A woman," says Olga Masotti, 50, Alberto's wife and La Perla's chief designer, "should be the most sexily 'dressed' when she is undressed." Understanding what women want underneath has been a Masotti hallmark ever since the '30s, when Ada, now 74, spent countless hours fitting whalebone corsets at a Bologna atelier. Eager to try her own designs—and to make them more comfortable—she borrowed $6,000 from a family friend in 1954. Then, with the help of her husband, Antonio (who died in 1976), she used it to set up shop for herself. Ada's creations, made from luxurious imported fabrics, were a hit, and business flourished.
The involvement of Alberto, her only child, was minimal at first. He had finished medical school in 1961 and was training as a cardiac surgeon when he decided lingerie would be "more rewarding" and not nearly as bloody. Soon after he became La Perla's marketing director, Olga, then 26 and a concert organizer, joined the company at Alberto's urging. They married in 1962. Olga's sense of style quickly endeared her to the boss, who officially made her head designer in 1972. "I approve everything my daughter-in-law does," says Ada, "because she does everything so well."
Today, La Perla's factory and design studios remain on the outskirts of Bologna's industrial district, not far from the old city center where Ada has an apartment close to the one Alberto shares with Olga and their daughter Anna, 14. Ada still supervises factory operations, pausing during her rounds to chat with a number of La Perla's 2,000 employees. Olga is equally tireless, designing the company's semiannual collections by draping fabric on live models rather than sketching. "I see better on the figure how the garment will shape up," she says.
Moving beyond lingerie, La Perla started a perfume line last year, and the company's skivvies for men, made of expensive silks and cottons, have been on sale in Italy since 1985, with American distribution promised soon. Next the family plans to open a factory in Tokyo. But no matter how many La Perla confections move through its sewing machines, Alberto will see to it that they never descend to the level of, say, peek-a-boo bras from Frederick's of Hollywood. "For the love of God, never erotic," says Masotti figlio. "At La Perla, we must always tread that difficult line dividing the sensual from the vulgar."
—Written by Kim Hubbard, reported by Leonora Dodsworth and Ann Natanson