“The whole world has gotten more relaxed, and certainly I can remember when I started if something didn’t cover the bra strap you couldn’t do it. Now you can,” recalls Helena Stuart, founder and designer of New York City-based and made lingerie label Only Hearts.
That’s not the only thing that’s changed since the FIT alum first started selling slinky intimates out of her tiny heart-themed boutique on the city’s Upper West Side in the 1970s.
“The challenge or the sad, sad part is when we started we would have six guys a day knocking at the door trying to sell us lace, ribbon, buttons, and now it’s so impossible to find domestic suppliers. You can’t find elastic domestically or buttons domestically, or at least not affordable ones,” she laments.
But Stuart never set out to be a cheerleader for American manufacturing or the city’s Garment Center. In fact, after graduation she spent a year working there and didn’t particularly enjoy it. “I left thinking it wasn’t really about how creative you were—it was about playing a game,” she remembers.
So she took her love for heart-shaped everything (she had been an avid collector since the age of 12) and in 1978 opened a jewel-box of a shop stocked with themed frames, lockets, corsets and more picked up on trips to Sweden, Switzerland, Germany and Portugal. “After a year or two of doing that I started making things myself and silk-screening, sewing bits of lace and reworking sweatshirts,” she shared, which slowly grew into what she later dubbed “inner outerwear.”
“Because that’s how I was dressing back then,” she laughed, describing how she would buy men’s boxer shorts or ornament her bras and wear them when she went out to clubs dancing. “When I started the line I wasn’t thinking in terms of lingerie, or which department I should be selling to. I didn’t approach it from that point. I was making things for myself and my friends and my shop.”
And the label continued to grow in that organic way, its manufacturing mostly funded by the 123-square-foot store from which it got its name. “It was a funky little place—we started making money right away and that gave us the money to keep going,” she said, adding, “I don’t think kids today can do that.”
Her daughter, Kaya, a Parsons grad, jumped on board in 1999 and these days Only Hearts has two New York City boutiques, as well as one in Santa Monica, California, and an international outpost in Rome. The line has expanded beyond silky, lacy, comfy panties, bras, bralettes and camisoles to include feminine and functional sleepwear, skirts, dresses, tops and more—all of which walk that fine line between lingerie and everyday wear—and stockists run the gamut from specialty stores to the likes of Shopbop, Nordstrom and Nasty Gal. Prices range from $35 to $88 for bras and $24 to $51 for panties.
“Living in New York City and having our shops gives us an edge to see what’s bubbling up and then we give you our point of view, and our point of view really hasn’t changed. The spirit is still the same,” Stuart said. “We listen to our shops, to our clients, and my goal is to give them my version of what they need. And because we have our own shops we do get that consumer feedback. We hear it firsthand.”
That sense of being on the front line also applies to the production process. “I come from a very large family and have a very strong sense of family and community and I always thought if I was going to do anything it was going to be with people around me,” she explained, noting that while it was tempting in the ’80s, she steadfastly refused to move her manufacturing offshore.
“Yes, we’re successful and I’ve made money and that’s great but it’s not about the money. I get up every day and I really like what I do. I work with a group of people that I really like. It’s very hands-on and you get to know the people,” she said, adding, “I feel very blessed and lucky to be able to work in my community and have people in this company that have been here since the beginning.”
But she doesn’t deny how difficult it’s become to be a Made in U.S.A. brand. “Because I’ve been around so long I have developed resources. We have people that make fabric for us that are in New Jersey and Rhode Island and Connecticut, and laces that are local so that’s very exciting, and we really try to give them as much business as possible, but we do buy prints from Germany and some laces from Korea because they’re not around anymore,” she said, quickly pointing out that she just came across a new mill in the Carolinas so she’s hopeful U.S. manufacturing can one day return to some semblance of its heyday.
In particular she hopes to see more sewing factories. “Now I have five sample sewers in-house—so we don’t do production in-house but we do make our samples in-house—but they’re not easy to find,” she said, noting that she recently interviewed a batch of young graduates that all turned out to be terrible sewers. “It’s sad because people used to make their own clothes.”
But back to the exposed bra straps: “We have a collection called Second Skins that we’ve offered from the beginning. They’re just liners in a very nice fabric that we’ve made in Rhode Island that’s opaque enough to wear under sheers. Back when we launched we sold a ton of those and now we still sell it but not like we once did because people aren’t afraid to wear something sheer,” she laughed. “Nineties crop tops are back but in the ’90s no one would have worn a sheer one—except for me, probably—and today no one cares!”