In 2014, the lingerie industry sat atop the womenswear throne, generating over $110 billion in revenue worldwide. But it was a mass-market industry dominated by just a few major players—the European brand Triumph, Hanes, and of course, Victoria’s Secret, which owned 44 percent of the U.S. market alone. Diversity was scant and the unspoken ethos of the industry was based in vapid visual consumption—onlookers were the ones with the power rather than the people actually wearing the lingerie. Advertisements all danced around the same trope: You’ll feel good because they say you look good.
Eventually, the industry had to reckon with a younger generation that wanted change: body positivity, inclusivity, styles that didn’t make them feel like branded livestock. Niche and independent retailers gained momentum as they acted on Millennial’s needs and began representing a larger audience. And the behemoths took note, incorporating more inclusive messaging into their strategies. It was (and still is) an exciting shift to witness, yet big brands’ embrace of diversity brings a new problem into focus: intention.
“It was such a pure idea and it’s getting all muddled by corporate agendas,” says Mei Shi, an L.A.-based designer and artist who founded her own lingerie brand, Ozcult, four years ago. While diversity is now being wielded as a publicity grab by many larger corporations, small, independently owned brands continue to be at the forefront of the cultural shift. Shi has created a wildly empowering brand that brings the agency of lingerie back to the wearer, not the viewer. Her pieces all have their own distinct identities and Ozcult as a whole feels like an exploration of the endless facets and forms of femininity—whether it’s cute, kinky, freaky, or frilly. We caught up with Shi to discuss her take on diversity and the spirit behind her brand.
Where did the idea to start Ozcult come from? Why lingerie?
Ozcult didn’t start as a fully formed idea. It just happened very organically. I was kind of obsessed with the idea of cute and slutty as the ultimate aesthetic at the time so my ideas were just for small clothes. I didn’t even realize I was making lingerie. I just always preferred being half naked so I thought I was just making clothes.
Ozcult is a pretty iconic name. How did you come up with it and what does it mean (if anything)?
Well I have this obsession with magic. I’m a witch (wink wink) but a good one, I think. Oz is representative of a magical fantasy world inside my mind and Ozcult kind of sounds like occult. I have this idea that all women are secretly witches or at least sacred wielders of divine feminine. And men too! If they have access to that side of themselves. Ugh, I don’t wanna get too deep into it, but yes. It’s all about sisterhood, fantasy, and magic.
I love how you say each piece is an exploration of divine feminine. How would you define that?
Divine feminine is Yin energy, the moon, wet soil, birth, and also death. It is so perfectly embodied by the way that fabric moves. It receives. It’s organic. But also it bites, cries, and bleeds. I try to observe it and redefine as it is always changing.
Describe your creative process—what goes into the making of each piece? How do you initially come up with the original feel behind each design?
I usually am inspired by fabrics first and then shapes come to me in visions. I design from home because I can be vulnerable there. That’s where I cry and bleed so I feel like it’s only proper. My house is essentially a studio with a mattress in it and a very big chihuahua. I make all the samples, do all the embroidery, and sew all the tags. Everything is made to order ethically in Los Angeles by a small team.
Who are your muses?
So many beautiful people on the internet.
When you’re in a creative slump, what do you do to get re-inspired?
Honestly, I have too many ideas and like not enough arms [or] attention span and way too many bodily demands. But I find a lot of inspiration through throwing myself into situations that make me uncomfortable and then meditating.
Describe the Ozcult style in three words.
Cute as fuck.
You’ve talked about the ongoing lack of diversity in the fashion/lingerie world, despite the current narrative saying brands are now embracing diversity. But it feels like a lot of the time the definition of “diversity” has been watered down—made more palatable for the mainstream—and even used as a publicity stunt sometimes. What changes do you think need to be made? Which brands do you think have done this authentically?
Nothing makes me more sad than a cheesy magazine cover with a POC model with “BLANK BLANK TALKS ABOUT FEMINISM” in all caps. In the modeling world, if you are a woman of color you automatically get pinholed into a diversity category. And OMG! If you’re an androgynous POC well, gosh darn it, two birds with one stone. Yay we get to show the modern world how not racist and politically correct our company can be. Oh no, we’re definitely not fetishizing you. Just want to make sure we fill the Asian and Gay category. But also, the main campaign model is white. Oh and this movie, the hero is white even though it’s set in Japan. Did I mention the that the creative director and the person funding the project are also… oh. Doesn’t matter. Anyways. I’m just a little Chinese lady trynna make some art over here in this beautiful diverse place we call America.
Progress is being made, but I feel like there’s more being put on for show than is actually happening behind the scenes. Sort of a “let’s pacify the masses” move. Also I feel like on the internet, it’s very easy to get trapped in your little bubble thanks to cookies and smart search—your computer knows you better than your mom. So it’s hard to tell what’s actually happening in the world versus the picture that’s being painted. I want to see a world where “person of color” and “conventional beauty” are interchangeable terms. I mean, I see it on the internet for sure. Just gotta trickle its way into the real world.
I gotta give props to No Sesso for their stand on diverse beauty.
Why did you decide to move to L.A.?
I moved here to film a Vice series that’s coming out in July and also because I was so over winter.
Favorite thing about the city?
Bomb fish tacos everywhere you turn.