Meet our Friday Muse Maxine Kelly, owner and founder of Underlena

24 April 2024
By Fashion Quarterly

Blessed with an eye for beautiful things and sensual experiences, we chat with the woman who’s changing the lingerie game at a local level.

Maxine Kelly, founder of luxury lingerie retailer Underlena, wants to redefine our notions of sensuality. Following a curious and  as she puts it – unconventional career working between superyachts and marketing, the idea for Underlena came about during a Covid lockdown in 2021, while she was searching for high quality intimates at an affordable price. Recognising that there was a gap in the market, Kelly decided to create a space where people could find a range of luxury lingerie all in one place, and thus, Underlena was born. Stocking a considered collection of local and international underwear brands, Kelly’s showroom is located in a cosy spot on Pōneke/Wellington’s Courtenay Place, where she holds try-ons by appointment. Through this intimate and inviting environment, she hopes to inspire her customers to bring a bit of sensuality into their everyday lives, whether that’s simply through cooking their favourite dish or wearing one of the exquisite matching sets that Underlena stocks.

Below, we chatted with Kelly about the story behind her brand name, what she looks for in lingerie, and what’s on the horizon for Underlena. 

Inside Underlena's showroom.

In conversation with Maxine Kelly:

Let’s get up to speed. Please tell us a bit about you, your background, and your career to date in a few sentences.

Originally an Aucklander, I now live in Wellington where I own Underlena, a home for the best independent lingerie brands from around the world and New Zealand. I’ve had a somewhat unconventional career path; after finishing my communications degree, I went to Spain to work on superyachts for a few years, which took me all over the place. On my return to New Zealand, I did some contracting for my family’s export business, which led me to eventually become their marketing manager while being based between New Zealand and Europe. 

You launched Underlena back in 2021 after years working predominantly in the PR/marketing space. What drew you to make the career pivot into luxury lingerie?

I’ve always had a strong appreciation for beautifully made things. When I was younger, my Dad was a boat builder and my Mum worked in the architectural industry, so I think an appreciation for the details of how things are made was somewhat built in! When I started Underlena, I couldn’t find what I personally wanted to wear here. I’d worn the same kind of lingerie for 10 years, and wanted more clean lines, modern cuts (an important yet often overlooked element) and great knickers. I had a particular occasion I needed something wearable and hot for (wink) and when I couldn’t find anything that fit the bill, I knew that I was onto something. 

Underlena stocks a variety of well regarded local and international lingerie brands. How do you decide which labels to stock?

There is a lot of lingerie out there, and I want to make sure that people can come to Underlena and know that they are getting a beautiful curation of excellent quality pieces. So I’ll usually place an order for myself, and wear a set before deciding whether to stock them or not. But this comes after following the lingerie brand on Instagram for some time, to feel like I really understand what they are trying to do in terms of their vision and values. This is really important to me. 

Is there a story behind the brand name?

I was stuck on naming the brand, and a friend of mine suggested exploring my own name so that is where I landed! My middle name is Lena, after my late maternal grandmother. Legend has it that she was one of the first women to wear trousers in public in Springston, Christchurch, where she lived. I take a lot of energy from that vision! And the Under part, well. I’m sure you can guess, ha. I like how the name rolls off the tongue.

Your brand is focused on incorporating sensuality into the everyday experience. What does sensuality mean to you and how do you represent it through your brand? 

Something I have discovered is that the word ‘sensuality’ is typically so sexualised. So for me, it’s about reclaiming the word for the full embodiment of what it means – the pleasure of the physical senses. In terms of the everyday experience, I think about that in terms of simple pleasures – enjoying the wind on your face, the scent of sizzling garlic, putting on a set that puts some pep in your step, the indulgence of a beautiful fabric. 

One of the ways we explore this is by discussing the idea of sensuality with people that we admire through our Musing on Sensuality series – this is with friends, customers, founders of the brands, to really delve in and discuss how we interact with it on a daily basis. It’s just so interesting – the idea of self-reverence, embodiment and sensuality as women, as we go through the different stages of life – from building our independence as young women, to pregnancy and motherhood, and getting older. I’m so interested in how we experience our bodies for ourselves and I think leaning into our own feeling of sensuality can really support this. 

In your opinion, what makes quality lingerie? 

Thoughtful consideration of fabrics and the trims used, in terms of how they feel but also using the correct fabric for the job. Lingerie works so hard for us (I’m looking at that eight-year-old pair of knickers in your top drawer), so the fabric needs to hold up to quite a lot of wear and tear without digging into you. As the individual pieces are so small, I think attention to detail is absolutely vital, everything needs to be well balanced, the seams straight (which may sound obvious but you’d be surprised!) etc. 

Who is the Underlena muse?

The Underlena muse is an amalgamation of all the incredible women in my life, as well as people that I don’t know personally – women I see in the street, on social media. She is a woman who stands tall, shoulders back, knows what she likes and feels confident in that.

You offer appointments at your Auckland and Wellington showrooms. What kind of experience can people expect when they attend these?

I’ve designed our showrooms in such a way that allows people to relax fully into the space – the antithesis of the usual lingerie retail experience. The concept can at first be intimidating but I think people are getting used to this way of shopping, particularly for more intimate garments, as it just makes so much sense (instead of being half naked, needing a size in a badly lit changing room!)

I invite people to take their time and enjoy while I take care of the fitting side for them. We discuss what they are after and they will pick out the pieces that they like the look of. While they sink into the couch, I’ll find sizes for them to try, and perhaps another couple of styles to consider. 

Then we will usually spend some time finding the right size for them. Size and fit varies so much between brands, so getting that in-person fit is essential to getting it right. Plus – most people don’t know what a well-fitting bra looks or feels like, so I think it’s quite refreshing and relaxing for people to leave knowing that they are wearing the right size.

What are the little ways that women can empower themselves everyday?

I think there is something incredibly powerful in simply thinking about ‘what do I want to do today?’ and going and doing it. Even if it’s something small – perhaps you’re getting a little nudge to go sit by the sea on the way home, or sitting down at a cafe for lunch rather than rushing back to your desk to eat. I think empowerment has (rightfully) become a real catchphrase in the last few years but often with relation to quite big, chunky topics. I think everything worth doing starts in the smaller, everyday efforts. 

Who or what inspires you creatively?

So many things! My fellow business owners – so inspiring. My friends raising their kids – a reminder of the endless energy and resilience of humans. Wonder walks through nature – where great ideas drop in. Cooking – the ultimate in sensuality. 

What’s next for you? Personally and professionally?

I am in a moment where the professional is personal and vice versa, and while I don’t intend on it always being that way, that’s just how it needs to be at the moment. We are about to move our Wellington showroom, more on that to come (but very exciting!), we are launching OHEN this week and have other brands to follow in the coming months. I’m excited to be able to offer more events and interactive things in our new space too. 

Quickfire questions:

Three items I would take to a desert island… Sans[ceuticals] Cellular Body Repair Lotion, for use all over. Doctor Lipp Nipple Balm (for my lips, lol). Filter coffee with cream. 

The best book I’ve read recently…I read a lot but books don’t tend to stay with me. Nonfiction – the joy that is Stanley Tucci, his book Taste. Fiction – In The Dream House by Carmen María Machado, honestly quite horrifying and haunting.  

The best style advice I’ve ever received… Be yourself. 

My style icon is… My Mum.

This season I’m saving on… Books, thanks to the Wellington City Library. 

Best place for a cocktail… Ortega for a classic martini (with a little bowl of fries)

The most cherished item in my home is… My kitchen (big item!)

My guilty pleasure is… Salted potato chips. Though I don’t feel so guilty about those.

Imagery: supplied.


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