Sustainability & Fashion at Hanky Panky

Production cutting at Hanky Panky's warehouse in Hollis, Queens.

Production cutting at Hanky Panky’s warehouse in Hollis, Queens. Photograph ©Brian Goldman

Following are excerpts from a career-related speech that Elizabeth de Luna, Class of ’14, gave in her Public Speaking class at Barnard College.

The fashion industry is a vicious cycle of excess and spending, desire and immediate gratification. It’s no wonder that telling people I want to pursue a career in “environmentally sustainable fashion” sounds like I am putting my faith in some sort of oxymoron. Sustainability is the efficient and effective utilization of natural resources for the harmonious coexistence of humans and nature that fulfills the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations. Traditional fashion, by comparison, often exploits natural resources, including the people who create the clothing that keeps the industry running.

The tension between these inherently dissonant entities—sustainability and fashion—was one of the first points of discussion brought up by Lida Orzeck, CEO of Hanky Panky and my interviewee for this speech. Lida is a Barnard graduate and she and her best friend Gale Epstein, Creative Director of the company, have led Hanky Panky since its inception in 1977. I have a great respect for Lida that stems from my observation of her unabated dedication to Barnard. She is a wonderful role model for young women like me. Furthermore, she is a joy to speak with and a wealth of knowledge because Hanky Panky has been implementing sustainable practices since before the word “sustainable” was even in vogue.

In fact, Lida says that the simple event that started the company in 1977 was itself a sustainable act. Gale fashioned a lingerie set out of cotton handkerchiefs and presented the set to Lida as a gift. This was Hanky Panky’s first act of sustainability—the repurposing of one piece of clothing into another—and thanks to that fateful pair of panties, Hanky Panky was born. Today, Hanky Panky is a multi million dollar entity and its products are worn by the likes of Beyoncé and Kate Winslet. On the cover of her new single, Lady Gaga wears a Hanky Panky thong panty (and nothing else)! The company has a devout following among their non-famous clientele as well, who often pass along their love of the brand to their sisters and daughters.

Lady Gaga in Hanky Panky

Lady Gaga in Hanky Panky

Since the very inception of Hanky Panky in 1977, Lida and Gale have implemented many sustainable practices, many of which also happen to be cornerstones of good business. Where a product is made and how a product is made have recently become the most visible components of fashion production due to the widespread coverage of building collapses in Bangladesh. These accidents killed thousands of garment workers and sparked worldwide interest in the working conditions of garment laborers. Hanky Panky’s cutting is done in a factory in Queens and sewing is done by local independent contractors who have worked with Hanky Panky for years. The proximity of the factory cuts down on carbon emissions that would otherwise result from transport to and from an overseas production facility, and allows the Hanky Panky teams to oversee production and have a firm hand in the way that labor operations occur. Local production costs more than offshore production, but it results in consistency of product quality and in better labor conditions for workers. In an industry that exports its labor and production to other countries, Hanky Panky is quite unique in their decision to keep production local.

Lida and Gale do their best to make sure that they buy materials that are sourced domestically and of highest quality. A Hanky Panky panty is made of lace and American Pima cotton, some of which is organically-grown. Sourcing quality material not only ensures that those responsible for the material were treated correctly, it ensures that the environment was treated well, too. And Hanky Panky’s earth-friendly outlook doesn’t stop in their production facilities; the company works to integrate sustainable policies on waste into company culture. For example, Hanky Panky donates scraps from their production to charity so they can be used in arts and crafts projects for children. Years before the city instituted mandatory recycling, Hanky Panky instructed employees to be mindful of waste and have worked to raise staff awareness.

At the close of our conversation, I asked Lida if Hanky Panky’s success had ever made her consider expanding the business beyond their Queens factory. For Lida and Gale, the goal is quality over quantity—bigger is not necessarily better, in their estimation. What I find most impressive about Lida, and Gale is their willingness to continue to learn, grow and be the best they can be. As more clothing companies make the move to sustainable practices, it is clear that Hanky Panky has been a trendsetter from the start with over 30 years of eco-friendly and humane fashion.

-Elizabeth de Luna

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About Hanky Panky

Over 30 years ago, in 1977, designer Gale Epstein created a hand-made lingerie set for her friend, Lida Orzeck, crafted out of embroidered handkerchiefs. The original designs were the inspiration for the company name, Hanky Panky. Blending traditional with modern glam looks, Hanky Panky is a fashion favorite of countless celebrities.
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