This Netflix original show about a young Japanese college graduate who takes a job at an exclusive lingerie shop is a window into the craftsmanship that goes into beautifully made lingerie. Reportedly, the series is based on The Devil Wear’s Prada.
Set in Tokyo’s Ginza District, Atelier (the title in Japan is Underwear) follows Mayuko Tokita (Mirei Kiritani), a self-professed “fabric geek” as she navigates her first job at a high-end and rather snooty bra store called Emotion.
At the helm is Emotion’s founder, Mayumi Nanjo (Mao Daichi who bears a remarkable resemblance to Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue), who’s careful, old-fashioned approach confuses and frustrates Mayuko. As time goes by, Mayuko develops a deep affection and loyalty for “the boss,” despite being told that her clothing is ugly and her overall appearance tacky. Mayumi is all about beauty. She designs and sews bras that make women feel beautiful. She herself is impeccably turned out, right down to the Wintour-style pageboy. To Mayumi, Mayuko dresses like she belongs in a corporate cubicle and is an eyesore.
The only marketing Mayumi believes in is word of mouth and the occasional in-store trunk show. Mayuko wants to get the word out by hosting a runway show and make the product available to a wider clientele. Mayuko’s youthful wonder as she fondles the beautiful fabrics and laces is fun to watch, and over the course of the 14 episodes she injects modern ideas into Emotion’s stuffy sales tradition while making herself over into a more stylish and attractive presence.
There’s plenty of the usual drama, youth versus maturity, selling out for profit versus maintaining product integrity, mass-production versus quality control. There are stock characters that include a snooty new high-fashion magazine editor who doesn’t publish stories about lingerie, a reporter who’s been covering Emotion for decades and is fighting boredom with every trunk show, a tough outside, soft inside male office manager, the talented but frustrated designer who’s creations the boss consistently rejects. Staff loyalty is tested, profit margins sink leading to desperate measures. Corporate sabotage is a persistent and real threat. Mayumi, forced to confront the realities of a modern market, must decide if it’s worth giving up some of her cherished methods in order to save her shop.
There are plenty of personal back stories and some interesting secondary characters. A down at heels model who passes out at her Emotion job interview helps Mayuko in her quest to learn bra making and makes a surprising contribution at a crucial moment. Mayuko befriends an aged geisha who suffers from occasional dementia, but still cherishes the Emotion bra her husband bought her 30 years ago. Watching Mayumi lovingly repair the bra is a beautiful moment.
I’m not a fan of Mirei Kiritani’s wide-eyed acting, and I found her character at times more than a little annoying. Given the Japanese work culture with its emphasis on respect for the boss, it lacks credibility that she would question Mayumi’s way of running a business. After watching the entire season, I’m still not sure she gets what couture means. She comes up with an idea for lingerie marketed to young women, an ugly camisole and panties that in the real world would have gone in the trash.
For me, some of the best moments involved close-ups of Mayumi hand stitching lace onto a custom bra, and watching Mayuko’s first attempts at making a bra using Mayumi’s original single stitch machine, hidden under a cloth in the atelier’s basement like a relic. The photography is lush and beautiful, with some gorgeous scenes of Tokyo. I wish every street corner had a coffee bar like the one Mayumi frequents.
If you don’t make your own lingerie, this series might encourage you to do so. If you own beautiful lingerie, it will encourage you to get it out of the drawer and wear it. And feel beautiful.
Atelier is a product of Netflix and Fuji TV and is in Japanese with English subtitles. You can find it by searching Netflix under original series option. There is no information yet on whether Netflix plans a second season.