Exploring the senses and enjoying everyday pleasures; get to know the inimitable Maxine Kelly of Underlena, a purveyor of beautiful lingerie with an eye for sensuality.
By Tara Young
Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you like to do.
My name is Maxine, I’m an Aucklander that grew up in Muriwai Beach and relocated to Wellington two years ago. Shortly after moving, I launched my business, Underlena, which is a destination that encourages the cultivation of sensuality, through a thoughtful collection of beautiful, wearable lingerie and everyday sensuality essentials.
Outside of business mode, I love to cook for friends + family, I’m obsessed with the local library and as such steam through books, and love to take long walks around the bush in my neighbourhood on the Miramar peninsula. I have a motorbike that I like to ride, but it has been sitting lonely in the garage for the last few months.
How did Underlena come about - was there a turning point or particular moment that inspired you to deal in luxury lingerie?
I was looking for lingerie for myself in NZ - made from great materials, cut beautifully, and not complicated - wearable from day to night. I already owned a couple of pieces from brands that I now stock, and knew that I couldn’t be the only one here who wanted easier access to them without the hassle of international shipping + returns. I was working as a marketing manager at the time and saw it as a way to explore something new alongside that job.
I’d had a bit of time simmering on the concept, having spent the first lockdown alone in my Mt Eden apartment. I’ve always been interested in beautiful things and sensuality, so once the idea took root in my mind, it seemed to progress quite naturally.
Where did the name Underlena come from?
My middle name is Lena - given to me after my maternal grandmother. The ‘under’ part I think is rather obvious ;) The name itself occurred to me early on in the process and it just stuck!
What does your career path look like? What led you here?
It’s been a little random - after finishing a Communications degree at AUT, I escaped the realities of a ‘real’ job and went to work on superyachts for a few years between Spain and Italy. After the last stint in Fiji working to open up a private island resort, I returned to NZ to do some PR contracting to my family’s business, which then eventually developed into a marketing manager role.
Working in such a close-knit, international team really gave me the foundations and gumption to start Underlena, knowing that I could figure things out as I went along. I worked in that role up until November last year, so this is my first 6 months being full-time, fully focused on Underlena.
Where do you find inspiration and how does it reflect in your day-to-day life?
Oh everywhere - my fabulous friends, my mum, nature, going for blustery walks, music that makes me want to dance, cool older ladies in Wellington, instagram, cooking, interiors from the early 2000’s (the culprit of my love of stainless steel)
I know you ask this question - what does sensuality mean to you?
To me, sensuality is the exploration of all the senses and taking the time to enjoy them. It’s enjoying the rain on my skin, the sizzle of garlic in a pan, deepening into a stretch, taking the time to select my lingerie and clothes in the morning, and wearing fabrics that feel good. It’s the enjoyment of the smaller, everyday pleasures. I firmly believe that sensuality belongs in the everyday experience, rather than the special occasion.
I read Adrienne Maree Brown’s ‘Pleasure Activism’ a little while ago and a quote really stuck with me: “Pleasure is the point. Feeling good is not frivolous, it is freedom.”
How does it influence you?
It reminds me to slow down and just *enjoy*; encourages me to sink a little deeper.
You offer a curated range of lingerie, who is the person you’re imagining when you’re sourcing and buying?
I often think of a woman standing like Wonder Woman: hands on her hips, feet wide, confident. Confident in what she likes, why she does what she does and how she moves through the world. She looks for practicality in the sense that her lingerie doesn’t hinder her, but she also appreciates beauty and form, quality and sensuality.
Your showroom is by appointment only, can you tell us a bit about the experience you offer?
The showroom is more like a lounge than a typical retail store - the idea is that you can book an hour appointment to try on the collection in a relaxed, low-pressure environment. Someone might pick out some pieces that they like, and I’ll pull some sizes for them to try. From there I will usually suggest some other styles that they may not have thought about, and then I find that, at the end, people will have a few pieces to choose from that they really love - a testament to the quality of the brands we stock.
What I think is so beautiful about the experience is that someone can take their time, knowing that they aren’t being ignored or forgotten about in a changing room. I’m there to chat with them if they want, but if not, that’s fine too! A lot of people will bring a friend or their Mum, and it ends up being a really gorgeous experience for everyone.
Let’s talk business, can you tell us about the journey - what was it like starting out? Is everything going to plan?
Well - it has cost a lot more than I expected! People don’t tend to talk about the cost of starting a business, so I was naīve to what would be involved.
I’m a very DIY person so I struggle with outsourcing things, but feel lucky to have enough skills to do most things to a ‘good enough’ level. In the beginning (and still now) I leant on a lot of different people to give me guidance - from buying, to accounts, to building my website…you name it. I think having the ability to ask people for help at any stage of the business journey is really useful - putting your ego aside and letting people in is key.
I hadn’t planned on opening a showroom; it came about more as an experiment to see if it could work as a concept in Wellington. Now, it’s one of my favourite parts of the business, connecting with women, and I love bringing that experience to Auckland too. Is everything going to plan? Hmm…in a general sense, yes. The plan has changed a lot since Underlena started though!
Have you dealt with unexpected challenges and learning curves?
Absolutely. I don’t have any retail or buying experience, so ordering has been the biggest learning curve; I’m only just starting to get a real grip on what people want and how they buy, so there have definitely been some learning moments along the way. Sometimes my optimism can outweigh reality, so I’m trying to balance decisions made from passion and intuition with the understanding of my finances.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I try to get to the showroom by about 10, after getting up early for a morning meditation practice, breakfast and stomp around the tracks behind the house. I’ll spend the morning working through more intensive work - strategy, content, event planning, then the afternoon packing orders or less brain-intensive work (as I switch off a bit from 1-3); if I don’t have any appointments during that time I might try to slip down to the Freyberg pools for a swim. People usually come in for midday or late afternoon appointments. After that, I’m in wind-down mode, cooking, listening to a podcast, and maybe watching something with my beau before a read in the bath and bed. I quite like to bookend my days with a sense of routine.
What is your current day-to-day haircare routine, how do you take care of your hair?
I wash my hair 1-2 times a week in the morning using Sphaera’s Nourish + Restore shampoo and conditioner. I’ll usually massage some Hinu hair oil into my scalp the evening before I wash it. I find it’s a nice way to unwind while also taking care of my dry scalp. I mostly let it air dry, but if I want to feel like a fancy lady I’ll give it a blow wave in the morning!
What’s on your shower shelf?
Sphaera + sans[ceuticals] forever. I have the shampoo + conditioner that I just mentioned, and I also keep the Sphaera Laundry Bar in there to hand wash my intimates while I shower (lazy girl hack). I use a generic soap bar, and then I have the sans[ceuticals] Activator 7 Oil to slather all over myself while my skin is still damp at the end of my shower. I keep their Bio Active Body Exfoliant close by too.
What has been your relationship to your hair and how has it changed over time?
I thought it was super boring when I was a teen - brown, long and brushed too much! It wasn’t until I cut it short at 17 that it started to be fun. It got progressively shorter until about 7 years ago when I shaved it off. I kept it at a number 3 or 4 for a couple of years which I loved. When I started to grow it out, it turned out I had curls - I think I had spent my teens so badly wanting it to be straight (hi, early 00’s) that I never gave them a chance to shine. Growing my hair out again definitely made me love them. I really love having long hair now and would like to see how long I can get it - I love the swish of a mane.
Have you ever had a haircut that makes you cringe?
The haircut I was given the day before I shaved it all off! It was a short back + sides, really not a vibe that I was after. It had to go. That or the Blue Crush inspired blonde highlights I convinced my Mum to pay for at age 13 - not a great look for me + my pale skin!
What’s next for Underlena?
I’ve got a hot new brand launching next week and planning another pop up for Auckland. I’m thinking about hosting another Sensuality Session, and generally thinking about how to keep the feeling warm + sexy through winter!
TELL US SOMETHING...
Your favourite set from Underlena:
Canova Underwire +High Waist Bikini in any colour by The Great Eros. Ultimate hot / comfort / support combination.
A scent that you can’t get enough of:
The Underlena scent created with OfBody! EDP coming soon hopefully. Otherwise, Curio Noir Opia forever.
A book you couldn’t put down:
I’m guilty of whipping through books, but I really loved In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, which was remarkable and haunting
TV show or movie that you can’t stop thinking about:
Movies and shows go in through one eye and out the other - they don’t stay with me! I’m currently rewatching SATC though, so I can’t stop thinking about halter necks (season 3!)
Your go to recipe:
Beans + greens - heaps of EVOO and garlic sauteed with cavolo nero and cannellini beans. On buttery sourdough with a single fried egg: a hearty breakfast or lunch. Stirred through orecchiette and served with a glass of crisp white wine: a simple, delicious dinner.