For more than a year, the girdled Manhattan mid-tier elite have been haunted by the fleshy, shapeless spectre of what once was a staple of the Midtown department store and subterranean discount labyrinth landscape. Social events requiring us to bind and truss our heaving pink bellies have been coming back. But the Spanx have not.
A huge swath of the Spanx size range has been unavailable for months in nationwide high-end chain stores and their online counterparts, on the Spanx retail site, and on Amazon. But in the past few weeks, shapewear supply has trickled back on Bezos’s web hobby and on Spanx’s own website, where the best-selling and now-elusive Power Short and Higher Power Panties are “Back in stock!”
But why has girding ourselves been so difficult? Likely, Covid-related supply chain disruptions have resulted in a spandex shortage in Chinese industrial cities, where the fabric is mostly manufactured. On top of that, shipping container fees to import materials like Spandex into the United States have risen eightfold in the last year. Elastic shortages were reported as early as March 2020 among both major manufacturers and DIY mask-makers who needed the material for ear loops, while the demand for elastic-waist pants and Spandex shorts far less rigid than Spanx grew as many consumers worked from home.
It’s difficult to find reportable data on a dearth, especially from a company that’s purportedly looking to sell itself soon as a billion-dollar brand. Spanx resale on sites like Poshmark seem to be popping off right now, but I have no real way to verify if this is a global supply-chain thing or a forbidden, fringe sexual proclivity thing (Spanx sniffing). I’ve seen little Spanx outcry on social media or Reddit, though I doubt your average Spanx customer lurks there anyway. Anecdotally, four different friends of mine did mention that Spanx (or Yummy or Skinnygirl, for that matter) are impossible to find right now.
Spanx, Bloomingdale’s, Saks, and Macy’s all declined to comment on this story, but something does seem to be going on underneath the skirt here. With no official word and not a single lingerie department in Midtown answering my eleven a.m. phone calls every day for a week, I had to take those escalators to the seedy, stretch-marked attics and underbellies of Manhattan department stores to find out for myself.
I chose one of the hottest days of the summer between the hours of 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. to go to Midtown. I didn’t eat breakfast or lunch and couldn’t drink water indoors due to mask mandates. Because of the pandemic, I couldn’t try the Spanx on, which I would never do even in 2019 because that would’ve required assessing my own body in semi-public, a plague unto itself. Instead I would buy two or three different sizes at once just in case. I think that’s how Spanx, which never really fit, sell so well. Suddenly, the consumer is buying them in bulk and is no longer so young and already has to pee.
This is all to say, even though I had nowhere to be, not ever, I recreated the perfect artificially urgent conditions for buying shapewear I hate.
First up was a special little Spanx boutique inside Bloomingdale’s. It was bleak. They were out of most of their inventory. When I finally found someone who worked in the Intimates & Hosiery department, organizing rainbow Hanky Pankies in an already crowded field of flammable lace thongs, she taught me a little bit about supply-chain economics. The paltry amount of Spanx shapewear she had in stock was from her last shipment three months ago. She explained that it’s been like this since right before COVID hit the U.S. last March after an already prolonged pandemic abroad, and it’s not getting better.
I asked, “Is it a spandex crisis?” like I knew what I was talking about, even though I haven’t purchased new underwear since the Obama administration (too busy spending money on marine-based serums and pajamas). She nodded.
“We just hope for the best,” she told me. “It’s all we can do. Try Saks.”
“Praying!” I told her. This was out of character for me; I was raised secular. But I hadn’t been in a store in so long and a soft woman who appeared to be in her late forties telling me that I was part of a collective “we” after a long time alone meant a lot to me. Also, the fact that she didn’t have the Spanx I was looking for meant I didn’t have to make up a lie as to why I wasn’t buying them. I wasn’t concealing from her that I was there only to snoop, but I’m not great at any form of lying to someone with sympathetic eyes. It’s likely why this is my first reporting job in nearly three years.
I got lost in Bloomingdales trying to find an exit. Everyone was wishing me a “good morning, hon.” I didn’t need a good morning; I was only looking for a way out.
I made it out of a different door than the one I entered and went to Fifth Avenue, the boulevard where this fabled Saks is rumored to lie.
The Saks underwear department was nine elevators up and even bleaker than Bloomingdales. They had quite a few Spanx bras, tops, and girdles, but they had probably only 15 pairs of Spanx undies total. Nobody was working in that windowless department, a dark cramped space which seemingly hadn’t been revamped since G-strings were invented. My phone didn’t work there; I don’t think time or space worked in there. The world contracted in the Saks lingerie department like so many women’s organs pressed under pairs and pairs of Spanx, the kind without the gusset holes. It was like a time before the pandemic up there, yet still lonely, my only companions formless imitation silk bridesmaids robes dangling from hangers and a few fleshy Spanx leotards, crushing the ether in place of an unruly human body.
I couldn’t bear it. As I exited, I found a Saks employee. Desperate for a tether to womankind, I made conversation. I asked her to show me where the Spanx were, even though I’d been milling around there for ten minutes already. She led me to this pair of faux leather pants, which yeah, I guess, are technically Spanx, though I don’t trust them. A pair of leggings on a hanger without a pair of legs inside of them for scale doesn’t really count as shapewear at all.
I reversed my course to Saks Off-Fifth, the behemoth nearby discount sister store. I blacked out down there. It was humid like a Midwestern basement after a July rainstorm, and all those discounted leather bags made me feel like I too was an emptied-out purse with a lining covered in lipstick stains. I found a voice memo in my phone from when I was there, and I vaguely recalled trying to record a country song playing on the PA system that I thought to be sinister. All that’s on the recording is the sound of my feet.
This was the entirety of their hosiery section.
All these formless V-shaped garments saddened me; like a uterus unstuffed or a bikini line shaved down to the bone. These underpants weren’t even on hangers like in the other stores, they were rumpled and discarded. They weren’t even Spanx.
I was ready to give up, but if I was going to do this the real way, then I would have to hit up one other place on my list: the Herald Square Macy’s. I walked ten blocks, took a bunch more elevators. Then my phone died, and I couldn’t get pictures.
I promise you, there were no Spanx there. This is what I wanted after all, no? Some confirmation that luxury PR firms were dodging my questions for a reason, and that their silence probably meant they knew something about what was coming soon that I didn’t? That my dogged but unfruitful research in the most compressed and unyielding corners of the internet must eventually amount to something? I wanted to see it for myself. And so I found what I’d wasted a day looking for: nothing. Or if not nothing, very little. Low stock.
My hunch was confirmed, but it didn’t feel good. My chest felt clammy and stiff, and my pants, of course, too tight.