Sensuality in the City – Capital At Play VaVaVooom Article
Sensuality in the City
Lisa Ziemer’s goal is to share her passion for, and knowledge of, the dualities and dichotomies of womanhood. It’s all about “making the world better for women,” says Ziemer.
She is a woman who deliberately affiliates the sexy and the tender as equally valid representations and definitions of femininity. For while it’s true that designers of feminine lingerie intentionally remove themselves from the domains of the more candid adult sex toy businesses, and vice versa, these seemingly contradictory industries and ideals are in fact harmonious facets of Ziemer’s business, of Ziemer herself, and, she argues, of women everywhere.
On Broadway Avenue, in the heart of bustling downtown Asheville, North Carolina, you’ll find VaVaVooom. Its bricked, centuried storefront is much like those around it, with wide, bright windows and a sparkling marquee sign. But this is a store unlike any other in the mountain town. It is, you gradually begin to realize, a uniquity, a business that is an amalgam of industries almost always at odds.
The door swings open with a delicate jangle of bells, and your first step inward reveals the croak of aged wooden floors. Sunlight pours through the windows and filters through thinly layered lace, sweet teddies, and négligées draped over thin hangers, racks of whimsical lingerie in rainbow-hued gradients of pastel, in cherry blossom pink and spearmint green and salty blue. Mannequins pose in the corners, tied tight in warm, velvety corsets and cloaked in silky emerald robes. Shoppers can stroll through the clothing, guide their hands along the soft folds, and imagine a sweet night of champagne and strawberries.
If you continue deeper into the store, another room emerges. It’s not hidden behind heavy curtains or a coquettish sign; the lights aren’t suppressingly dim or revelatory and bright. It’s a room as much a part of the shop as the foyer, but the goods are decidedly different. In this room, you won’t find delicate apparel, but sex products and goods. Shelves upon shelves of body-safe, luxury adult toys and products line the lilac walls. Bottles of lubricants, jewel-toned vibrators, and boxes of sexual curios such as “the Liberator” are stacked on the shelves. The “toy room,” though decidedly different in selection from the rest of the store, is also similar in aesthetic and ambience.
For Lisa Ziemer, a lifelong supporter of all things feminine and feminist, none of this is random or unintentional. Her business is a platform from which she can share her passion and knowledge of the experience of womanhood with an eager, parched community (and, needless to say, a consumer base).
The falsified juxtaposition of the feminist and feminine is the fundamental incentive behind Ziemer’s actions and VaVaVooom. Here, you’ll find petal-pink teddies of soft lace mere steps from shelves of lubricants and adult toys, a physical rebuke of the traditional segregation of the strongly sexy and the softly intimate. It’s purposeful, and it all hearkens back to Ziemer’s recognition of the multi-faceted identifications of all women.
“I don’t think there’s a contradiction between feminism, femininity, and pretty, and I do think that sexuality is best when it’s heart-based and connected,” she explains. “There’s a lot of difficulty within this culture of ‘femininity’ and ‘pretty,’ and that somehow those are contradictory.”
That socially accepted contradiction hails from the days of second-wave feminism. Consider the modern feminist ideologies of Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir, who fathered—ahem, mothered—women’s liberation. They applied the ideals of feminism to the political arena like their predecessors, but also to the home; women, they realized, were as suppressed in their traditional roles of housekeeper and mother as they were in their professional ones. Modern feminists called for a deconstruction of the conventional roles of women across spheres and a redefinition of womanhood, without the formerly all-powerful preferences of men.
It became increasingly difficult to equate the traditional tenets of femininity—frothy lace, pink-tinged négligée, demureness and sweetness and tenderness—with anything more than the male idolization and falsification of the female form. Those icons of womanhood became, instead, icons of conformity and suppression. Bras were burned, pants were donned, and those frilly, fancy garments were tossed in the trash. A brasher perception of sexuality was adopted. Women gained control of their sexuality, but they often lost their own definitions of femininity in the process.
It’s a dichotomy Ziemer is very familiar with, having grown up in the tumultuously feminist time and place of ‘60s northern San Francisco.
“I just think all women walk a dichotomy, a paradox, that is difficult to deal with,” she acknowledges. “And here, we talk about it. It’s a safe space to come talk about it.”
“I grew up in Marin, north of San Francisco, with all the hippie mamas,” she explains. “To me, I grew up watching women breastfeed; it just seemed so normal. But I also went to Catholic school, so there was this collision of sexual shaming, and it’s all out there.”
Since the mid-twentieth century, women have wrestled with these paradoxical assessments of sexuality and feminism. It’s a contradiction that exists still, in a generation of female millennials raised to enjoy their sexuality without shame, while simultaneously instructed to withhold that sexuality for a single respectful, patient partner. With time, it seems the contradictions of femaleness only tend to multiply rather than dissipate.
Couple those confusing definitions of femininity with a sexual industry defined by males, and you’ve got a veritable maelstrom of conflicting winds swaying the minds and opinions of the modern woman. “What surprises me most about this industry is how sexuality overall is separated from the heart. It’s so male-defined, and it’s so physically defined,” Ziemer notes. Her words ring particularly true in the realm of the adult toy, a business largely influenced (and controlled) by the pornography industry, an industry of male-oriented polarization. “If you go online, you’re just hit with everything. Most women have a higher sensibility and aesthetic and just don’t wanna see all that.” But with the strong influence of the male-dominated (literally and figuratively) porn industry, many women lose sight of their own sexuality and feel pressured to adopt the one-dimensional stereotypes espoused in erotic films: the subjugate, the dominatrix, the doe-eyed ingénue. Higher sensibilities and aesthetics fall victim to the male gaze. Or adversely, the shroud of male-defined sensuality is so forcefully thrown off that sexuality as a whole is incriminated by association alone.
Being a sexual, feminine, feminist woman in the 21st century is undoubtedly a confounding, serpentine road, a conflicting tale each woman must learn to tell. But Ziemer has learned her lines, and wants to help other women with theirs, too. At VaVaVooom, she serves as the paradoxical spirit guide, helping customers navigate the complexities of modern sexuality.
Ask Ziemer what it is that gets her out of bed every day, and her answer rings with the sweet tones of such a guide: “Making the world better for women.” It’s a response that could easily slip into the brash or quixotic, but delivered with a steady gaze and her calm, practiced cadence, it’s simply authentic. Perhaps because Ziemer identifies so strongly with all the separate identities that womanhood can entail: mother, sister, businesswoman, feminist, and advocate of the feminine—all definitions to which she subscribes and identifies, despite their often dichotomous perception in a modern, 21st century world. Making the world—or at least, their personal, intimate worlds—better for the women of Asheville is Ziemer’s inspiration and her daily practice. Hence, VaVaVooom.
“I just think all women walk a dichotomy, a paradox, that is difficult to deal with,” she acknowledges. “And here, we talk about it. It’s a safe space to come talk about it.” Merely recognizing the contradictions helps to alleviate them. Because in truth, those contradictions are nothing more than social constructs. We may live in a world where sexuality and sensuality are threaded with strings of doubt and contradiction, but it’s also in the able hands of every woman to decide her own definitions of sex and femininity.
“In my world, you can be a very strong feminist and still love lace and beautiful things,” Ziemer offers, her palms open. “I think some of what got lost in feminism was the femininity and the playfulness, and you can still have that with strength and determination and courage, and all of those wonderful feminist ideas, but you can still love lacy things. You can still love feeling that way and dressing that way. What’s surprised me the most through my life is how the feminine part of feminism got kind of pushed under the rug, or ‘we’re not going to do that because it’s too much for him,’ but I think a lot of women like feeling this way and dressing this way whether they’re with a man or not.”
At VaVaVooom, Ziemer encourages women to explore and understand their own versions of sexuality, as she says, with a man or not. She sweeps away those pesky contradictions with an able flick of her skirt, leaving instead a tabula rosa, complete with a feathery, pink pen, for each customer to understand and define their own femininity and sexuality.
And understanding your sexuality isn’t just gratifying, it’s healthy. “Sexuality is a part of a healthy life,” Ziemer promises. Doctors champion sex as nature’s cure-all for maladies physical and mental alike. Sex supports a healthy immune system, lowers blood pressure and the risk of heart attack, improves the quality of sleep, and, of course, relieves stress. So when Ziemer says sexuality is a part of a healthy life, it’s not just a sales pitch—it’s doctor’s orders.
Which is why some doctors literally prescribe (or at least recommend) VaVaVooom to their patients. “We have a lot of people sent over by physical therapists and gynecologists in town, so there’s a real health and wellness aspect to this that I’m trying to address,” she points out. While the store’s merchandise is appropriate for customers of all ages and sexual preferences, many of the products are also geared toward making sex practical and enjoyable for women in and beyond menopause. Older women, for instance, may find that sex becomes difficult; as estrogen levels fall, vaginal tissues thin and dryness ensues. Ziemer offers a selection of products that can help. “Anything that helps with orgasming [after menopause] and keeping the pelvic floor solid. There are four muscle groups, and as we age they tend to get lax,” she explains. “We have a lot of women in their 50s who are referred here for Luna Beads to help with kegeling. There’s not enough awareness of how important that is.” (Luna Beads strengthen the pelvic floor and prevent that laxity to which she refers, helping women to maintain their ability to orgasm.)
And it’s not just specific products that keeps women coming back; they come to realize that VaVaVooom is also a safe place to discuss and discover their sexualities. “Once they’re introduced to it and they know it’s safe, they can come play, too, which can really help enhance their relationships,” Ziemer says, adding that as women become more comfortable with their own sexual preferences and identities, they develop confidence in and contentment with themselves.
Unfortunately, female sexuality is still culturally knotty. “I think there’s still a lot of shaming of sexuality in this culture, especially female sexuality; along with the shaming comes the ridicule, the denigration, all of those really negative things.“ Ziemer pauses. “I’m here to try to enhance the positive side of that, the beautiful side of that.”
Of all those auxiliary pieces, perhaps the thorniest are the adult toys. It’s a business, as we mentioned before, usually controlled by the porn industry, and as such, often distanced from the more feminine, female-oriented lingerie enterprises. It’s also a business fueled primarily by monetary gain and not, lamentably, by female safety. The result? Potentially dangerous products produced without regulation or standards.
“The way that the toy industry works is that none of these products are FDA-regulated, so there’s a lot of toxic toy products out there,” Ziemer explains. Even toy makers with good intentions often don’t fully understand the toxicity of their products. Manufacturers who send plans to producers in China don’t necessarily receive what they specified back. Consumer reports may note the intended specifications of the products, but not the reality; lab reports can reveal conflicting ingredients or designs.
“The industry gets away with it by calling them ‘novelties,’ not ‘medical devices.’ This is also where the whole gag-gift comes in. They have a little warning on the back, ‘only to be used as a novelty,’ but people don’t think ‘I should be putting a condom on this before I put it in my body’; and the toy industry itself, the adult industry, they’re not going to promote that because their stores are full of that stuff.”
So droves of adult toys with varying levels of toxicity are sold to an unassuming public—why does it matter? Just as with the food we eat and the drinks we guzzle, the products that make it inside other areas of our body can greatly affect us. Women especially should be aware of the composition of their adult toys. “The vagina is mucous-membrane and highly absorptive, and that’s not the same with males,” Ziemer points out. Many of these products are made of phthalates, which are proven carcinogens, or plastics, which can leach into the body; inserting them directly into a highly-absorptive area could produce untold negative consequences.
In a town like Asheville, where its citizens are hyper-aware of the organic foods and nutrient-rich drinks they put inside their bodies, it’s only sensible that the adult toy market would be similarly health-conscious. Ziemer is proud that her toy products are carefully researched and closely monitored. “I think that’s the big selling point of what we have here, is that it’s so well-curated and monitored, because the industry itself is not doing that. Really, they don’t care, and so it’s up to us to care.” She notes that their adult toy selection has been personally researched and verified with both consumer and lab reports to ensure being entirely body-safe. “Vibrators, lubricants, all of that. If anything’s going internally, it’s safe.”
VaVaVooom, in many ways, defies definition. It doesn’t fit neatly into any retail category, in some ways because it’s too refined; in others, because it’s too expansive. And so Ziemer has created her own definition: a boudoir boutique.
“This isn’t just a replica of something,” she says. From the moment of VaVaVooom’s conception, Ziemer had to invent her model, without guidance or predecessor. She was tasked with the responsibility of uniting two sectors that were often reluctant to share association. “This was really a melding of two different industries that didn’t work too well together. Higher-end lingerie does not want to be associated with adult toys, and the adult toy lingerie, in that arena, is pretty cheesy. So the difficulty was, how do you mesh really nice, wonderful apparel with some toys, but not the full-on toy selection. I didn’t want a full-on sex toy store, but I wanted lingerie that really gave a boudoir feel.”
The result, of course, is a boutique that brings together physically disparate merchandise as a literal and metaphorical snub of culturally disparate mentalities. It’s a welcoming divergence from both the roadside, windowless sex shop and the commercialized, bubblegum-pink lingerie shops of the mall. With bright, sunlit windows and a spot on the proverbial main drag, the turn of the century building that VaVaVooom calls home is classy Asheville at its best. A marquee sign and chalkboard easel draw in some strolling shoppers, but a positive reputation around town draws in even more.
The layout of the shop is intentionally approachable, easing shoppers into a comfortable retail reverie. They’re first greeted with the easy, palatable apparel. There’s a vast array of lingerie for all styles, from black velvet corsets to dusty blue, barely-there underthings. Ziemer incorporates local designers’ offerings into the selection whenever possible, including Diane Gardner’s Accentuates line. The British-born costumier delicately designs, cuts, and creates the patterns herself into unique, handmade négligée. Other designers featured in the store specialize in a new category, which Ziemer calls “loung-erie,” more comfortable alternatives to lingerie. There are also accessories, like locally-crafted body jewelry, to browse.
The toy room is also fastidiously attended, a veritable treasure trove of sexy items—but lacking that tacky sheen you’ll so often find in most adult stores. These are products all sorts of women can imagine themselves using, with or without a partner.
Ziemer is so much more than a purveyor of products, and VaVaVooom is therefore much more than just a retailer. They offer boudoir photography intended to break out your inner, confident diva. “You will tap into energy that is different from your routine life,” says Ziemer, of the photoshoots, which take place in a private lower level or in the bank of windows at the back of the store, where natural light shines beautifully before store hours. “We use costuming and artistic photography to encourage women in their journey toward radical self acceptance.” Those costumes include anything from the classic French Boudoir to Game of Thrones to 1950s Happy Homemaker. But ultimately, it’s about much more than the photos. “The goal is an awakening to one’s own unique inherent beauty expressed in a new way,” she adds.
Another experiential service offered at VaVaVooom is that priceless apple: education. Though Ziemer has offered Sexual Health and Relationship classes in the past, the store is shifting their focus even more toward education and a broader variety of classes with a new program coordinator at the helm. Events and classes include Couples Communication, How to Talk to Kids about Sex, Intimacy for Moms-to-be and New Moms, and Toys 101, and they are led by community professionals like therapists, medical professionals, and trained instructors.
In addition to the lingerie and toys, Ziemer also offers bra fittings, corset fittings, and, perhaps most importantly, an open dialogue. Women with questions are always welcome to pose them to the ladies at VaVaVooom, and more often than not, they’ll leave with an answer.
The carefully-curated selection at VaVaVooom, from apparel to accoutrements, was not an implicit decision, but a progressive, gradual process of trial and error. “When you’re doing a start-up and inventing, then you’re having to try something; ‘no that didn’t work,’ go back, and slowly grow so that you can adjust,” Ziemer says, of the steady, though sometimes stalled, growth of her shop.
The process that began eight years ago in Battery Park with a minimal investment of capital. When Ziemer first opened, it was 2008 and the economy was floundering. It was possibly the most inopportune time to venture into retail, but VaVaVooom survived. Three years after opening, she moved the business to its current space on Broadway. “It’s a more expensive space, but to me it’s worth it, because it really brings home the idea of ‘it’s beautiful and it’s acceptable,’” she explains. The breezy, sunshiney shop on Asheville’s main street is as confident in form as Ziemer is in what she preaches. Sexuality and femininity can and should be pretty.
Over the years, Ziemer has really embraced the organic growth of the company. Because there were no blueprints or precedent to follow, it’s been a process of invention. The natural growth, rather than the rise and fall of capital investments, proves the fundamental success of VaVaVooom. It’s a system of checks and balances that makes for an old-fashioned, simply successful business model.
Making life better for women truly is the impetus for Ziemer’s days. She offers beautiful lingerie and fun, body-safe toys, but she also offers comfort and kindness, and support for all women. “The big thing for me is that women find their center,” she says.
It’s a business model that also owes a large measure of its success to its progenitor, Lisa Ziemer. VaVaVooom is a retailer that could not exist with anyone else at the helm. Ziemer is uniquely qualified, in demeanor and experience, to offer support and products to a controversially divided female population.
“To get this off the ground started 30 years ago with doing my own business with my husband,” Ziemer begins, referencing the staffing and home care companies she had previously helped establish with her now-former spouse. As a key figure in those companies, Ziemer developed unparalleled business acumen. Simultaneously, she became a mother, raising a daughter and three sons. All the while, she invested in other interests.
“I have a degree in accounting, and I passed the CPA exam, but I didn’t like accounting,” she says, with a laugh. “But I love business. And I also combined that with a lot of art study, including studio art and art history and feminist studies, so a lot of study about women, bodies, body image. I’ve done work with photography, with oil painting, but mostly based on the feminine.” She ticks her interests off on her fingers; it’s an extensive list, and one can’t help but wonder how she managed to concurrently raise four kids and run two businesses.
While raising those children, Ziemer never lost sight of her femininity, but it did get shuffled. Sexuality, Ziemer notes, is a spectrum, one that constantly shape-shifts, grows and shrinks (it’s this understanding that would later make VaVaVooom so successful), and hers did throughout her life. But Ziemer grew up as one of five sisters; her femininity was deeply ingrained, an integral piece of her soul, and after raising the three sons, she wanted to offer that part of herself the attention it deserved.
Following a major life change, Ziemer knew it was time to consolidate her various interests into one passion. “When it came time to do a business, I was like, ‘Well, I’d like to integrate that artistic sensibility and elevate sexuality, especially female sexuality, and how do I do that?’ And it’s through beautiful, comfortable things. And having the adult product just seemed to me to be a necessary part of it because of the private and intimate nature of it.” In VaVaVooom, all of Ziemer’s interests could finally coalesce and find sanction in something of her own invention. It’s here that Ziemer, with her vast knowledge of feminism, femininity, and sexuality (both their artistic and scientific sides), peddles the finest in delicate lingerie and sleek adult toys. Here, the physical and mental disjunction of these spheres melts away.
Though her store is a retail business, Ziemer gives the distinct impression that profit is not the highest aspiration of the shop. It’s not a capitalistic, but a moralistic, objective that she has in mind. “In capitalism, there’s not an honoring of the nurturing part of life, and women carry a lot of that. Since it’s not compensated, it’s not valued highly enough, but I think it’s so incredibly important to life and to families. I hope that [VaVaVooom] can be seen as enhancing that. If women are feeling comfortable and are feeling at peace in their bodies, they bring a lot of wonderful nurturing to life.”
Making life better for women truly is the impetus for Ziemer’s days. She offers beautiful lingerie and fun, body-safe toys, but she also offers comfort and kindness, and support for all women. “The big thing for me is that women find their center,” she says, her fingers binding in her lap, “what they are and what they want. And once they do, life just becomes so much more full because then you bring that out into the world.”
Ziemer, it seems, has found her own center, too.
What truly makes Ziemer successful is not necessarily her unique qualifications and business experience, or her extensive knowledge of the feminine, or even her unique retail selection. It’s Ziemer herself—her demeanor, her gentleness and kindness, her quiet offering of understanding and comfort. Her presence is a calming balm on the often raw, tender souls of modern women. She untangles the perplexing ribbons of sexuality, femininity, and feminism with nimble, ladylike fingers.