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After Sandy ~ Lingerie Redux

November 5, 2012

By Richard Vincente:

By the time you read this, most of the people working in the east coast’s lingerie industry will be back at their jobs following a week of anxiety, uncertainty and plenty of scrambling.

I’ve spoken to many lingerie professionals across the tri-state area hit by Hurricane Sandy in the past couple of days, and it’s safe to say that everyone was affected to some degree.

Stores left without power were forced to close, sewers couldn’t get to their factory jobs, and shipping ground to a halt because of suspended postal and parcel service, lost internet connections and downed phone lines.

It’s been a week of hell, and it’ll take some time for this industry and many others to get back to full steam. Luckily, for most people, a week’s worth of business was all they lost.

Still, for almost everyone in this business, the storm couldn’t have hit at a worse time.

Larger brands that have showrooms or offices in the garment district normally would have spent last week prepping for November market, the quarterly sales period when retail buyers come to town to place orders for next season’s collections. But the storm threw this market week into disarray as buyers cancelled hotel bookings and sales agents looked for ways to reschedule appointments.

And with ghoulish irony, Sandy pretty much killed Hallowe’en this year, thus depriving the area’s lingerie shops of a significant secondary revenue stream. Even Greenwich Village’s fabled annual Halloween parade was postponed because the NYPD was anxious about setting a massive crowd of costumed party-goers loose in the darkened village.

Other developments also impacted the flow of commerce across the region, like the cancellation of the New York Marathon, which typically brings hundreds of thousands of runners – and shoppers – into the city for the weekend.

Such disruptions could have a catastrophic impact on any company’s bottom line, especially for the many independent entrepreneurs who should have spent the past week gearing up for Black Friday sales and the Christmas holiday shopping season instead of bailing out their basements. But no one’s really complaining too much; they’re too busy cleaning up.

“It’ll take a lot more than a pesky hurricane to put us out of business,” Lida Orzeck, co-owner of Hanky Panky, told me. The venerable made-in-New-York brand got hit from both sides last week – power went out in its Manhattan offices and at its warehouse operations in Queens, effectively closing the business for most of the week.

“We’re feverishly trying to make up for lost time,” Lida said, noting that the e-commerce backlog is now up to date and the team is catching up on wholesale orders. Their market week appointments were pushed back a week, which means the Hanky Panky crew will have to deal with incoming retail buyers next week at the same time as they are holding a previously announced sample sale.

Despite all the stress, Lida had nothing but praise for her workforce, many of whom have been with the company for much of its 35 years in business. “The staff have been incredible,” she said. “They’re itching to get back to work. They know the company’s health is their health.”

Across the tri-state area, the storm also revealed the human element in shop owners who, let’s face it, have plenty to worry about right now.

In Red Bank, N.J., the Sweetest Sin boutique reopened on Thursday and began collecting donated bras for friends and neighbors who lost everything to Sandy. In Montclair, Johari Lingerie invited townsfolk to visit the shop to stay warm or use its power to charge their electronic devices – and gave shoppers an extra 20% off everything to boot. And in the coastal town of Stone Harbor, Lace Silhouettes – which set up a relief program providing underwear to disaster victims after Hurricane Katrina – offered its space as shelter for local residents displaced by the storm.

Over in Brooklyn, the online hosiery boutique Peek Brooklyn found itself in a bit of a pickle when flooding shut down the Red Hook postal station (photo above) they use for much of their shipping. Peek kept operating, though, and is donating 10% of all sales to support recovery efforts in Red Hook.

Sandy also brought out the creative side in some lingerie entrepreneurs. The e-commerce giant Bare Necessities, for example, was hobbled when its phone lines went down (though online operations were unaffected) in the power outage. Its solution? Reminding its Twitter and Facebook followers that they could still book orders (and fill all that post-Sandy free time) by shopping with their smartphones. They also invited fans to send in ideas for good board games to help them kill time

New Yorkers don’t have to worry about the sexiness shortage lasting much longer, though. Most businesses will be back by this week and Wednesday will bring a surfeit of sexy razzle-dazzle when the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is taped at the Lexington Armory for its Dec. 4 TV broadcast.

And there even might be a silver lining in Sandy for the intimates industry. After people across the east coast huddled together in darkness for much of the week, experts are now predicting a huge spike in the local birth rate come next July.

So, a tip to all you lingerie brands and stores out there – this might be a good time to think about expanding your maternity lines.

Richard Vincente is the editor of LingerieTalk.com. Last week, Lingerie Talk published a gallery of images of New York lingerie brands who were affected by Hurricane Sandy. You can see it here.

 

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Ridiculously Beautiful

October 21, 2012

By Richard Vincente

What’s the point of the Victoria’s Secret Fantasy Bra?

Journalists look forward to covering the annual Victoria’s Secret diamond fantasy bra about as much as Groundhog Day or the Santa Claus Parade, and for the same reasons.

The story never changes from year to year and, whatever your professional ethics, you’re required to play along and spread the malarkey rather than spoil the fun for the folks at home. Anyone who blows the whistle is a Grinch.

So it was the other day when Victoria’s Secret unveiled this year’s blinged-out bra, and fashion writers across the country got in line to regurgitate the facts spoon-fed to them from the company’s press release:

The 2012 Floral Fantasy Bra (FFB) and matching belly chain are worth $2.5-million (though no one ever questions the valuation) and is comprised of 5,200 precious and semi-precious stones (though no one can get close enough to count).

There’s a matching bottle containing the company’s Bombshell fragrance and tarted up with $500,000 worth of matching stones, presumably so you’ll have something to hold when you’re walking around in your FFB.

The whole package will be modeled during the annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show on Dec. 4 by Brazilian beauty Alessandra Ambrosio, who gushed dutifully about the incomparable “honor” of wearing it, as if she’d just been named grand marshal of the Rose Bowl parade or picked to sing at the Super Bowl.

Admittedly, this year’s fantasy bra is very pretty (it almost always is) and it makes for an eye-popping news story (ditto). Unfortunately, it’s a work of fiction, not fashion. It could be made of Silly Putty and you wouldn’t be any the wiser.

Victoria’s Secret tries to pretend this is NOT just an expensive PR stunt by including the Floral Fantasy ensemble in their annual Christmas catalogue and listing it as a “gift set”. But go ahead and try to buy it, and let me know how that works out for you. The truth is, no one ever has bought one of the company’s fantasy/miracle/diamond bras since they were introduced in 1996, and a VS spokesperson admitted in 2010 that all of the diamond bras were dismantled after their runway appearance.

In fact, very few people will actually see the FFB in person since the company hand-picks the small audience of fashion insiders, celebrities and bond traders who attend the fashion show tapings in New York.

Let’s be honest: the Victoria’s Secret diamond bra is as ridiculous as it is beautiful, an unwearable, over-the-top luxury item used to promote a fast-fashion retail chain. If anyone really wanted underwear with that kind of price tag, and could afford it, they’d shop at La Perla.

On the surface, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with staging a PR spectacle like this. It generates countless free media mentions and diverts the public’s attention away from football and politics and back to shopping, where people should be focused at this time of year.

And as a media juggernaut, it probably gets more coverage (and spawns more shallow conversation) than anything except the annual release of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, which somehow manages to command the undivided attention of the entire planet for a few brief hours each winter (alien invaders take note!).

A year ago, I wrote an article for Lingerie Talk that called upon Victoria’s Secret to retire the diamond bra and drop the heavily stage-managed press rollout that introduces it each year.

The gratuitous display of aspirational excess seemed horribly out of step with the times, and a thoughtless slap in the face to millions of consumers struggling to pay their debts and for whom a $20 three-pack of Victoria’s Secret panties is enough of a splurge. The diamond bra was, I said at the time, the kind of thing Marie Antoinette would wear to her beheading.

Not much has changed since then, except that the national discourse about America’s crumbling middle class and the widening income gap between rich and poor has become a central part of the presidential election campaign. The country’s elite class is now under fire, oddly, not just for its accumulated wealth but also for its oblivious disregard for the changing fortunes of the other 95%. You don’t have to think very hard to see what side of that debate is symbolized by a $2.5 million bra.

Alas, it’s hard to imagine Victoria’s Secret will ever dump the annual ritual, even though I can’t really believe it provides much added value to their bottom line. Do more people tune in to the VS Fashion Show just to see it? I doubt it. Do sales go up for the Christmas catalogue when you dangle an impossibly unattainable bauble in front of shoppers? Again, I doubt it.

Victoria’s Secret’s marketing campaigns are so relentless and pervasive during holiday season that the fantasy bra seems flagrantly unnecessary. It doesn’t make the Angels any more attractive, or the fashion show any glitzier, and it won’t embed the Victoria’s Secret brand any deeper into your consciousness.

So what’s the point of it all? I suspect the continued existence of the VS diamond bra has more to do with the company’s own corporate aspirations than anything else. For one day a year, Victoria’s Secret becomes the purveyor of world-class luxury, not just a chain of mall stores with shiny pink bags and a free $10 coupon for all customers. Its models tingle at the prospect of “earning” the right to hoist the hardware and, for a few days, the world falls at their feet. They are, in those precious moments, the Neiman Marcus of underwear.

Everyone, it seems, loves a fantasy no matter how far out of reach it really is.

Richard Vincente covers lingerie news for LingerieTalk.com.

 

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Truth In Advertising

October 7, 2012

By Richard Vincente

Watching the U.S. presidential debate the other night, I was (like so many others) horrified by the steady stream of half-truths, exaggerations, misquoted promises, outdated arguments and other hyperbolic rhetorical devices used by both candidates to slyly smear each other.

I’m Canadian, and while we have our own brand of political gamesmanship up here, the utter mendaciousness of the U.S. campaign is both foreign and reprehensible to us Canucks.

And I’m familiar enough with the American political scene to know that much of what’s coming out of both the Democratic and GOP campaigns this year has been twisted, distorted, whitewashed and manufactured to disparage one’s opponent and make your candidate appear more attractive by comparison. As a result, it’s increasingly difficult for the public to know where the truth really lies.

Negative advertising is one of those toxic cultural phenomena that poison everyone. It turns election candidates into liars and makes audiences feel slimy for listening. Even worse, it gives people the wrong reasons for making a choice. If I was an American voter, I’d be tempted to scream: “Just give me one honest candidate!”

You wouldn’t think it, but this sort of thing happens in the fashion world too, and especially in lingerie marketing.

Because I get a lot of press releases and marketing material from lingerie brands, rarely does a week go by in which I don’t see someone subtly slagging their competitors as a way of trying to boost their own profile (you other lingerie bloggers out there will know exactly what I mean

The typical scenario goes something like this:

An enterprising designer decides to launch a new label, and they need a “story” to tell the press and public in order to promote their venture. They write a script that says: “I decided to create my new [insert category here] line because of my personal frustration in trying to find this kind of product on the market today. No one makes [this] so I decided to fill the void.”

I’ve seen variations of that argument dozens and dozens of times in the past couple of years. I created SqueezeMe because no one else is doing shapewear that is both functional and stylish … or … I designed Hot Mama because there is no sexy maternity lingerie available on planet Earth … or … After years of searching in vain for quality vintage stockings I invented Betties for myself … or … Since the lingerie market does not offer fashionable styles to plus-size women, I decided to start Big Beauties … or … I launched Beddy-Byes because I was frustrated by the complete lack of quality silk pajamas available today.

Seriously, the variations are endless but the message is always the same, and always just as dopey.

You’ll see rationales like that pop up in media reports from time to time. And, to my own shame, I fell for those arguments the first few times I was spoon-fed them, regurgitating them dutifully in my columns for Lingerie Talk. But no more.

The worst offenders are sleep, lounge and shapewear brands, who would have you believe they invented their category themselves. But this kind of promotion is almost always untrue. There are very, very few products that are truly revolutionary and original. You might like to think that your concept for a bra with four straps instead of two came to you in a dream like Twilight did for Stephanie Meyer, but the truth is that both you and Stephanie are plowing a well-tilled field.

And there are plenty of good reasons why we should all agree to a moratorium on negative advertising in the lingerie world. If you need to use underhanded digs at your competitors to increase your own profile, it’s hard to project a positive message of any kind (just ask Mitt Romney). Besides, consumers are much, much smarter than this and they know condescending hype when they smell it. If they see another stretch lace bandeau tube pitched as a groundbreaking fashion revolution, they’re bound to think you’re just plain stupid.

The fashion lingerie community is small corner of the fashion world and it’s filled with very creative, hard-working and accomplished people. There’s enough glory to go around, without slagging competitors to get your share.

Besides, if fashion marketers start projecting more positive and honest messages and ditch the self-serving hype, maybe our politicians will follow suit.

 

Richard Vincente covers lingerie news for Lingerie Talk.

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Damaris Stands By Her Girl

September 9, 2012

By Richard Vincente

Kristen Stewart was just down the road from me in Toronto last Thursday night, walking the red carpet at the film festival and basking in some sisterly love from a throng of sympathetic fans. Being polite Canadians, no one – not even the press – asked her about the affair.

Kristen had been photographed the night before wearing one of ex-beau Robert Pattinson‘s T-shirts as she zipped through Toronto’s airport with her head down – an image that caused hearts to heave across the land.

It was her first public appearance since word leaked in July of her fling with film director Rupert Sanders, scuttling her fairytale romance with Twilight co-star. The girl was clearly still in mourning and still (one would assume) crippled with shame.

A day later she was resplendent on the red carpet, offering contractual-obligation smiles to promote her new film, hugging fans and saying nothing except that she might apply for Canadian citizenship. Poor thing. Let anyone who has not made the same kind of stupid mistake she made cast the first stone.

But enough about KStew and her colossal blunder. The person more deserving of our sympathies is Liberty Ross, the other woman in this wretched saga. She is Sanders’ wife of 10 years, mother of his two young children and a castmate of Kristen’s in her husband’s film Snow White and the Huntsman.

Since news of the cheating scandal broke, Liberty has kept a low profile and shunned the media amid reports that her marriage is (understandably) in trouble.

But she made a dazzling return to the spotlight late last month as the face-and-body of the fall lingerie collection from the sexy UK brand Damaris.

Damaris’s photo campaigns always attract lots of attention, but this time there’s an added context – a kind of perverse, prurient shiver that comes from seeing a victim of adultery so nakedly exposed. Anyone who has ever been in Liberty’s position will be familiar with the torment caused by the silent scrutiny of outsiders peering into your life and presuming to judge.

The campaign could have turned out very badly for both designer Damaris Evans (who might have been accused of exploiting Liberty’s suddenly elevated public profile) and Liberty (who might have preferred keep out of the public eye until her life settles down again). Just imagine being the humiliated spouse in an adultery scandal and then having to be photographed in NSFW undies for public consumption only a few weeks later!

Instead, I think it’s turned out remarkably well for both women.

The fall photo campaign for Damaris was likely shot last winter, making its release only weeks after the scandal a matter of cruel-but-unforseeable bad timing. Damaris reps have been showing the fall collection (and the marketing materials) to retail buyers since the spring, unaware that their cover girl was about to become a household name overnight. The release date for the images and the collection would have been carved in stone a long time ago.

Still, there must have been an extraordinary “Oh, s**t!!” moment in the Damaris offices in July – as workers were getting orders ready for delivery and finalizing their press materials – when news of Liberty’s misfortune hit the tabloids.

Damaris has worked with Liberty in the past – she starred in last year’s film noir video Packing Heat for the label – and she has become one of the faces associated with the brand. Another company might have made a corporate decision to scrap the campaign at the last minute so as not to be sullied by any of the backsplash from the scandal – but not Damaris. She stands by her girl, damn the torpedoes.

And what about Liberty? She could have asked that the campaign be shelved, rather than be ogled around the world in a see-through lace bra with a heart painted in lipstick across her face only weeks after her husband is caught sleeping with the world’s most famous actress. Instead, as these images show, she literally lets it all hang out there.

Both women, I think, showed real personal bravery in letting this campaign reach the marketplace, and a kind of defiance in the face of unpredictable, crushing adversity.

It’s worth remembering what the Damaris label and sister brand Mimi Holliday are all about – self-confidence, sexual vitality and a kind of boldness that announces itself without shame or shyness.

If you think about it that way, Liberty Ross is the perfect model for Damaris – today or any day.

Richard Vincente is the editor of LingerieTalk.com.

 

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The Battle For Britain

August 24, 2012

By Richard Vincente

Victoria’s Secret Faces An Uphill Battle In The UK Lingerie Market

The queue should start forming any day now. Clusters of excited teens and twenty-somethings, all girls, will line up along New Bond Street and around the corner onto Brook. Police will be called in to direct traffic and private security crews will manage the crowds trying to get inside. Reporters and bloggers and TV cameras will be everywhere.

Say what you want about Victoria’s Secret, they sure know how to turn underwear shopping into an event.

Anticipation over the opening of the American chain’s London flagship store — its first full-product store outside of North America* — has been building for months, only to be deflated in July when the company announced that its long-planned, pre-Olympics launch was delayed indefinitely.

The buzz-killing postponement of the flagship store sparked plenty of speculation, but it shouldn’t have been a big surprise to anyone who knows the company. Despite its flashy brand image, Victoria’s Secret is a famously slow-moving company that executes its strategic plans cautiously, like they’re plotting moves in a chess game. Limited Brands, the American retail giant that owns VS, has been planning its UK expansion for a long time (the London store was first announced more than two years ago) and, as the saying goes, they have only one chance to make a good first impression.

At this point, only one thing is certain about Victoria’s Secret’s British invasion: whenever it happens, it will be a game-changer, both for the UK lingerie market and for Victoria’s Secret too.

The London opening isn’t a one-off for Victoria’s Secret, which first began to look beyond its American base a few years ago with franchise mini-boutiques in a handful of international airports and tourist destinations. Today, the company is committed to an aggressive international expansion and, according to Limited Brands’ latest investor report, is “on track to open over 200 international locations THIS YEAR.”

The opening of the London flagship store will eventually trigger a stealth-like expansion into malls across the UK — a strategy that Victoria’s Secret has used with tremendous success in Canada. In addition, three new high-end stores are slated for the Middle East; 10 stores are targeted for Colombia; one mall store is planned for El Salvador; the Dominican Republic will get two VS shops; and there’s even a franchise beauty and accessories boutique on the books for Poland.

The goal here is obvious: to turn a tremendously successful North American name into an international fashion powerhouse. But how well the Victoria’s Secret zesty, all-American formula of products, price and marketing will play in foreign markets is unknowable.

The company’s experience in Canada over the past two years is probably the most instructive barometer for anyone trying to guess what kind of impact Victoria’s Secret will have in the UK.

After exuberant openings in Edmonton and Toronto in 2010 (complete with attention-grabbing appearances by the supermodel Angels), Victoria’s Secret has slowly built up its Canadian roster. It now has nearly two dozen VS and VS Pink stores around the country, and has announced seven new stores in Canada for the coming year. Its latest opening, just last week, drew predictable crowds of shoppers and gawkers to the small maritime metropolis of Halifax.

The Canadian rollout was a triumph of execution and a reminder of the powerful global appeal of the Victoria’s Secret brand. Canadian shoppers embraced Victoria’s Secret almost ecstatically, even though you could find equivalents to most of the company’s products in Canadian shops like La Vie En Rose, La Senza, Jacob and other mall brands.

And who was the big loser in the battle for Canadian market share? Ironically, it’s been Limited Brands itself, which also owns the struggling La Senza brand in Canada. La Senza (Canada) has foundered in Victoria’s Secret’s wake, and last year Limited closed 40 of its stores in this country. La Senza jobs were moved from its historic Montreal base to Limited’s headquarters in Ohio, and the company plans to shutter 30 more branches as it tries to “right-size” the brand and convert it into discount teen label.

Meanwhile, the most vulnerable competitor in Canada, La Vie En Rose, responded to the VS invasion cleverly. Rather than just fight Victoria’s Secret on home turf, Canada’s largest independent lingerie chain looked abroad, announcing plans to take its brand into an odd assortment of relatively untapped foreign markets — Georgia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan — and expand its existing presence in several Middle East countries as well as China and India. Such moves won’t protect the company’s historic market share in Canada, but it will give La Vie En Rose new sources of cash to strengthen its brand and its bottom line.

In Britain’s feverishly competitive lingerie market, anyone who thinks there won’t be casualties following Victoria’s Secret’s arrival is either in denial or hasn’t been paying attention. Victoria’s Secret generated more than $6.1 billion USD from its North American operations last year — more than the entire $4.5 billion UK lingerie market. If U.S. benchmarks hold up in Britain, it’s reasonable to expect each new Victoria’s Secret location to siphon at least $5-million annually from the market. The big question is, who’s going to pay?

Some observers have suggested that Elle Macpherson Intimates — Britain’s most popular bra label — is the most vulnerable, but the Bendon Group’s flagship brand typically appeals to a slightly older demographic than Victoria’s Secret (a razor-thin distinction that has insulated La Vie En Rose and Jacob from too much erosion in Canada).

More likely, the companies with the most to lose are those with the largest retail operations, who will have to fight for foot traffic, or big e-commerce portals, which stand to lose some click-happy fingers. On the retail front, that means Debenhams and the iconic Marks and Spencer (which claims to sell more than 60% of all knickers bought in Britain); on the e-comm side, it means ASOS and Topshop.

Larger independent retailers are also nervous — and girding for battle. Ann Summers, the UK’s biggest seller of erotic toys, last year expanded its sexy lingerie offerings significantly in an effort to broaden its customer base. Meanwhile, successful newcomer Boux Avenue has pulled out all the stops, announcing its own plans to expand into foreign markets and, earlier this month, repositioning its brand image by hiring a plus-sized model to be the company’s new face.

Others who face a tough fight: push-up bra specialist Ultimo and even Agent Provocateur, the high-priced erotic brand that owns “sexy” in Britain the way Victoria’s Secret does in the U.S.

Still, the obvious low-hanging fruit in the UK lingerie market in 2012 is La Senza. The historic UK retail label (which is unaffiliated with the North American brand of the same name) teetered on the edge of bankruptcy late last year, sending spasms through the industry. In January, though, it was rescued by the formidable Kuwait-based retail giant M.H. Alshaya, which earned tremendous goodwill by keeping 60 stores open and thus preserving hundreds of UK jobs.

Alshaya’s intervention in La Senza, however, sets the table for an unusual market showdown. Not only does La Senza compete directly against VS for the youth push-up bra and lacey knickers market, but parent company Alshaya also operates Victoria’s Secret’s prized franchise stores in the Middle East. Will Limited Brands really try to build UK market share at the expense of its powerful Middle Eastern wholesale partner, thereby cannibalizing itself like it has done in Canada? Don’t bet on it.

One thing you can bet on, though: British lingerie makers and sellers aren’t going to let the pink polyester tide wash over them without a spirited fight.

The UK lingerie industry has been a beehive of activity over the past year as smaller labels expand into new categories and introduce new distribution channels in order to increase their consumer reach. No one will say they’re deliberately bracing to take on Victoria’s Secret, but the signs are everywhere. And they’d be foolish not to.

From a fashion standpoint, Britain is also the most hyper-creative lingerie market in the world right now. Whether your tastes run to fashion-forward concept brands like Nichole De Carle or Made By Niki, eco-labels like Sweetling and Ayten Gasson, edgy artsy names like Dirty Pretty Things and Yes Master, vintage revivalists like What Katie Did and Kiss Me Deadly, or high-end fetish wear from the likes of Bordelle and Lascivious, Britain is awash in talent and overflowing with style options. There is nothing you can find in Victoria’s Secret that can’t be trumped by existing goods in the UK market.

There’s also an ‘X Factor’ in the coming market battle. How much do British women care about where their knickers come from? How solid is their allegiance to homegrown UK labels, some of whom (like Marks and Spencer) have been providing undies to British families for generations?

British lingerie professionals see this as vital to the industry’s survival and have collectively been pushing a “Made In UK” promotional strategy that piggybacks on the patriotic fervor whipped up by the Queen’s Jubilee and the recent Olympics. To some, the arrival of Victoria’s Secret in London is a repudiation of that noble nationalistic goal, and one that can only be thwarted at the cash registers. For UK women who embrace the loyalist message, buying a Victoria’s Secret lace thong would be as treasonous as driving a Toyota in Detroit.

Whether the patriotism message sinks in or not, make no mistake: Victoria’s Secret will ignite a war over brand loyalty in Britain, a battle for the hearts and souls and butts of young consumers.


Victoria’s Secret also faces other significant obstacles in finding a home in the UK market, where people still giggle over the American word “panties”:

  • There are some dramatic differences in foundations sizing between the UK and North America, a fact that has proved costly for other international brands trying to make the same leap. In addition to different size standards, recent studies have shown that British women’s average bra sizes have grown in recent years. Bustier, curvier figures are much more common in the UK, and much less stigmatized than in North America. How will the Victoria’s Secret squadron of rail-thin supermodels appeal to the same consumer base that has embraced Curvy Kate?
  • Victoria’s Secret has sailed through the recession of the past four years with consistent, if unspectacular, growth that has kept shareholders happy and left other fashion retailers writhing with envy. A lot of that success, though, has been the result of perpetually discounting prices and incentivizing customers with coupons and gift giveaways. It’s a great strategy for hard times because it keeps cash flowing and inventory moving, but it eats into profit margins and risks turning the brand into a clearance house — which is not how Victoria’s Secret wants to be perceived. The company will have trouble using price as an incentive in Britain, where retailers have been slashing costs by outsourcing production and passing savings on to customers for years. Cheap knickers are already abundant.
  • Market localization plays a stronger role in Britain than other markets. What sells in Surrey or Middlesex can be significantly different than what appeals to shoppers in other parts of the realm. It’s a unique characteristic of the UK consumer that bedevils cookie-cutter mall brands, and one which may force Victoria’s Secret to tweak its proven recipes for success to account for local tastes.
  • Cultural differences might also impact the VS product catalog. Perhaps every American college co-ed wants the words “sexy” and “pink” printed on their backsides, but whether UK girls have the same taste for American logo-porn remains to be seen.
  • Victoria’s Secret’s marketing juggernaut is pervasive in North America (seriously, when was the last day you didn’t see an image of Miranda, Candice, et. al. somewhere?). But all those provocative window displays and mural-size billboards might draw fire from UK censors, who police such things much more closely than we do in North America. A new child-protection law even governs the proximity of lingerie advertising near schools, which will cut into VS’s marketing blanket.

Finally, the biggest impediment to the company’s conquest of Britain and other markets might be Victoria’s Secret itself. Its remarkable success over the past two decades has transformed lingerie marketing and merchandising, but every page in the VS playbook — including its product inventory  — has been copied by its competitors everywhere. Victoria’s Secret may land on Britain’s shores only to find its enemy looks frighteningly familiar.

What Victoria’s Secret has going for it in the coming battle is something called brand penetration — that combination of name recognition and customer approval that can be a retailer’s license to print money. Thanks largely to its Angels and the annual TV runway show, Victoria’s Secret has astonishing brand penetration in countries around the world where it has never traded before. And in the UK there’s an added bonus: the Victoria’s Secret name — a sly dig at the country’s longest-reigning monarch and her straitlaced morals — always made the company sound British to begin with.

Brand power alone should give the company a huge head start and ensure a brisk trade when it finally opens its doors. But what happens after that is something else altogether. Victoria’s Secret will be mindful to avoid anything resembling an anti-American backlash, hoping that the allure of its rosy, fragrant emporiums will make British women put their patriotism aside at least temporarily.

It’s even tweaking its business model to make a good first impression on its new UK audience. Opening its flagship store on Bond Street — where people shop for upmarket fashions and couture labels — is an ambitious strategy designed to elevate the brand’s image. (Watch for something similar in the U.S. this year as the company undertakes a multi-million-dollar makeover that will turn its flagship New York store in Herald Square into a 50,000-square-foot underwear wonderland.)

There are also rumors that Victoria’s Secret will open its London flagship store quietly, without any Angels present to whip up a predictable media frenzy. If that turns out to be true, it’ll be an indication of the company’s careful, wait-and-see approach to the task of exporting its American brand of sexy to the world and, perhaps, a sign of uncharacteristic modesty as it begins that noble crusade.

Just don’t expect that to last for long.

(*NOTE: A much smaller VS mall store did open as scheduled last month, but with little fanfare, near the Olympic athletes village. Victoria’s Secret has not announced a new opening date for the New Bond Street store.)

Richard Vincente covers Victoria’s Secret news and other topics for LingerieTalk.com.

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The Incredible Shrinking Mom

July 25, 2012
The post-baby body has become the ultimate celebrity status symbol

It’s hard not to feel sympathy for poor Jessica Simpson. The singer/fashion brand/reality TV star is accustomed to being picked on by the tabloid press, but these days she is getting the kind of attention that should make women around the world shudder.

Jessica’s offense? Emerging from her first pregnancy with something other than the kind of sleek, toned, ripple-free physique that we’ve come to expect from celebrity new moms.

Weight control issues have plagued Jessica for years, but never more so than in the weeks before and after the May delivery of her daughter Maxwell. Jessica embraced her pregnancy gleefully, posing for magazine shoots and keeping up promotional appearances well into her final month — despite having gained a reported 70+ pounds.

In the weeks since giving birth, that unusually large weight gain has proved stubbornly hard to shed. Jessica still shows up almost daily in the tabloids, but the happy tone that accompanied her much-publicized pregnancy has been replaced with a kind of snarky finger-pointing over her post partum shape and size.

Jessica is reportedly under contract with Weight Watchers to get back into shape — can a Jennifer Hudson-like transformation be far off? — but in the meantime she’s become an object of ridicule to some, a sympathetic figure to others, and a focal point in the debate over post-pregnancy body issues.

In part, Jessica’s latest turn in the public eye is the result of unlucky timing. Over the past few years, the post-baby body has become the ultimate status symbol for female celebrities. You know the routine: a few weeks after the joyful birth announcement, a star reappears on a beach or fashion runway or magazine cover with their abs miraculously intact, their skin taut and looking very much as if their new bundle of joy had been delivered by a stork while mom was nibbling on carrot sticks.

Often the turnaround time is shockingly brief. Supermodels like Miranda Kerr and Doutzen Kroes (above) were back to work within three months of giving birth, while Beyoncé was approaching her pre-pregnancy shape in the vacation photo below, and dropped about 60 pounds, in the same amount of time.

For magazines like People, stories about celebrity post-baby bodies are a reliable staple that have a predictably gruesome appeal. Search through the magazine’s archives and you’ll find dozens of tales of stars such as Melissa Joan Hart, Jessica Alba, Christina Aguilera and many more, along with details of their punishing regimens for getting back into shape.

There’s an obvious downside to the public’s fascination with how celebrities handle this most universal of human situations. Women are given wildly unrealistic expectations about the post-partum experience, and are sometimes tempted to stay thin during pregnancy to save their figures. Obsessing about weight loss after pregnancy can lead to eating disorders, body image issues and longer-term health concerns that compromise both mother and child.

What’s more, new moms who focus too much on their weight miss the full experience of pregnancy and new motherhood. “Before, pregnancy might have been seen as an opportunity to relax into one’s body and to experience one’s body as it naturally grows,” Merryl Bear of Canada’s National Eating Disorder Information Centre, said recently. “But there are more challenges to a pregnant woman’s self-perception that are exacerbated by the images and the stories of celebrities who get pregnant, have their babies, and throughout the process … just have their pre-pregnancy body with a bump.”

And some women are fighting back against unrealistic expectations in this area. In Connecticut, a blogger community called CT Working Moms staged a photo shoot (above) in which its members happily showed off their “normal” post-baby bodies as a way of countering the bounce-back phenomenon and encouraging real women to embrace their changing bodies. The group’s ‘Goddess Gallery‘ became a viral sensation, and the CT Working Moms has since invited other women to submit photos of their own less-than-perfect post-pregnancy bodies.

You can also find a thoughtful activist approach to the issue over at The Shape Of A Mother, a no-holds-barred blog that deals with post-partum body issues. Blogger Connie, who runs both SOAM and its companion site Zebra Belly, says she started the sites 6 years ago after realizing that “a post-pregnancy body is one of this society’s greatest secrets … all we see of the female body is that which is airbrushed and perfect, and if we look any different we it hide it from the light of day.”

Projects like these go a long way toward adding balance to the issue and making women feel less alone, and less abnormal, as they adapt to their own post-pregnancy lives.

Much of the recent attention given this issue is due to the succession of post-baby bounce-backs involving Victoria’s Secret supermodels. The idea of posing for a bikini catalogue mere weeks after having a baby (as Miranda Kerr, above, did) seems ridiculous, yet the Angels have done so with almost freakish regularity in the past few years.

That alone has made them a target for criticism —how can such dramatic transformations possibly be healthy? — but there is an upside to the highly idealized image that the Angels present, too.

Women like Miranda, Adriana, Alessandra and Doutzen are blessed with good genes to begin with, and they enter their pregnancies in top physical shape. When they bounce back to that shape 8 weeks after giving birth, it’s not because they are starving themselves or their babies, it’s because they are already deeply, ferociously committed to fitness and well-being. In fact, their careers depend on it.

Most women can’t ever expect to have the figure that Victoria’s Secret supermodels possess, and most of us can’t afford the high-priced celebrity trainers they employ to keep themselves toned. At the same time, though, the Angels’ devotion to fitness and healthy living sets a good example for women in all life’s stages.

For women struggling with body issues after pregnancy, it’s worth remembering that it’s not your shape that matters most; it’s how you love and raise your children. And the most attractive new moms are the ones with the happiest, healthiest kids. Don’t envy Victoria Beckham (above) for her slender shape or hunky hubby, but for the adorable brood that she and David have produced.

As for Jessica Simpson, I’m struck most by how little she seems to be bothered by all the attention given to her post-pregnancy weight issues. She appears to be enjoying the blessing of her new daughter and is making baby her one and only priority.

For now at least, Weight Watchers can wait.

Richard Vincente reports on lingerie trends for LingerieTalk.com.

 

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Richard Vincente

Intimate Intelligence

 

Richard Vincente is the editor and publisher of Lingerie Talk, Canada’s leading weblog covering the fashion lingerie market. Since Lingerie Talk’s launch in early 2010, Richard and his team of contributors have provided a reasoned and authoritative commentary on trends, collections and personalities in the lingerie industry.
 
Richard is a lifelong print and web journalist who has covered many of his personal passions, including politics, music, travel and social causes. He is a former editor with the Toronto Globe and Mail, Canada’s leading daily newspaper, and owned and managed a community newspaper for several years. Since 2003 he has focused exclusively on web publishing ventures.
 
Intimate Intelligence will look at broader cultural issues that affect, and are affected by, lingerie fashions. Your feedback and suggestions are welcome.
 
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