CHICAGO--Sara Lee Corp.'s top executive minced no words last week as he chided his intimate apparel executives for underestimating the potential of the firm's Wonderbra. "We've been shorting orders so long we have no idea how big the business really is," said John H. Bryan, chairman and chief executive officer, at a press conference after the company's annual meeting Thursday at the Art Institute of Chicago. Sara Lee is trying to increase production capacity for the cleavage-enhancing bra but has not yet caught up with demand, which, Bryan indicated, was seriously underestimated by the firm's intimate apparel division. Sara Lee launched the Wonderbra in the U.S. market in May, with a barrage of attention-getting promotions, including the use of bodyguards and an armored car to make the first delivery to Macy's Herald Square. "We got $50 million worth of free publicity for a $25 million line," he said. "On one day, the Wonderbra got more space in the New York Times than the Federal Reserve. "This phenomenon caught our people by surprise. They pooh-poohed it early on," he said. "Those of us who have not been in the brassiere business our whole lives think this is bigger than they do. "If I told you how big I think it is, the brassiere people would be mad at me," Bryan continued, adding Wonderbra sales could reach the same level as the company's Bali brand bras or the 18-Hour and Cross Your Heart Playtex lines--or around $100 million. The Wonderbra had been produced in the U.K. for 25 years under license by British innerwear maker Gossard. The license was taken back by Sara Lee at the start of the year. Meanwhile, Gossard launched its replacement style, the Super Uplift, in the U.S. in March, and padded push-up bras from several other manufacturers have added to the current cleavage mania. At the annual meeting, Donald J. Franceschini, executive vice president in charge of Sara Lee's personal products business--which includes innerwear and underwear, hosiery, fleecewear and accessories--said intimate apparel was "the most vibrant part" of personal products last year with strong sales and profits. The group's overall results were hurt by poor performance in the hosiery business, where changes have been made, he assured the overflow annual meeting audience. "We are the hosiery business in North America," Franceschini said, claiming sales of $1.2 billion, primarily from the L'eggs and Hanes lines. The business was hurt by changing fashion trends, deep discounting and the recession in Europe, he said. In response, Sara Lee is reducing its production capacity for sheer hosiery in favor of more casual styles such as opaque hosiery, tights and trouser socks. Advertising will tout the benefits of such new products as Hanes Smooth Illusions, combining sheer looks and figure control. At the press conference, Bryan noted, "lifestyle elements will cause a continuation of the trend" to more casual styles, though the firm hopes its advertising will combat that to some extent. A new L'eggs commercial, however, shows socks as well as hosiery. As reported, Sara Lee is in the midst of a huge restructuring program aimed at cutting back production in both legwear and fleecewear. Bryan told the audience at the annual meeting, some of whom had to watch the proceedings on large video screens after the museum's main auditorium filled up, that Sara Lee was well positioned to take advantage of global marketing opportunities with strong brand positions in its core businesses and considerable overseas experience. The company is moving into Eastern European markets and developing Asian countries. It is also beginning to establish joint ventures in China in hosiery and personal care products. "The opportunities in China are mind-boggling," said Bryan. "Anyone who's not sticking a bunch of oars in that water is making a mistake." But, he added, results from China will be a long-term, not near-term prospect.
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