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Modesty Blazes Anew: Lingerie’s Demure Ads Signal Changing Mood

With a new conservatism sweeping the country, some innerwear makers are toning down the sex factor in their advertising.

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JLo Lingerie by Jennifer Lopez at Warnaco renders underwear in a soft, flirtatious way.

WWD Staff

NEW YORK — Fashion’s new modest mood is being signaled by none other than that sexiest of products — lingerie.

Executives from the intimate apparel, advertising and marketing fields believe lingerie offers a litmus test to developments in media censorship and could be further evidence of a change taking hold throughout fashion and entertainment after years of a no-holds-barred approach to sexually charged imagery. An ultraconservative environment — impacted by the Iraq war, terrorism, unemployment and theContinued from page one

economy — has marketers rethinking the tone and message of their ad campaigns.

In the last four months, three controversial events have triggered the turnaround: Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl, federal regulators fining Clear Channel Communications $495,000 for sexually explicit materials on the Howard Stern Show and the abrupt decision by Victoria’s Secret to drop its “Sexiest Night on TV” fashion show.

Part of the reason — 25 percent — Victoria’s Secret decided to cancel its annual catwalk show was due to the “environment,” beginning with Jackson’s breast-baring incident and Stern’s radio shocker, a Victoria’s Secret spokesman said in April. Officials at Victoria’s Secret could not be reached Friday, but the $3.8 billion lingerie specialist is said to be considering a tamer, less vampish image for the fall season.

A kinder, gentler atmosphere already is pervading Victoria’s Secret. A current TV ad features a weather-beaten-looking Bob Dylan and a young woman swathed in romantic-looking lingerie in a dream-like palazzo setting, as “Love Sick,” a track from Dylan’s latest CD, “Time Out of Mind,” plays.

Labeled an emotional buy, lingerie is an apparel category that is particularly vulnerable when it comes to the sensitivity level of consumers and how the product and message are conveyed and perceived. And there’s a fine line between sweet and dainty and blatantly sexy or sexually suggestive images that verge on soft porn.

Registering the mood of the moment, Robert Thompson, professor of Pop Culture at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, said, “The Janet Jackson event totally penetrated the culture and blew away much more important stories for several weeks — even the presidential campaign. First, it was an issue of bad press, the kind of bad press the Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue got.

“After that Super Bowl event, decency groups were attempting to connect it with something anti-American. And the big companies were thinking we don’t need bad press, so let’s wait until this all dies down. It’s kind of like big sister and little brother did something bad, and mom and dad are mad. So, I’ll just behave myself for a little while until it goes away,” said Thompson.

Regarding the fate of the Victoria’s Secret TV show, Thompson observed, “CBS figured out the Victoria’s Secret show wasn’t the hit it could have been, and not worth the effort to put an hour-long underwear commercial on the air.

“We might be moving toward a period of change. To an extent, it’s the self-righteous groups that make lingerie sexy, and it’s become a ridiculous fetish game,” continued Thompson. “The animal kingdom has to be laughing at this as they go through their mating rituals. It’s all about the puritanism, the fear of going over the line, the fear of being naughty. And yet, this is the energy that drives lingerie in the first place. The day the Planned Parenthood Association complains about the Victoria’s Secret show is the day we don’t need lingerie anymore.”

From a manufacturer’s perspective, Ray Nadeau, president of Sara Lee Intimate Apparel, observed, “What you want to do is present your brand with the best foot forward. You want it to be stylized, fashion-forward and have a sense of humor. There’s an important distinction from being overtly sexy like the Victoria’s Secret ads. But they are looking at changing it slightly.”

Despite the pressure from federal agencies, some lingerie companies such as La Perla, which specializes in sensual, luxe lingerie, and Agent Provocateur, which dwells on blatantly sexy fare, are sticking to their guns.

Gianluca Flore, chief executive officer of La Perla USA, the American unit of Bologna, Italy-based Gruppo La Perla, said, “First of all, we are a quality luxury brand. For La Perla, it’s not a question of being sexy, it’s freedom of expression, it’s to create a piece of art.”

Joseph Corre, a partner of London-based Agent Provocateur, put it this way: “Agent Provocateur has never and will never bow to puritan pressure. We do see the current climate and cancellation of the Victoria’s Secret show as an opportunity for us to really show people the difference in quality that Agent Provocateur represents and push the boundaries much further in our U.S. marketing.”

Debra McGuire, the 10-year wardrobe designer for the TV series, “Friends,” as well as the upcoming summer movie, “Anchor Man,” with Will Farrell, said the modesty question is a “huge issue” for the upcoming TV fall season.

“I hope there won’t be a lot of constraints. After all, I’m the one responsible for revealing stomachs and showing explicit clothing [lingerie] on ‘Friends.’ But a lot of constraints are being put on TV companies, and a lot of shows could be pulled because they are too sexually explicit,” said McGuire. “It was so radical when [Detective Andy] Sipowisz’s derriere was exposed on ‘NYPD Blue.’ But that was a while ago. I think we are going backward.”

Some in the lingerie industry disagree, saying the imagery in upcoming ad campaigns is more contemporary, with a sensual rather than sexual quality. For example, the visuals for an ad campaign for Natori lingerie represent a modern, liberated woman, said Josie Natori, ceo of the Natori Co.

“It celebrates women, and it’s something I guard very jealously,” said Natori. “It’s about being feminine and sensual, not about being a slut.”

Natori’s new ad campaign for fall 2004 was launched this month at the 57th-annual Cannes Film Festival on large screens that also run trailers and celebrity interviews.

Addressing the ultraconservative environment, Anne DiGiovanna, vice president of marketing at The Warnaco Group, noted, “We were not influenced at all by recent events when planning our advertising campaigns for Lejaby Rose and JLo Lingerie by Jennifer Lopez. As always, our first priority was to create an ad campaign which best supported the brand positioning. Neither brand is about provocative sexuality for shock value, but more about a woman’s ability to draw confidence from feeling sexy — even if it’s just for herself.”

Ads that shock readers are nothing new. Abercrombie & Fitch’s now-defunct Quarterly — which triggered protests for its overt nudity and has since morphed into a cleaned-up catalogue — previously showed images such as a nude model reclining atop a horse. Numerous publications banned Candie’s ads with Jenny McCarthy sitting on a toilet and, of course, there were the notorious Calvin Klein Jeans ads that some felt bordered on child pornography and got Klein in hot water with the Justice Department. But the controversy sold a lot of product in 1995, as did seminude ads in the Nineties featuring Christy Turlington in Calvin Klein Underwear.

However, the mood of the nation has changed dramatically in an era of horrific news events and an entertainment brand culture increasingly filled with graphic images of violence and sex. Marketers at a number of companies are reassessing the strength and viability of intimate apparel brands, as well as their message to consumers.

David Lipman, chairman and creative director of Lipman, the New York ad agency, said, “Sensitivities are high and I think [the U.S. is] in a very strange period of time right now with the Iraq war. It’s a sad commentary when there is outrage over a wardrobe malfunction, yet showing a beheading is OK. A lot of special precautions are being taken by companies right now, but six months or one year from now, people will again start to take chances. Let’s face it, sex sells. It won’t go away.”

Charles DeCaro, creative director of Laspata/DeCaro, a full-service advertising and marketing agency here, said, “There’s sexuality and there’s sexuality, and what separates it is a fine line of taste. There’s a different mind-set now, it has to be something a woman can emotionally connect with. Ads with a lot of cleavage have been done. I think modesty doesn’t play a part in this at all. It’s reality, it’s about feeling good about yourself. That’s how we approached Maidenform’s ‘I Dreamed…’ ads, with emotions spoken on a page.”

There could also be a case of déjà vu, and the U.S. market could take a cue from the French and the Brits. In 2001, the economy in France was weak and unemployment rampant. The French government lambasted some of Europe’s biggest fashion houses — Emanuel Ungaro, Christian Dior and Sisley — for portraying women in porno-chic ads. But designers such as John Galliano quickly toned it down, opting for chic, romantic images that ranged from formal portraiture to cinematic storyboards. In 2003, British men’s magazines and tabloids —known for full-page topless beauties — were forced to rethink their approach to sex in the face of an increasingly difficult market.

Marc Gobé, author of “Emotional Branding” and president of DesGrippes Gobé, a brand consulting firm here, said, “What’s happening now demonstrates the beginning of a new era. The sexy over-the-top images are not satisfying audiences as much as they used to. People are saying they’ve been there, seen it and it’s time to move on. People have more oppressing issues on their minds — the war, the economy, terrorism — and I think they long for humor, escape and fun.”

This idea fits in with Sara Lee’s plans to capitalize on the strength of stylized humor in a new marketing campaign for Wonderbra this fall.

“Wonderbra’s all about cleavage and push-up [bras], but clearly how you photograph it, incorporate the copy lines and present it suggests the taste level. It’s all about how you do it with a taste level to make it more palatable for consumers at large,” said Nadeau.

Asked if the new Wonderbra ads will be tamer than those in the U.S. launch in 1994, which featured in-your-face cleavage on sexpot model Eva Herzigova and hyped-up media events, such as Wonderbras being delivered to department stores by helicopter and Brink’s armored trucks, Nadeau replied: “We are more aware of harder-edge copy lines, absolutely. But walk away from stylized humor? Absolutely not.”

Kim Vernon, senior vice president for global advertising and communications for Calvin Klein Inc., said the company was not reevaluating any change of image or tone in Calvin Klein Underwear ads.

“I don’t think in the creative community that we are overly concerned or need to make a shift,” said Vernon. “People who do good ads are not trying to use sex to overtly sell products. Now is not the time. The only time [to tone down advertising] was after Sept. 11, but certainly not now.”

Vernon further noted that a new campaign for Calvin Klein Sensual Support shapewear featuring Academy Award-winning actress Hilary Swank, epitomizes the company’s current message in lingerie advertising.

“Hilary Swank looks extraordinarily sexy, beautiful and provocative. She looks like a gorgeous woman. The product does not look modest. It’s designed to make a woman look sexy,” said Vernon.

Indeed, lingerie can be considered an indicator of social mores. The new move to portray beautiful, powerful celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez and Hilary Swank lifts a lingerie brand to a higher level. But at the same time, the main element that creates all of the hoopla is here to stay —sex.

After all, that is the point of the merchandise. As Corre of Agent Provocateur said: “Our customers in particular, and women in general, are far more in control of their sexuality than they have ever been. I can’t imagine them choosing to give that up. The real power of lingerie is that the wearer chooses who, when, why, where to show it, so modesty really doesn’t come into it. One can look very demure on the outside and be very kinky underneath.”

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