Smashing Stereotypes: Lingerie Brands Chase Ethnic Markets

The potential of the $12.4 billion ethnic market has lingerie firms scrambling to take advantage of the growing opportunity.

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NEW YORK — How to appeal to the melting pot of multicultural consumers can be an enigma, but there’s one common denominator for marketers: All women want to look beautiful, especially in lingerie.

Minority niches are increasingly seen as having untapped potential in the $12.4 billion innerwear market and lingerie specialists are responding to the opportunity. Major intimate apparel companies such as Sara Lee Corp, VF Corp., The Warnaco Group and Maidenform Inc. are arming their marketing arsenals with consumer-specific research aimed at the multiethnic consumer, as well as ambitious advertising and promotional campaigns designed to capture this burgeoning audience.

This story first appeared in the June 14, 2004 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Their efforts come even as company executives privately acknowledge that Hispanic, African-American and Asian-American consumers represent a market that traditionally has been misunderstood and underserviced.

A number of misconceptions abound over who the ethnic consumer is. Is she average size, curvy, petite, tall, short or plus size? And what does she want? Fashion, designer brands, comfort or function?

The answer is, all of the above. As a result, cracking the mind-set of the multicultural market and shaking off archaic perceptions remains a challenge for the fashion apparel industry, said Iris LeBron, fashion director of intimate apparel, swimwear and activewear at Invista Inc.

“There’s definitely tremendous potential in the multiethnic market, whether the consumer is young, old, slim or plus size. There tends to continue to be a generalization and a stereotyping,” said LeBron. She added that this “judgmental attitude” can limit a brand’s reach to niche segments such as a hip-hop generation of shoppers who wear urban brands; Latinas looking for sexy, over-the-top lingerie, or boring, lackluster products for the plus-size woman.

Executives from the manufacturing, retail and marketing arenas agree the key challenge is learning to understand the cultural divides and how they affect different taste levels. They acknowledge that a main reason for the delayed response to ethnic consumers is a preconceived notion that ethnic often is a code word for plus sizes, a classification that has long been ignored by retailers and vendors.

Along with beauty products, lingerie is one of the most important culture-sensitive categories. While psychographics and consumer research are standard practices at companies, executives have discovered over the past year that producing and advertising undergarments that are desirable, fashionable and functional for a diverse consumer base is not an issue of race, a consumer’s color or cultural background. Rather, it’s about projecting self-confidence, a celebration of sensuality and a smart, modern attitude.

Lingerie is a fashion mainstay of every fashion-conscious woman’s wardrobe, and specialists such as Victoria’s Secret and Frederick’s of Hollywood are addressing the multicultural customer in their catalogues with a diverse representation of models, from Hispanic to African-American. As an example, the last Victoria’s Secret TV fashion show in November had scores of Latin and Hispanic models.

The strength of ethnic shoppers also can be seen at The Avenue, a 535-unit specialty chain. Terri Meichner, senior vice president of the chain’s Avenue Body label and a former vice president and divisional merchandise manager of Federated Merchandising Corp. and Kmart, said 25 percent of its intimate apparel and hosiery sales are generated by ethnic consumers.

In terms of dollar volume sales of bras, panties and shapers in 2002, NPD Fashionworld reported the two highest-volume channels at retail for multiethnic consumers were specialty stores, of which the lion’s share is controlled by Victoria’s Secret, and mass merchants, dominated by Wal-Mart. At specialty stores, African-Americans spent $242.4 million on lingerie; Hispanics, $223 million, and Asian-Americans, $25.7 million. At mass channels, African-Americans represented $242.2 million; Hispanics, $170.6 million, and Asian-Americans, $4.4 million, according to NPD data supplied by other sources.

According to 2000 U.S. Census data, Hispanics, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and other non-Caucasian women account for 30.1 percent of 143.4 million females in the U.S. About half the total U.S. population of 282 million people are plus size, according to reports from the Census Bureau and Sara Lee Corp. The average dress size is 14, and bra makers are increasingly boosting cup sizes to the DD and DDD range.

According to Focus USA Database, an Internet consumer marketing resources company that tracks 105 million households and 203 million individuals, there are well over 35 million Hispanics in the U.S. That population is expected to grow to 50 million by 2005, and by 2020, Hispanics are projected to reach 74 million. They will represent the largest minority group in America.

Citing “tremendous growth potential,” Sara Lee Intimate Apparel is expanding its reach into the Hispanic community with visuals of a multicultural range of models on new packaging for its Hanes Her Way brand of underwear and intimates, and is airing ads for its Hanes brand on Spanish-language TV.

David Robertson, director of advertising for the Hanes brand at Sara Lee Corp., said Hispanic consumers represent the most lucrative venue to grow new business. “In 2004, Hispanics are the largest minority at 43.5 million people — 14.7 percent of the total U.S. population,” said Robertson. “Hispanics are younger and have larger households [3.5 versus 2.4 non-Hispanic nationally]. The 2002 buying power of Hispanics was $580 billion, and by 2007, this will have jumped 60 percent to reach at least $926 billion. The mass market channel has the largest share of this consumer segment on apparel, more than non-Hispanic whites.”

Regarding the spending power of African-American consumers, Michelle Ebanks, group publisher of Essence magazine and Suede, a fashion magazine for “women of color” to be launched in September, noted, “In 2003, buying power totaled $688 billion for all African-Americans. Spending power has gone up substantially and has nearly doubled in 10 years. There are consumers that marketers haven’t even targeted, whether through indifference or ignorance.” She added that, according to estimates from the Publishers Information Bureau, buying power among African-Americans increased 21 percent from 2002 to 2003.

Ebanks further noted: “It’s not about a product aimed at a specific ethnicity. Our consumer would like products marketed to a general audience. It’s analogous to General Motors. GM doesn’t advertise a Chevy or SUV to an ethnic audience. They don’t think we need to make a car just for us [African-Americans].”

According to Focus USA database, the number of African-American consumers currently exceeds 35 million in the U.S. Women head more than 40 percent of the country’s 8.7 million African-American households, and they typically spend an average of $1,000 a year on apparel.

Packaged Facts, a unit of, has assessed that Asian-Americans represent the nation’s fastest-growing and wealthiest ethnic group, which is expected to control an estimated $347.5 billion in buying power by 2006, a 41 percent increase from 2001. There are more than 11 million Asian-American consumers in the U.S., and by 2050, the market is expected to reach 40 million, according to Focus USA.

The winning formula to tap into these disparate ethnic formulas appears to be an image of universal appeal. It is conveyed through visuals and products that do not segregate a product base for one minority. Instead, savvy marketers said the idea is to nurture the loyalty and trust of a diverse range of consumers through a sense of identity as well as pride and empowerment, a modern-day approach that women from all walks of life can relate to.

Harriette Cole, a former consultant for Sara Lee Intimate Apparel and author of “Vows,” a book (Simon & Schuster 2004) aimed at African-American couples, stated: “Every woman wants to look and feel beautiful. When it comes to intimate apparel, it’s even more difficult to find the right product — it’s a very delicate purchase. Manufacturers need to value their customers and devote time and resources to understanding the customer. The bottom line is they need to reach out through advertising and promotions. But they cannot make the assumption the customer will buy it anyway. They need to respect the customer.”

Renée Fraser, a consumer psychologist, head of her own research firm and a professor at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California who teaches research, public relations and marketing, described the multicultural market this way: “We look at it on a segmented basis. It’s very important to evaluate each group separately, because they have distinct values, as well as cultural differences, that reflect their consciousness. There’s a certain ideal of sensual curves that all cultures want to achieve. And there’s an ideal body type that all women want.

“But there are subtleties, a certain respect regarding their lifestyles, the parties they have, the food they eat and family. These subtleties say, ‘You understand me,’ and that’s something manufacturers and retailers should respect. Not doing that is a sign of disrespect. It certainly undermines a woman’s confidence. It’s terribly wrong, and they need to change their approach,” said Fraser.

Outlining different consumer profiles, Fraser observed: “Latina customers are a very large and influential segment of the market to retailers. They want to celebrate sexuality and sensuality, and experience a real sense of celebration of who they are at parties and outside activities, and there’s also an expression of a quiet, subdued personality. We also see great appreciation for bright, vibrant colors.

“The African-American market is a segmented market in itself,” continued Fraser. “We’ve identified several groups, including a sassy, fun, young group involved in celebration of sensuality and a great pride in her look. She wants to utilize that as much as possible. There’s also a sophisticated group that has brand-name recognition and style associated with different aspects of culture. They are highly aspirational and try to be cosmopolitan.”

Regarding Asian-American consumers, Fraser noted: “Boy, it’s really segmented. The Chinese are very different from the Koreans and Japanese. There are some similarities, but you want to be attractive in terms of communication and a style point of view.”

However, Josie Natori, chief executive officer of Natori Co., countered: “To an extent, there are certain cultural commonalities among Asians, a sense of modesty, and it ranges from country to country. But for the 27 years I’ve been designing, grading and sizing [lingerie], it’s always been with the Asian woman in mind, like myself. She loves my colors and prints. But, over the past five years, I’ve expanded to include larger sizes for different consumer segments.”

Addressing the full-figured issue, Harvey Cormier, a professor of philosophy of race at Stony Brook University, observed: “While it is of course true that women of all ethnicities come in all sizes, there is in fact a correlation among women between economic class and weight. When you’re struggling to survive, you eat cheaper, starchy food, and you don’t have time for Pilates classes or money for Jenny Craig. And, of course, there is a correlation between ethnicity and economic class. Moreover, along with hair texture and skin color, body shape can also be a racial characteristic.”

The plus-size misnomer is a sore point for scores of ethnic consumers. Products for larger figures typically are merchandised away from the popular contemporary mix in obscure, unattractive areas at major stores with signage and code words such as “Woman’s World” and “Full Figure.” Retailers acknowledge it’s a disheartening message for the ethnic and plus-size shopper, who typically switches to retail channels such as specialty chains that actively market to plus sizes and a range of ethnicities. They include Catherine’s, Delia’s and Anthropologie, along with plus-size specialists such as Lane Bryant, Lerner’s, The Avenue and Ashley Stewart, as well as Wal-Mart.

Cormier insisted the “most important” element to the equation of race and fashion is “tendencies. There may be typical black and white qualities, but they have more to do with class than ethnicity. And in any case, no sweeping generalizations about black people or members of other ethnic groups are possible for either marketers or social engineers.”

Cole’s take on the issue of shape and size was this: “Sure, there are a lot of plus-size African-American women. But it just shows what kind of stereotype manufacturers produce for. It’s well known that the perception of African-American women is she is substandard. The reality is there are full-figured women of all hues. And there’s an assumption that white women are all the same color white. They’re not. There’s a very small range of color in intimate apparel for everyone — white, beige, black and brown. It would be great to have shapewear in a range of brown tones for women of color.”

Cheryl McCants, vice president of marketing for the 170-door specialty retailer Ashley Stewart, which targets full-figured and ethnic consumers, observed: “We let our customers know we’ve got everything you need right here, and that you don’t need to be singled out. We understand, know who you are, and we get it. Plus-size women spend nearly 80 percent more on clothing than their contemporary counterparts.”

In response to the burgeoning demand for innovative product and color options, intimate apparel companies are taking on new initiatives, including a wider array of “skin-friendly” body tones by bra specialists such as Maidenform. VF Intimates features celebrity spokeswoman Queen Latifah for its year-old Curvation line for full-figured women. The company also is launching Real Sexy by Vassarette label aimed at Hispanic consumers in contemporary ads that are fresh and fashion-forward.

On June 22, Queen Latifah will kick off a Curvation “Walk of Confidence” around historic Governor’s Island to benefit the Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation Inc. Last year, Queen Latifah told WWD the Curvation brand’s mission was to “inspire strength and confidence in all women.”

Anne Jardine, vice president and general merchandise manager of VF’s Curvation, Bestform, and mass and private label brands, said, “Curvation is not seen as a brand of color. In our tracking research, Curvation is consistent with the overall population and splits the way the ethnic population splits — 13 percent Hispanic, 12 percent African-American and Caucasian is the balance. Queen Latifah has everything to do with this color-blind approach.”

Meanwhile, the newly introduced JLo Lingerie by Jennifer Lopez at The Warnaco Group is being positioned as a Latina-oriented line of intimates, but also has mass appeal on an aspirational level with its Hollywood connection. In a foray into the Asian-American field — which is not being advertised as an overture to the Asian audience — Warnaco is reintroducing a line of bras called Olga Petites for the smaller-than-average woman, said John Wagstaff, president of prestige brands at Warnaco.

“We target all of our brands as a lifestyle statement, and we try not to exclude or alienate any woman. Obviously, our JLo lingerie has a very special Latin influence. However, there is a broader audience we are targeting through ads in fashion magazines. The first national launch will be in Latina magazines in September,” said Wagstaff.

Robertson of Sara Lee, noted, “Hanes has a strong consumer franchise across all ethnicities, and has a very well-developed Latino consumer franchise. We are creating an even stronger bond with Latinas via our Spanish-language TV campaign with visuals from the Hispanic Body Creations [by Hanes Her Way] TV spot, which began running June 3.” The company currently is airing a second TV ad featuring Hanes ComfortSoft underwear for men, and a whole section in Spanish is dedicated to Hispanic consumers on the Hanes Web site.

Making further inroads into the ethnic niche is Sara Lee’s Playtex brand, which will be a sponsor of the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans July 2-4. Staged by Essence magazine, the three-day festival will feature a number of entertainment divas including Missy Elliott, Mary J. Blige and Gladys Knight, while the Playtex Solutions Center will focus on empowerment seminars and bra-fit workshops for African-American women.

“Reaction has been very strong to Body Bronze, a new basic color for women of color,” said Liz Morris, vice president of marketing and advertising at Maidenform Inc. She noted that three other “subtle shades” — Body Beige, Blush and Pearl — have had success with Hispanic, African-American and Asian-American consumers with one of Maidenform’s top-selling bras, One Fabulous Fit by Maidenform. She added that the firm also is advertising in magazines such as Latina and People en Español. The tag line (in Spanish) translates to “Always Dreaming.”

From a retailer’s perspective, Linda LoRe, president and ceo of Frederick’s of Hollywood, said reaction from an ethnic consumer base is generated by a wide spectrum of fashion colors and this tag line: “Sexy at Any Size.” She said a “tremendous” amount of business with multiethnic consumers is generated at Frederick’s 146 stores.

“We target it as an attitude, and it crosses over to all women. Sure, we address multiethnic consumers, and we use multiethnic models. But women don’t want to be told, ‘Oh, you’re this [culture], so this is what you need.’ We offer sizes from XS to XX large, and bras from 32A to F cups. The U.S. market is so diverse in culture and ethnicity right now that, in order to be successful, retailers have to pick the battle they’ll be in. We have to really focus on our targets and opportunities.”

Addressing the confusion between ethnic and plus-size consumers, LoRe said: “The customer, regardless of culture or ethnicity, is bigger today, whether she’s from a German, Latin, African-American or French background. Large sizes should be a part of your assortments to be successful.”

Explaining The Avenue’s approach, Meichner said: “We make sure everything works both ways. We use black and white models, and we don’t target consumers specifically. It’s the same way with our products. Our ethnic doors sell color a little better, but all doors sell the same product.

“We do the same thing with larger sizes. But we do things differently for ethnic customers in hosiery with a separate color palette of four additional skin tones in sheer. We have an ultrasheer product for ethnic doors.”

Meichner added that the company is planning to substantially grow its lingerie business within the next year and is currently testing a variety of products for different consumer segments. She added that a new large-size shapewear group, introduced in late May, called Sexy Secrets, has been a best-selling category. “It has a tag line saying: ‘The Hidden Power of Shapewear.’ It’s been selling extremely well,” said Meichner.

Regarding what the multiethnic customer wants, Ashley Stewart’s McCants, who also oversees marketing for Marianne, a 60-unit chain in Puerto Rico, the British Virgin Islands and southern Florida, said: “An urban woman has a tendency to be in the forefront of what’s in fashion and she sets fashion trends. In our marketing approach, we make sure we have what the customer wants, from product imagery in-store or on our Web site. We use plus-size models, women with a certain sex appeal. We’re working on ‘Denim Divas’ and ‘Desire Divas,’ a combination of lingerie, apparel and accessories [promotions]. Lingerie is just as important to our customer as a dress and a hat.”

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