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NEW YORK — A number of Americans may be boycotting french fries, French wine and French baguettes, but they still want sexy-looking French lingerie. That’s the word from American retailers and French vendors who generally said the wrath against French-made products or names that sound French has not impacted sales of bras and panties bearing a French name.
The three key reasons attributed to why the French intimates business in the U.S. has not been impacted are: Consumers who buy French undergarments do not represent mainstream America — they are worldly and sophisticated, have a certain discretionary income and want products that offer fashion as well as sex appeal, said retailers and manufacturers.
Mary Krug, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of intimate apparel and hosiery at Neiman Marcus, said, “We really haven’t seen any backlash. We’ve had a few situations at our stores where a customer takes a stand about a [French] product. But we haven’t seen any significant impact.”
Top-selling French foundations labels at Neiman’s include Chantelle, Simone Pérèle, Le Mystere and Eres.
Anne Caetano, dmm of intimate apparel and hosiery at Saks Fifth Avenue, said, “There has been no negative impact on our French lingerie business, and there certainly has been no decline in business.”
Best-selling French lingerie brands at Saks include Aubade, Chantelle, Lejaby, and Princesse Tam Tam.
“I don’t think French bras are creating strife in American people’s lives,” said Krista Tonra, general manager of the Simone Pérèle USA unit of the Paris-based Pérèle firm. “Out of 125 boutiques, only one has mentioned anything like that. Politics are not going to stop American consumers from buying our bras. It’s clear — if it’s pretty, she’ll buy it.”
Meanwhile, French vendors generally acknowledge it hasn’t been an easy task breaking into the American boudoir.
For more than a decade, French lingerie specialists have had to overcome several obstacles: Competing with national brand names, such as Olga, Warner’s, Maidenform and Vanity Fair, that continue to be heavily promoted at department stores; contending with American brands that have a French-sounding name like Lily of France or mimic a Euro look with French lace and styling, and understanding the psyche of American women who have traditionally looked at intimates as a basic business.
Chantelle, a 53-year-old French foundations brand with estimated wholesale volume of $40 million worldwide, had been distributed in the U.S. market for 30 years. But consumers were barely familiar with the name until 10 years ago when the Paris-based company created its own U.S. subsidiary.
The U.S. unit posted a 10 percent wholesale volume increase in 2002 to $15 million, said Sonja Winther, managing director of Chantelle’s U.S. operation. Distribution is aimed at major department and specialty stores including Neiman’s, Saks and Bloomingdale’s.
“We entered the U.S. market slowly but surely,” said Winther. “Our product clearly had an audience. However, meeting our customers’ logistical requirements such as EDI and shipping requirements have undoubtedly been the most challenging aspects of the business. The biggest challenge is gaining the confidence of the retailers. It takes time and consistent performance.”
At a time when the retail environment is lackluster, Winther credits “good, old-fashioned product performance” as the main reason for the brand’s survival in a highly competitive market place. Suggested retail prices for bras are $50 to $98; coordinating panties are $22 to $42.
Winther said the firm will launch a $10 million ad campaign this spring in France and an expanded campaign in the U.S. for fall 2003.
However, Chantelle is not the firm’s only brand. Overall, three brands consisting of the Chantelle, Passionata and Darjeeling names generate total wholesale volume of $230 million. The Darjeeling label was created in 1996 for a chain of Darjeeling lingerie stores in France, which now total 700 units.
The Simone Pérèle bra label, created in 1948, had been distributed in the U.S. independently on a limited basis for more than a decade. But in an effort to expand distribution, a U.S. subsidiary was formed last June, and the relaunch of the brand was staged at the Lingerie Americas trade show in New York last August. U.S. sales are estimated to be close to $1 million.
Krista Tonra, general manager of Simone Pérèle USA, said the key strategy in growing awareness of the brand in the U.S. has been “partnering” with a major store such as Neiman’s, where Simone Pérèle’s bras currently are sold in six doors. Suggested retail prices average between $70 and $90. A full range of matching panties are $30 to $60.
“We have been unbelievably lucky during a time that is a lot tougher,” said Tonra. “We offer pretty colors and fashion basics at a certain price point. While our customer is sophisticated, consumers generally tend to be more conservative right now, and we fill a certain [price] niche very well compared to other brands whose bars retail as high as $300.”
Desiree Larson, vice president of sales for the 104-year-old Aubade brand, said, “The parent company felt so strong about the U.S business that they opened offices in the U.S. three years ago. From 2001 to 2002, we had a 17 percent sales increase.” Aubade’s wholesale sales total $40 million worldwide. The U.S. unit generates more than $5 million, according to industry estimates.