Sexy Feast

When it opened its sprawling 7,000-square-foot floor dedicated exclusively to lingerie last November, New York’s Henri Bendel seemed to be going out on a limb. Sure, lingerie was the number-one request by customers, according to Michael McCadden, president and chief executive officer. But industry critics were skeptical there was enough demand—especially for fashion items and new designer collections. And the provocative environment raised some eyebrows. Ensconced in a seven-room maze populated with S&M-inspired masked mannequins, the department features chocolates, sex toys (under Bendel’s Objets d’Amour trademark), books such as Sex and the Single Girl and raw videos including Last Tango in Paris.

But the gamble has apparently paid off.

Tirel Turner, director of marketing, calls La Lingerie “one of the most popular departments at Bendel’s.” She notes that several marketing initiatives brought new customers as well as Bendel’s regulars. “We crafted the launch around special events and created a lot of buzz and word of mouth versus a big ad campaign,” she explains. “We’re trying to keep this very intimate and for people in the know. I won’t say it wasn’t a challenge to launch in November going into the holiday season, but business is on plan and sales have been consistently increasing.”

The real milestone, Turner adds, was Valentine’s Day. “It all came together, and we exceeded expectations,” she says. “We see a lot of men on the floor—more so than any other floor. They appreciate the high level of service. It’s become a destination.” Indeed, Bendel’s invited groups of men from companies such as Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs to lingerie-buying parties to help demystify the gift-buying process.

The store has also held parties for women’s networking groups and charities, in addition to designer trunk shows. It has even worked with brides-to-be to create customized showers in the main room at the center of the floor, a fantasy disco with a stage. One shower was for actress Stephanie March (of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”) and her fiancé, chef Bobby Flay. “We’ve noticed a trend with women having lingerie bridal showers,” says Turner. “There’s a lot of opportunity not just for the wedding but for the honeymoon, too.”Additional draws to increase multiple sales include three makeup-artist stations by Tart and Bendel’s first-ever bridal registry opened this month, which is housed exclusively in the lingerie department. The registry includes gifts from the accessories, cosmetics, lingerie and bath and beauty areas.

Two in-store shops, opened in February on the lingerie floor, have also been successful. A combination lingerie-jeans area merchandised (under Bendel’s La Lingerie mantra) features Bendel’s private-label silk camis with jeans by True Religion and Rock & Republic, while a Rykiel Woman environment is stocked with items ranging from pashmina robes to vibrators shaped like a lipstick, a makeup brush and a rubber ducky.

“The concept shop for denim and camis was inspired by the ‘Desperate Housewives’ trend,” Turner says. “This is how we see our customers wearing a lot of pieces; that’s the excitement we see in lingerie.”

Sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer had another kind of excitement in mind when she dropped by asking to see Rykiel’s assortment of vibrators—and at the same time, do a bit of research for her own line of devices. “For instance,” she says, “has anyone asked what happens to these things at airports? Do they take it away from you?” — Karyn Monget 

Bridal Belles

Cassandra Kelley has progressed from accounting to figures of another sort.

The co-founder of 2Belles New York started her career far from the world of girly lingerie—as a tax and auditing consultant for large firms such as Deloitte Touche and PricewaterhouseCooper. But she decided to ditch the numbers racket and seek fulfillment elsewhere. “I knew if I did well with something I really hated, I could do extremely well with something I loved.”

She figured she’d find it in underwear, but first needed a little education. Kelley took a “huge” pay cut in 2000 to learn the apparel trade first at Ann Taylor and later in the bridal division of Carolina Herrera.

Two years later, she and fellow Texan Deborah Jones decided to open an intimates house when they uncovered what they felt was a gap in the bridal market. “We saw a lot of very expensive camis and tanks,” she recalls. “But nothing had the quality and workmanship we wanted.”Their solution is a line of T-shirts, tanks, panties, unconstructed daywear bras, retro gym shorts and miniskirts rendered in solid white, black and pink cotton knit. Embellishments include signature tie-straps in polkadot silk satin or grosgrain ribbon as well as butterfly motifs and phrases like “The Mrs.” spelled out in Swarovski crystals or embroidery. Wholesale prices range from $13 for the simplest panties up to $52 for more elaborate camis, and the line is available at more than 200 specialty stores including Henri Bendel and Takashimaya in New York. — K.M.

Peek-a-Boudoir

Entering Sleep, an innerwear and bedding boutique in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, N.Y., is like stepping into an intimate boudoir, with antique frames and books, a vintage vanity and matching tchotchkes lining the shelves. “The idea was to have a store set up like a bedroom and having everything in that environment be for sale, including the bedding, bedside items and lingerie,” says Hannah Curtin, who with Amanda Grogan, opened the store in January. To that end, the merchandise includes intimates from Eberjey, Leigh Bantivoglio, Cosabella and Anna Sui, among others, as well as bath and body line Mor Cosmetics and bedding from Area and Kerry Cassill.

But what Grogan and Curtin sell, in the end, is the sweetness and romanticism of boudoirs past—and just a hint of naughtiness. The dressing room’s door, for instance, is perforated with strategically placed holes the customer can manipulate for her very own peep show. — Venessa Lau

Off the Racks

It’s tanga time, according to spring sales, which crown the sexy thong as a popular must-have. Here, a list of other bestsellers from retailers across the nation:

  • Araks’ lace-trimmed underwire bra, $110, and matching low-rise hipster $65, at Barneys New York, New York and Beverly Hills.
  • Fantasie’s microfiber underwire bra, $48, at Bergdorf Goodman, New York.
  • Eres’ nylon and spandex bra and panty set, $400, at Eres nationwide.
  • Gap Body’s lace tanga panty, $14.50, at Gap Body nationwide.
  • I.D. Sarrieri’s black lace bustier, $1,518, at Henri Bendel, New York.
  • Delicates’ cotton and nylon bra, $25, at JC Penney nationwide.
  • Joe Boxer’s cotton Lycra panties, four for $12, at Kmart nationwide.
  • La Perla’s lace G-string, $104, at La Perla nationwide.
  • Underglam’s cotton-polyester blend thong, $25, at La Petite Coquette, New York.
  • Cosabella’s lace camisole, $94, and matching boy short, $68, at Lingerie on Lex, New York.
  • Chantelle’s T-shirt bra, $59-$65, at Lingerie Studio, Boston.
  • Calvin Klein’s cotton seamless low-rise hipsters, $18, at Macy’s nationwide.
  • Cosabella’s nylon thong, $17, at Neiman Marcus nationwide.
  • Ying Li’s tie-dye hand-painted silk cami, $160, at select Saks Fifth Avenue stores.
  • Le Mystère’s T-shirt bra, $58, at Top Drawer Lingerie, Houston.
  • Hanky Panky’s stretch lace thong, $17, at Trousseau, Memphis.
Wicked GoodIt’s okay to be naughty—but keep it glam.

That’s how Nathalie Rykiel describes the spirit she wanted to capture in the new Sonia Rykiel lingerie line, launched in the company’s boutiques in France last December.

Rykiel, the designer’s daughter and the family-owned house’s creative director, says lingerie takes the company into uncharted waters. “When mother started designing in the late Sixties, it was shocking not to wear lingerie,” she says. “She told women to take off their bras under her tight little poor-boy sweaters. It was a very scandalous thing then.”

Rykiel now believes it’s equally feisty to wear—and show—a little lingerie. “Lingerie has become an attitude,” she notes. “In the 1970s, it was a real constraint, something that you had to wear. Mother’s story was always to free women from constraints and to make them comfortable. Women today know how to use lingerie as an instrument of seduction.”

For spring, the line, produced under license with France’s Scandale, is being rolled out into European stores and Rykiel boutiques around the world. New York’s Henri Bendel, which recently opened a Rykiel lingerie shop-in-shop, is the exclusive U.S. retail outlet. Rykiel compares the line to swimwear in that it is “almost not like lingerie, but something based on comfort. That’s what makes it Rykiel. It’s meant for an active woman.” Looks range from lace-trimmed bras to more cheeky rhinestone-encrusted panties and colorful striped bra and panty sets. Prices at retail run from about $65 for a microfiber panty to $280 for a lace bodysuit. — Robert Murphy

Smooth Operator

As sexy as they are, those tight baby Ts and shrunken sweaters are the bane of many women’s lives, revealing some things they’d rather leave hidden.

Enter Amanda Kennedy, who thinks that bras should serve the same function as control-top pantyhose: smoothing out lines under clingy clothes and providing a totally seamless look. “I felt that the traditional bra gives most women back bulge, and the appearance of fat even if they are not fat. It’s not an appealing look,” Kennedy explains.She founded her company, Sassybax, out of her own frustration, initially making herself a tank-top-style bra from a pair of control-top pantyhose.

“I thought, This is a start; this could be something,” she says, noting that with just that one prototype she found a manufacturer and, nine months later, created what she describes as “a seamless, hardware-less, supportive, smooth-finishing, basically invisible bra.”

Just over a year later, the one-woman operation has grown into its own offices in Marina Del Rey, Calif., with four employees, five sales reps and a client list of some 400 specialty stores around the country. By the end of this year, she is hoping to have quadrupled sales over 2004.

Her flagship product, the Torso Trim, is designed to slim the chest-to-midriff area by extending down to the hipbone. She also offers a shorter, bralette version, a racer-back, underwire styles and something called the Sassymax, an augmentation bra with what Kennedy calls “soufflé technology: inserts made using light, whipped, airy silicone” to add a cup size. Fall colors emphasize berry and dark-green shades. The line, made entirely from Lycra spandex microfiber, now includes 10 models wholesaling for $23 to $30. Kennedy points out that some components, like the Torso Trim, could be worn on their own as camisoles, or under sheer tops or ponchos.

If Kennedy appears to be an instant success, it’s only by dint of extraordinary perseverance. Once a busy television actress (with roles in shows such as “Remington Steele” and “Cheers”) and later a psychotherapist, Kennedy underwent two brain surgeries in 2001 that forced her to stop working. Add to that the stock market plunge of 2000 that wiped out her nest egg and, she says, “failure was not an option. I needed something that was going to be lucrative.” — Kavita Daswani

Cotton Pickin’

Cotton, once the choice of practical girls everywhere, is developing a reputation for naughty behavior.

Loungewear Betty owner Monni McCleary incorporates cotton into her pinup-style line, while Nilea Alexander adorns bustiers with cotton ribbons and bows for Nilea P. And Agent Provocateur’s Serena Rees will introduce cotton corsets trimmed in satin and leather for fall. “There was a girly innocence in using cotton on corsets that I was really attracted to,” she says.“I feel that people are realizing that cotton doesn’t have to be basic,” notes Helena Stuart, owner of Only Hearts, who has recently started offering lace-trimmed cotton camis and panties. Even staid Hanro is offering corset-like camisoles in cotton and Lycra spandex in its new Sophia collection.

“Consumers want natural fibers against their skin,” says Linda DeFranco, women’s wear trend forecaster at Cotton Incorporated. “And what gets closer to your skin than lingerie?”  —Daniela Gilbert

Pamela Uncovered

Pamela Anderson says she’s always had a thing for lingerie, and now she can prove it. Last August, she launched Pamela Anderson Intimates with Vandale Industries. WWD caught up with the TV-beach-babe-turned-apparel-entrepreneur while she was at the WWDMAGIC show in Las Vegas last February, showing off her lingerie, jeans and accessories lines and autographing copies of her novelette, Star.

WWD: What’s is your second lingerie collection like?

P.A.: It’s all about sexy little bras, panties and boy shorts, pieces you can wear under T-shirts. I’m calling it Hot, Sexy Bitch.

WWD: Is that the image your customer wants?

P.A.: I think any girl would like to be a hot, sexy bitch—you know, a little rock ’n’ roll. I’ve given names to different groups, like Bad Girl, Walk of Shame and Piece of Work.

WWD: What lingerie are you wearing right now?

P.A.: A G-string under my jeans, but no bra right now. I don’t like underwire bras. I wear little daywear bras because they’re comfortable.

WWD: Do you wear thongs?

P.A.: I wear thongs but I also like to wear shorts under baggy jeans and Brazilian-style panties that don’t cut into you. A lot of thongs are cut wrong: They’re cut too low in the front and too high in the back, and it makes your body look square.WWD: What is your favorite lingerie item and your fondest memory while wearing it?

P.A.: Hmmm...my happiest moment in lingerie....Well, I’ve had a lot of happy moments. I don’t know if I should be thinking these things right now. I’m surrounded by all of these people! But I would say my favorite item is a stripper boy short—you know, something sexy to wear under a big sweater watching a movie.

WWD: What is the biggest lingerie faux pas a woman can make?

P.A.: I don’t like to see lingerie under clothes—maybe just a peek at a bra strap. It should always be a surprise. You don’t want the whole world to see it.

WWD: Do you have any special plans tonight?

P.A.: Well, this is Las Vegas. I’ve only been to one fashion show in my life, a long time ago in Paris. I’m putting on a show tonight. It’s going to be like a fashion show with a lot of friends and celebrities wearing sunglasses, big sweaters, G-strings and sexy big boots. But it’s going to be an amateur show—like amateur porn. — Karyn Monget

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