A Chinese woman walks past a Victoria's Secret store under construction in Wangfujing, Beijing.

SHANGHAI — Every year with its “What Is Sexy” list, underwear maker Victoria’s Secret has tallied up the celebrities, artists and influencers it finds most alluring. In 2017, actresses Priyanka Chopra, Margot Robbie and songstress Bebe Rexha were among those featured and deemed “bold, powerful, confident” by the brand.

This year, though, that question takes on extra weight as it heads to China for the first time to tape its fashion show on Monday, part and parcel of its strategy to open the Chinese market after rolling out its first full-apparel stores there in February.

To be sure, it’s not the only large international purveyor of underwear with China on its mind. Calzedonia Group is making inroads in the country, too, setting up its first China stores for its underwear brand Intimissimi in April. It now counts two stores in Shanghai. In October, the high-end Italian lingerie label La Perla devoted special attention to the Chinese customer, debuting its spring collection in Macau.

Looking at the data, it’s not hard to see why so much attention is shifting to the Chinese market. Data from consulting firm Oliver Wyman showed that the global lingerie market is valued at $35 billion, but growth in the sector is hard-won, forecasted to grow only 4 percent over the next four years.

Historically underpenetrated and only representing 20 percent of the pie now, Asia makes for the next logical frontier. Oliver Wyman expects the region to increase its share by 8 percent a year, but the reality of unlocking that potential is a little bit more complicated, said Oliver Wyman partner Jeremy Sporn.

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“Intimate apparel is very localized. The fit is localized, colors, technical patterns. There are very, very few global intimate apparel companies,” he said.

“At least in the U.S., Victoria’s Secret and intimate apparel particularly for younger consumers are synonymous. I think as they expand internationally, they are going to face a slightly different story. American perceptions of sexy and international perceptions of sexy will be different,” Sporn said.

That’s what Daini Xu, founder of the O2Bra app, a lingerie marketplace launched in 2014, has seen first-hand. “There’s a misunderstanding in China of the word ‘sexy’,” she said.

With a lingerie designer mother and a decade spent living in Canada, Xu grew up comfortable around the concept of intimates, but for most Chinese girls and women, Xu said, it’s part of an education and a “long and difficult process.”

“To the majority of Chinese girls, especially in second- or third-tier cities, when they hear the word ‘sexy,’ they get a bad meaning, like you are dressing to attract men and to be promiscuous. Chinese girls don’t aspire to be sexy, and 50 percent of the people we interviewed said they thought O2Bra stocked sexy lingerie,” she said.

She added, “Chinese people view lingerie as a really boring commodity, they once a year buy two or three bras and then they stuff them in the closet. Their moms keep telling them, ‘a bra is something you can wear for a long time, if it gets loose, you can just use the tighter hooks.’ That’s why Chinese brands have six or eight lines of hooks, because people just keep moving the hooks they use as the bras get stretched and loose.”

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Xu’s app has seen three million user downloads, but the percentage of women who have converted into customers is yet small, she said.

“Our offering has lots of lace, soft bras, loungewear and sports bras, they haven’t seen those things before and have never considered wearing those things before. They are still debating whether they want to try it,” Xu said.

“I think Heidi Klum [Intimates] has many basic styles that are very practical for daily-wear, but they are already very ‘sexy’ to Chinese women,” she said.

“Chinese don’t really like things that are too overt,” said Jennifer Zhang, a Shanghai-based associate editor at WGSN. “In traditional advertising, [scantily-clad images] aren’t allowed. If you use WeChat, it’s more lax but even that has some censorship.”

It’s something Victoria’s Secret has already encountered. A stylist told WWD earlier that the looks on the brand’s televised segments with Alibaba required prior approval from broadcast regulators and outfits were so covered up the core product was barely visible. The company has not responded to questions on how Chinese audiences will be able to view the upcoming show other than pirated live-streams. No deal with domestic Chinese stations has been revealed and seems unlikely. If aired, the amount of bare skin on display would mark a huge departure from usual television standards.

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Despite those headwinds, there is a nascent interest, which is youth-driven Zhang said. “I found that it is more for Gen Z. They are the ones that are open,” she said. “They really like to dress sexy with transparent details, lace, or straps.” 

Domestic mass brands like Gu Jin, Ting Mei and Eve’s Temptation are gaining traction, WGSN research showed, in addition to Aimer, which reaches into the range of 1,000 renminbi ($150) or more for a set. The affordable Japanese brand Peach John is another popular label.

Lingerie designer and Wuhan-native Meng Nali said that the boom in wellness and overall healthier living has played a large part in driving acceptance.

“Before people didn’t want to show their bodies, but now because they are doing more sports, they dare to show more,” Meng said.

When it comes to colors, red proves an enduring and popular choice, especially around the holiday season and Chinese New Year, Zhang said. It also gets a boost from a tradition of wearing red underwear during one’s zodiac year, which arrives every 12 years. Zodiac years are said to bring on challenges, and the red shade is meant to bring good luck. It’s not unheard of for someone to wear red underwear for the entirety of a zodiac year — at the ages of 24, 36, 48 and so on — although Zhang said it’s not a custom followed strictly any longer.

It’s something you’re told since you’re a child, but now the youth may not do that. It could also be a red item or accessory such as a bracelet; it doesn’t necessarily have to be red underwear,”  Zhang said.  

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Aside from calibrating for cultural mores, differences in physique are important to address, too.

Sophia Dumenil, cofounder of Paris-based consulting agency The Chinese Pulse, recently conducted focus groups with Chinese women aged 20 to 27 for a French lingerie client. She found that “the important question Chinese women will always ask is, ‘Does it fit my Asian body?’

“Which is why so many international brands are using Asian models, to reassure women that it will fit their Asian body and be suitable for them,” Dumenil said. “Before it was usually Western women seen in lingerie advertising, with a more strong and sexy attitude, but now more commonly brands like Oysho will have a Western and an Asian woman together to show that it works for both types of bodies. This is important for Chinese women to see themselves on the same level and able to wear their same products as Western women.

“There is a duality of Chinese women when it comes to lingerie,” she noted. “They really want to become more empowered and to be respected, more womanly, more independent. But there is another part that is looking to international trends, but they really need to be reassured about what they can wear and how they should wear it.”

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