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PARIS — France’s major annual fair for the innerwear segment, the Salon International de la Lingerie, has gone online only this year via the monthlong Lingerie Connect event.

Traditionally a calendar fixture held in late January each year, SIL and sister fabric event Interfilière gather several thousand visitors to Paris and are a crucial part of French lingerie brands’ sales campaigns for the coming winter season.

The monthlong online event — Lingerie Connect runs through Feb. 21, while Interfilière Connect’s dates are from Feb. 15 to 26 — will transition to encompass U.S.-centered Curve Connect from Feb. 16 to 22.

“We chose an extended time slot in order to allow the boutiques the time to connect. The brands have played along,” explained Eurovet lingerie and swim division director Taya de Reyniès.

“Our sales teams have said they like the platform,” said Simone Pérèle brand and product director Stéphanie Pérèle. “The four weeks are necessary so they can maintain all their appointments and presentations, it couldn’t have been done over just one weekend.”

The platform is designed like a matchmaking service where retailers can get in touch with brand representatives and book appointments to discover their collections in virtual meeting rooms. There is also a series of conferences on trends and economic indicators. The online event opened with a film from nonprofit Promincor — Lingerie Française featuring 10 French lingerie brands aiming to highlight the sector’s savoir-faire and scope.

While Stateside, the innerwear market is said to be booming as consumers staying at home seek out more casual and comfortable pieces like loungewear and athleisure, many of France’s lingerie players, with their focus on corsetry and fit more difficult to sell online, have struggled over the past year.

“The sanitary crisis started in an environment that wasn’t favorable for fashion spending in France,” said Gildas Minvielle, director of the Economic Observatory at the Institut Français de Mode, during an online conference on the platform. In 2020, however, “The lingerie market has done better than the average clothing market,” he noted. According to IFM data, women’s lingerie sales in France declined 14.9 percent in the 11 months to November, compared with an 18.7 percent drop for total textile and clothing sales. Players that have focused on comfort pieces, loungewear and athleisure have performed better than the market overall, observers say, notably due to the comparative ease of selling such products online.

“In Europe, we have seen purchasing patterns change slightly, the products that perform well online are hybrid products, inspired by sportswear, with simplified sizing,” Groupe Chantelle chief creative officer Renaud Cambuzat told WWD. In tandem, after a transition period, seductive designs also sold well last year, he said. “Initially, people wanted more comfort, but after a while, that changed, and people came back towards more sophisticated products.”

Online lingerie sales in France grew 26.6 percent in the 11 months to November, according to Minvielle. “We gained 10 years in terms of the evolution of the e-business,” Aubade’s brand and product director Samar Vignals told WWD. “Certain months last year, sales on our e-shop were multiplied by seven or eight,” said Stéphanie Pérèle.

The shift in European consumers’ habits is likely to be long-term, according to observers. “In the initial stages, customers were less looking for outerwear, they were staying at home so they were looking for comfort,” said Vignals. “They were reluctant to buy lingerie because of the sizing, but now, customers know that if they have a problem they can ship back.”

“On the U.S. market, comfort has been a priority for a lot longer. Linked to that, the offer is simpler, which makes it easier to buy online. In Europe, that was less the case,” said Cambuzat.

Within France, the context has also favored independent stores in smaller towns and discount chain retailers, whereas department stores suffered from the absence of international tourists, observers said.

On a business-to-business level, France’s lingerie leaders have worked to create their own commercial platforms over the past year, providing a combination of online meetings with retailers and video content highlighting fit, for example, in order to bypass the need for physical meetings.

“We adapted the way we were selling our products, by bringing the digital experience not only to our own stores, but to our business-to-business customers,” said Groupe Chantelle executive vice president of e-commerce and export Emilie Ribereau-Gayon in a webinar. “We are not digital native brands, but we have this fitting expertise digital native brands don’t have.”

For smaller brands and retailers with less of a digital presence, the online trade show format is seen as relevant in allowing them to connect more easily with new buyers, particularly thanks to the transatlantic approach. “The virtual show allows us to connect with buyers everywhere in the world,” commented Jina Luciani, founder of Occidente, a producer of European organic cotton and silk loungewear and lingerie based in the South of France. Operating on a no-stock model with designs made to order, the brand is carried at Galeries Lafayette and Le Bon Marché in Paris.

The trend for more comfortable, easy-to-wear designs has been ongoing for exhibitors at SIL for a couple of years, and several major players have introduced collections in response. Empreinte, which specializes in molded corsetry, is seeing strong demand for its recently introduced activewear line, while Simone Pérèle advanced the launch of its own sportswear line Harmony last year, and it is performing well, according to Stéphanie Pérèle. The brand is also rolling out a lounge and homeware line this year.

Comfort will continue to be an area of focus in the year ahead, and in tandem, sustainability is a growing preoccupation. During their The Selection conference, Eurovet trend forecaster Vanessa Causse and Lingerie Connect communication director Cécile Vivier-Guerin highlighted a shift toward natural fabrics and dyes as consumers become more and more attentive to product composition. Brands including Sans Complexe and Lou are introducing 100 percent cotton lines in response to such trends, they said.

Sustainability remains a particular challenge in the lingerie industry, given the number of components involved in making a bra and the predominance of synthetic fabrics.

Among key developments, Chantelle is introducing Chantelle One, which it claims is the world’s first fully recyclable bra, made with an exclusively developed fabric that replaces elastane and can be broken down and used again. The consumer is asked to return the product to one of the brand’s stores so that it can be recycled, and a subscription model is available. The soft launch is set for this March, with expansion planned in stages as the brand puts in place a circular ecosystem with external retailers.

Aubade, meanwhile, is introducing recycled fibers to its collection for fall.

Brands said that, overall, retailers are playing it safe with their purchasing for next winter. “People have gone back to more classic codes when it comes to image,” said Cambuzat.

“Our customers want to focus on the pillars, the things they know will sell,” said Empreinte vice president of sales, marketing and design Magalie Le Banner. “That doesn’t stop us from offering something new, but that will be mainly in terms of colors, because our customers really want to minimize risks on stock.”

On the business front, uncertainty remains. Many firms have solicited government loans to stay afloat, and are reining in their investments. “We have a timid approach to 2021,” said Pérèle. “We are remaining as flexible as possible, but we are not making any major investments or introducing big new developments.”

While the company has managed to keep its production sites in Tunisia and Madagascar open over the past year, said Pérèle, “What is complicated is the delivery of raw materials. The cost of transport has skyrocketed for everyone.”

“The sourcing and development of our raw materials is really slow, because everyone has rationalized their production,” said Le Banner.

“We have a lot of concerns for 2021,” she continued. “When the first lockdown hit in March of last year, we had already delivered the summer collection and we had orders for winter. This year, we have only delivered a very small part of our summer collection, and most retailers are not taking deliveries. Our winter sales campaign has only just started. We weren’t anticipating a worse year than 2020, but at this point, we believe that may be the case.”

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