THE LURE OF LICENSING
Byline: Robert Murphy / With contributions from Karyn Monget, New York / Alessandra Ilari, Milan
PARIS — Designers and prestige fashion firms have been flocking to lingerie at an increasingly steady pace.
Recent years have seen newcomers such as Prada, Givenchy and Cerruti launch lingerie or foundation collections, joining the ranks alongside more established designer labels such as Calvin Klein and Christian Dior.
Since lingerie, and foundations in particular, require highly technical product development and manufacturing, many designer firms opt for licensing deals with innerwear makers who have the know-how to make the goods.
Many issues challenge this segment of the lingerie market. For one, it’s not always clear what the customer wants: Does she want a designer label or is it that a designer lingerie line is coming up with the styling that suits her fancy?
Then there is the issue of quality, with companies having to make sure their licenses live up to the quality standards of the collections. Finally, perhaps the most difficult issue is insuring that the designer lingerie is identifiable and coherent with the designer fashion label and image.
“Women want an image. When a designer, an image and a marketing apparatus are speaking the same language, a house will create a powerful machine,” said Jos Berry, a consultant with Paris-based Concepts. “But when there’s a hiatus between what the designer is doing and the lingerie, both lines will suffer.”
Some retailers contend that designer lingerie often diverges from ready-to-wear in style and image, to the detriment of both the product performance lingerie and the label, whose identity is weakened by two differently styled products under the same brand name.
“More often than not, there’s a real problem where designer lingerie is concerned,” said Cristianne Barbier, head lingerie buyer at the upscale Le Bon Marche specialty store here. “Customers are often disappointed because they can’t identify with the product — it doesn’t correspond to what they expect from the brand.”
Barbier explained that as more companies launch lingerie labels, women have become more exacting because the choice has become so vast.
“When a woman buys designer lingerie, she’s not just after style or fit,” Barbier said. “She’s essentially buying the brand and is willing to pay extra for the label. But when it doesn’t have the same image as the designer’s fashion apparel, the customer is not duped.”
Among designer lingerie stocked by Le Bon Marche is Kenzo, Christian Dior, Prada and Calvin Klein, all of whom Barbier feels have done a good job in unifying the look of their lingerie with their rtw.
Retailer Paola Fasciolo, who owns the high-end lingerie boutique Valentina in Milan, contends that her clients aren’t looking for a designer name at all.
“They’re looking for quality fabric and the right fit or a certain color or look,” stated Fasciolo, whose shop carries brands including Christian Dior, La Perla, Wolford and Eres. “I don’t think any customers expect the styling of a designer’s line to resemble his or her collection.”
Don’t tell that to newcomer Givenchy, which launched a foundations collection last July under license with Paris-based Societe Industriel de la Lingerie. The collection is distributed in Europe and Taiwan and there are plans to expand sales to the U.S. and Japan. Givenchy has had a nightwear license for several years to France’s J.C. Brault.
House president Marianne Tesler said there are regular meetings between the Givenchy apparel studio and Societe’s designers and product managers to assure the innerwear projects the Givenchy name.
“Coherence in image is something we are striving for in all of our license partnerships,” said Givenchy president Marianne Tesler. “SIL in lingerie manages a product category that we are incapable of producing: foundations.”
Tesler added that fit in Givenchy lingerie is of utmost importance, since, “Givenchy is, after all, renown for its tailoring.”
Fit is a thorny issue for designer innerwear and consumers are not looking to designers necessarily for functionality.
“As a rule, designers aren’t underwear experts, so when you really need to buy the bra that’s going to work under a tricky or complicated dress, you’re going to turn to a company that specializes in making that bra,” said Fasciolo of Valentina, which carries labels including Christian Dior, La Perla, Wolford and Eres.
But other observers note that categorically, designers have not scored points for fit on their lingerie as a whole.
“Although traditional bodywear manufacturers often complain that designer lingerie is not up to snuff in terms of fit — and often they’re right — the recent emergence of designer lingerie has brought something very important to the market because the product is different and has broken many rules of the industry,” Berry said.
One of Italy’s most recent lingerie offerings come from Alessandro Dell’Acqua, who launched his collection four seasons ago under license with Le Bonitas, which also produces lingerie for Dolce & Gabbana and Blumarine. Known for his sizzling, sexy looks, Dell’Acqua said he tries to avoid stylistic gaps between his lingerie and rtw lines by employing similar techniques for both collections.
“For example, I use the same fabrics in both: silk, chiffon and satin, cotton jersey and even a fine cashmere knit,” explained Dell’Acqua. “I have a great producer because they understand exactly what I want when it comes to fabrics and design.”
To assure his licensed product transmits what he has in mind, Dell’Acqua maintains almost daily contact with Le Bonitas and holds in-depth meetings three times per season. Le Bonitas co-owner Betty Balli Muratori also emphasized the importance of a close collaboration.
“For our designers, lingerie isn’t an accessory but a complement to the rtw collections,” said Muratori. “That said, our job is to make his [Dell’Acqua’s] ideas work on a practical level.”
Moschino produces its lingerie line under license with Unionseta, based in Como, and executives describe the production as an “absolute joint venture.”
“We work very closely with Moschino’s design team because they supply us with sketches, color charts and fabrics,” explained Dario Pulici, owner of Unionseta.
“Our job is to translate what comes from Moschino’s design studio into wearable and comfortable underwear,” he said. “We mustn’t forget that a bra is made with an average of 23 small pieces that need to fit women with different body structures.”
Rossella Jardini, head designer at Moschino, realizes that the process is highly specialized and complicated.
“There are a lot of technical aspects involved in the production of a lingerie collection,” said Jardini. “To do it seriously and professionally is very difficult because it involves special fabrics.”
“Underwear is fashion,” stressed Gianfranco Ferre, whose lingerie is produced under license by Trademar. “And, as in fashion, cutting-edge proposals can coexist with more classic ones that satisfy timeless needs: practicality, freedom, easy care and easy wear.”
Ferre said that guideline led to the creation of the ultra-feminine, fashion-oriented Gianfranco Ferre Lingerie line and the more basic Gianfranco Ferre Women’s Underwear offering, which emphasizes comfort.
Ferre said by finding the right partner a fashion house can get the best in know-how and style.
“The necessary condition [of a lingerie offering] is that it be in line with the image, style level and originality of the rtw,” he said.
It’s not just European manufacturers who agree with that concept.
“We work very closely with the Donna Karan company,” said Norma Flanagan, vice president of merchandising and design for the licensed Donna Karan and DKNY intimates at Wacoal America. “Contractually, you have to work closely because it’s a brand-ID-driven business. None of the designer companies want their licensees to stray too far from the look they want.
“We have a calendar set up that dictates what dates we need to work out concepts, color direction and fabrications. This is all progressive, taking info and working it on up, but you have to give everybody time to work on everything.”
Consultant Berry noted that often European designers tend to have image-driven niche lingerie collections, while some of their American counterparts have more marketing-driven lines. The American makers don’t completely disagree.
“While we certainly hope to capture market share from our U.S. designer competition, I perceive the Ralph Lauren brand as appealing to a broader range of consumers than the competitive designer brands, most of which appear to have a more narrow positioning,” said Charles L. Nesbit, the president and ceo of Sara Lee Intimate Apparel.
He noted, however, that more designers are entering this high-end segment of the market and questions just how much purchasing power is out there for the designer goods.
“While I expect the prestige segment to grow, there may be a shakeout if sales of all designer brands do not grow to a level high enough to support space allocated to premium products,” Nesbit said. “Fortunately, in Ralph Lauren, we have a premier and growing brand franchise that is proven to stand the test of time.”
But the market for designer lingerie is definitely there, executives concur.
“Women want individualized style that is linked to their emotions of being sexy and confident,” said consultant Berry. “Because designers are challenging the market, lingerie now is more than just a white, black or pink bra and panty set.”