BREAKING INTO THE AMERICAN BOUDOIR
Byline: Karyn Monget
NEW YORK — Breaking into the U.S. market hasn’t exactly been a picnic for French lingerie vendors.
Over the past decade, French labels, especially in foundations, have slowly gained entry to major specialty and department stores.
A major hurdle at department store channels in particular has been the day-in, day-out promotions of American national bra brands such as the dizzying number of “Buy One, Get One Free” sales. That commercial tactic, a key marketing tool in the early and mid-Nineties, thwarted the acceptance of French intimate apparel, which generally is expensive, highly detailed, sexy and fashion-forward — not a meat-and-potatoes line of business.
For the past 20 years or so, French resources have generally relied on limited distribution to specialty lingerie boutiques in the U.S. French manufacturers and merchants continue to employ this approach at regional lingerie and swimwear boutiques in towns and villages throughout France.
The exception is found in French department stores like Galleries Lafayette, Printemps and Le Bon Marche, and discounters such as Monoprix, that either merchandise private label goods under names like Miss Helene, or power brands including DIM and Playtex. Spurred by the hype and multimillion-dollar marketing machines of huge specialty chains in the U.S., like Victoria’s Secret, the demand for dual-purpose items as well as fashion merchandise has become increasingly important in the U.S. lingerie arena.
A majority of American women still wear basic cotton underwear, but the exposure of lingerie looks on ready-to-wear runways and fashion lingerie ads in glossy magazines have given intimate apparel an aspirational cachet: Women want to look and feel beautiful under their clothes.
While French intimates aren’t the only outside players looking for action — Italian and Canadian brands are making their pitches — retailers at major stores said the acceptance of French-made lingerie hasn’t happened overnight. But they acknowledge that more American woman who have a taste for upscale rtw and sportswear are buying French bras and panties as well as related daywear and swimwear.
Compared to the suggested retail prices of mainstream American bras, which average from $20 to $40, French bras often list at $65 and $80 and some go as high as $100.
Key French resources in the U.S. market include Chantelle, Aubade, Eres, Lise Charmel, Princess Tam Tam and Lejaby, which is owned by The Warnaco Group. Chantal Thomass, which is part of Sara Lee Corp.’s European portfolio, is beginning to make forays into the U.S. The Bestform division of VF Corp. has three French labels: Bolero, Gemma and Lou, whose distribution for the past several years has been limited to smaller specialty shops.
A spokeswoman for Princess Tam Tam in Paris confirmed reports that NAP Inc., a U.S. maker of branded and private label sleepwear, robes and bras, will become Princess Tam Tam’s “new distribution agent” in the U.S.
Reached at the NAP offices here, Victor Lee, chief financial officer, would not elaborate.
Meanwhile, Renata Amann, a sales representative here, said she’s been “approached” by Vannina Vesperini, an upscale French sleepwear label, to be represented and marketed in the U.S. for the first time. Officials at the Paris-based Vesperini firm could not be reached.
From a retailer’s point of view, Barbara Lipton, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of intimate apparel at Saks Fifth Avenue, said, “We’ve had a very good year in foundations and will be making plans. One of the major growing trends is within the French resources, specifically the Chantelle, Lejaby and Aubade brands, which have been very strong for us. The Saks Fifth Avenue customer is buying French brands because they offer quality, luxury laces and excellent fit.”
Lipton noted that Saks began selling the Chantal Thomass foundations label from France in the middle of last year, and said, “It’s doing very nicely.”
“We featured Chantal Thomass in our fall 2000 mailer and spring 2000 intimate apparel book, which featured a section for French lingerie,” said Lipton. “We also love Princess Tam Tam, because it’s young and contemporary and has lots of potential in the U.S.”
Lipton added that a second “French promotion” will be expanded in April to 20 Saks units. Last year, the event was staged at 11 doors, with French champagne, chocolates, music and informal modeling.
Describing the classification of French lingerie, Lipton said: “It’s been a learning process for the customer and an educational process for us. French lingerie has always held a mystique to American women, with its quality and beautiful laces. As it comes out of the closet, American women have become more receptive to beautiful lingerie.”
Amy O’Connor, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of intimate apparel at Neiman Marcus, noted: “We think the French market is very talented. Chantelle is our top performer and a major force within our foundations business. It offers all of the luxury and quality the Neiman Marcus customer comes to the store for.
“Lise Charmel is the La Perla of France with its Guipure laces. It’s romantic, soft and feminine looking, and they put a lot of detail into the finished product.”
Regarding expansion of Neiman’s French lingerie arsenal, O’Connor said: “We are always looking for new resources and ideas. We feel we want to maximize [existing] resources because we’ve had success, and we’ve put the money that way. The classification has huge growth potential.”
Donna Wolff, divisional merchandise manager of intimate apparel at Bloomingdale’s, said that “both Chantelle and Lejaby are doing very well for us. These are two brands we are going after and have expanded presentations.
“These are not cheap brands and our customer is embracing these products based on fit, quality and styling. The combination of the value of the product and fashion is selling very well,” continued Wolff. The Chantelle and Lejaby bra brands each retail at a suggested $65 to $80 at Bloomingdale’s.
Wolff further noted that Bloomingdale’s “plans to test other [French] vendors,” but would not elaborate.
Wendy Hoyt, intimate apparel buyer at Bergdorf Goodman, said the three top-selling European foundations brands are French-made Chantelle, England’s Rigby & Peller and the luxury Italian brand La Perla. The full-figure bra classification is “extremely important,” she said.
“Eres has also been fabulous for us,” Hoyt said. “Fashion looks for fall have done very well, and we’ve just received the tulle group for spring. We just moved the Eres swimwear department next door to Eres intimates and the Eres customer is relating to it. I also think the new Eres store on Madison Avenue has increased awareness of the brand.
“We also do a great business with Lise Charmel. They do beautiful fashion collections. We had great response to an ad we ran in the New York Times in December.”
She further noted that a high-ticket French sleepwear label that specializes in silk and lace called Sophie Waree will be showcased at Bergdorf’s for spring.
From a French manufacturer’s perspective, Sonja Winther, managing director of Chantelle Lingerie in the U.S., said, “Chantelle has had a long and steady commitment to the U.S. market. We started selling via an agent 30 years ago. Then, in 1994, we set up a wholly owned subsidiary in New York to better service the growing U.S. business.
“It took a lot of perseverance, but today we are present in over 500 stores [doors]. The biggest challenges have been on the operational side — timely delivery, EDI [Electronic Data Interchange] compliance and shipping requirements. U.S. department stores are very demanding and we’re able to meet their requirements.”
Assessing the American reaction to French product, Winther said it “usually is seen as fringe in that it’s mostly made up of fashion styles, and colors and sizing is limited. Chantelle, however, is not like this. We have a diverse product offering with sizes up to a 44G cup.”
Privately owned Chantelle, based since 1876 in the champagne mecca of France, Epernay, generates yearly wholesale sales of slightly more than $100 million worldwide, she said.
Stephane Pasquier, president and chief executive officer of family-owned Aubade, a 100-year-old intimate apparel company with annual wholesale sales of $50 million worldwide, said Saks and Nordstrom “account for 55 percent of our [U.S.] business.”
He said overseas sales — including the U.S. — comprise 45 percent of the company’s overall business, with 55 percent conducted in France.
The Aubade label had been in the U.S. through a distributorship for 11 years. In March 2000, the company created its own U.S. operation. The parent company has headquarters in Paris and manufacturing plants are located in Poitiers, France.
Regarding acceptance of French intimates brands in the U.S., Pasquier was not as enthusiastic as his counterparts or American retailers, saying access to American retailers and consumers “has been difficult.”
“American women are not used to spending a lot of money on intimate apparel,” Pasquier said. “They spend it on their appearance, on clothes, accessories and shoes. Our entry price [at retail] is $69 for a bra. Lace bras are rendered exclusively in Calais lace and retail for $98. A set with a lace bikini goes for $150.”
Alain Kowalik, marketing director for Eres, which is a part of the Chanel empire, noted: “Eres has been sold in the U.S. for the past 10 years, mainly swimwear. But our business has gained a tremendous amount of exposure over the past three years.”
Chanel acquired the luxury Eres swimwear and intimate apparel label in 1997. The intimates collection of bras and coordinating panties was introduced in fall 1998. In October 1999, the company opened its first U.S. boutique in Palm Beach, Fla., followed by its first New York unit in December. Its fourth Paris shop was opened last fall. Future plans include opening Eres stores in Bal Harbour, Fla., and Las Vegas, possibly in 2002.
As for the success of Eres products in the U.S., Kowalik observed: “It’s been accepted. There is a notion of what luxury is in the U.S., which often is compared with Italian luxury goods. But of course, it’s not for the majority of American women.”