Byline: Holly Haber

For Basics Underneath, the lingerie business is a tale of two cities. The New Orleans retailer caters to two distinct clientele at opposite ends of the Big Easy, serving the city’s residents at its boutique in the gentrified Uptown district as well as visitors seeking fantasy garb or a sexy gift at a second location on Royal Street in the touristy French Quarter.
“We sell basics Uptown and fashion downtown,” said Juliet Holton, who owns the store with her partner, Desiree Petitbon. “In Uptown, people want nude, smooth seamless bras to wear under clothes. Downtown, they are on vacation and come in to buy something for a fun night to feel sexy running around New Orleans with their husband or boyfriend.”
“We have men on business trips come in, and they always want a black teddy,” Petitbon added. “That’s what they think is lingerie. We can’t give teddies or bodysuits away Uptown, but downtown people always want that.”
Holton and Petitbon, who are also partners in a graphic design business, started the lingerie store as a fun enterprise almost three years ago with a 700-square-foot, two-story nook just off busy Magazine Street in Uptown. The boutique prospered by carrying brands that were not available in the city, which inspired them to open a 1,200-square-foot store in the French Quarter last December.
The two stores will do about $400,000 in combined sales this year, with the Uptown store accounting for the bulk of business.
Top performers at both stores are Cosabella’s mesh, lace and microfiber camisoles, bras and thongs in a variety of colors and prints. Eberjay excels with lace-trimmed mesh boy shorts, thongs, bras, camisoles and chemises in whimsical prints, like lipsticks or a Sixties-style multicolored swirl.
“We’ve been looking everywhere for prints, and print mesh is the best of both worlds,” Petitbon said.
Also strong are On Gossamer’s mesh thongs accented with sequins, seamless panties and “trainer thongs,” a style designed to ease reluctant women into wearing the string panties.
“Sometimes, we’ll just give them a trainer thong and say, ‘Try it,’ knowing they will come back,” said Amanda Albert, who manages and buys for both stores.
Basics Underneath’s staple bra line is Wacoal, but the store also sells lots of bras by Gemma, Le Mystere, Aubade, Rigby & Peller, Fantasie and Freya.
“We still have a customer [Uptown] who comes in saying they need a white bra, not realizing it is probably the most noticeable under a white shirt,” Holton said. “Then we have to pull out a nude bra under a white T-shirt and show them the difference. The same person buys a white bra in the summer. We sell a lot more black in the winter, and the French Quarter sells mostly black and hardly any white.”
In the French Quarter store, marabou-trimmed silk charmeuse bras and thongs in bright colors by Magic Silk and Mary Green are bestsellers, as well as panties embroidered with the days of the week.
“Our biggest challenge is finding out what travelers and tourists want,” Holton noted. “They want New Orleans fantasy lingerie to go along with their vision of the French Quarter. It may change next year. You never know.”
Since Holton and Petitbon are graphic designers, they are adept at creating marketing materials that reflect the vivacious culture of their city. This past summer, they produced 5,000 heart-shaped fans printed with a tightly cropped color photo of ample cleavage nestled in a black bra embroidered with blue and pink flowers. That, of course, gets handed out in the French Quarter.
The duo also printed coupons, offering $10 off on a $50 purchase, that resemble oversized dollar bills and are inscribed with “IN LINGERIE WE TRUST.” The store distributes them to other merchants and hotel concierges.
The marketing efforts have helped the Uptown store eke out a 3.7 percent gain this year despite the poor economic climate.
“I wish it was a better year for retail, but we’ve been trying to buy in accordance with the economy, still bringing in fresh new items, but not in the abundance as when we first opened,” Petitbon noted.
“We have less parameters to make a mistake, so we are buying smarter. We won’t go out on a limb and buy some funky weird color, but we still want unique items in the shops.”