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NEW YORK — If a woman will pay $10,000 for a handbag, why not $2,500 for a bustier?

The rush to luxury has permeated another sector, and this time it’s innerwear. Major retailers have come to realize that women who wear designer apparel and buy expensive accessories also want to indulge themselves with quality undergarments rendered in the finest laces, silks and workmanship. And they are willing to pay the price for luxury intimates just as they are willing to splurge on a handbag from Hermès or Gucci, a pair of Prada shoes or a piece of jewelry from Cartier or Tiffany.

Price points, as a result, are edging upward. Where once department stores worried about bras selling for $49.99, now it’s common to find elaborate handcrafted bras and panties in embroidered Chantilly lace and Duchesse silk retailing for $300 to $500 and bustiers and corsets with a made-to-order look from $400 up to several thousand dollars.

At the same time, the cachet of a major fashion name is giving the consumer the fashion fix she craves as the luxury statement is taken to a higher aspirational level.

Major retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue are answering the call for intimate luxury, where a theme of “hidden luxury” — outrageously beautiful and luxurious lingerie that makes a woman feel special and fashionable — is being gleaned, said Sunny Diego, women’s fashion director of accessories and intimate apparel.

“It’s a very strong direction,” said Diego

Scott Tepper, fashion director at Henri Bendel, observed, “There is an incredible amount of beautiful, luxurious [lingerie] product in the market right now. It follows where fashion is at across the board this season. Everybody is trading up.” He added that Bendel’s new lingerie department, which is scheduled to open the first week of November, will represent a “very luxurious concept” with established brands such as Roberto Cavalli, Andres Sarda, Leigh Bantivoglio and Diane von Furstenberg, and newcomers like Gentry de Paris, Emporiana and Little Joe by Gail Elliott.

Underscoring the growing appetite for fashion and quality was the robust turnout of big fashion names and new brands at the Lyon, Mode City trade fair in Lyon, France, this month, where scores of top ready-to-wear and couture names such as John Galliano, Kenzo, Roberto Cavalli, Alberta Ferretti, Bleumarine, Nina Ricci and CourtWorth exhibited for the first time full collections of intimate apparel, daywear and sleepwear. Meanwhile, newcomers included Laura Biagiotti Bodywear, Pleasure State, an Australian brand, and Leonard de Paris, which launched its first lingerie and swimwear lines.

This story first appeared in the September 27, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

And established upscale lingerie brands such as La Perla, Cadolle, Eres, Chantal Thomass, Vannina Verperini and CourtWorth are pulling out all the stops. Detailing such as fur trim and Swarovski crystals are even adorning boudoir fare in a new collection by Milan-based Rosanna Ansaloni, whose whimsical items will retail between $400 and $500.

There are doubters, though. Ann Roth, who took home the Oscar for Best Costume Design in 1996 for her work in “The English Patient,” and who has worked on re-creating authentic vintage corsets for Nicole Kidman in “Cold Mountain” as well as modernized versions for Glenn Close in “The Stepford Wives” and cast members in “The Bird Cage,” feels the term “luxury” in describing department store innerwear is a misnomer. “The term luxury in lingerie is very relative. True luxury lingerie always has to be made by hand. I think of made-to-order as luxurious. Cadolle [a French corsetière] is an example. The end of real luxury lingerie came when women no longer had a personal maid to rinse out their underwear of crepe de chine and double-paneled two-ply satin. Satin shorts have to be ironed. Do you know people who do that today?”

Retailers respond that, while luxury goods are selling well in many product categories, the perception of what luxury is on the part of the modern-day consumer can be interpreted on different price levels as well as different emotional levels. Luxury to many women can be Calvin Klein Underwear, a buttery-soft tag-free bra of microfiber by Body Curves by Hanes Her Way or a cozy, feel-good wrap robe by Lauren Ralph Lauren.

Linda LoRe, president and chief executive officer of Frederick’s of Hollywood, said, “It’s really about permission women are giving themselves and taking it to an intimate level. It’s like fragrance. Women are willing to pay more for a fragrance that makes them feel better.”

LoRe noted that over the past year, Frederick’s has been trading up and upgrading the quality of product, fabrics, laces and fashion styling. “We began testing a Jaclyn Bennet for Frederick’s of Hollywood collection in 20 stores a year ago, and we’ve now expanded it to all 150 stores. We’re selling more expensive product, $150 robes and $125 corsets. It’s all about the detail.”

Donna Wolff, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of intimate apparel and hosiery at Bloomingdale’s, put it this way: “I don’t sell $400 cashmere robes, but I continue to trade up for my customer and offer her better merchandise. We are trying to max this trend. Women are trading up to Wacoal and Chantelle bras [average retail $50-$58], and more expensive robes. We’ve done away with the $34.99 robe programs, because we’re selling $70 and $100 robes.”

Regarding best-selling brands, Wolff said, “Natori leads the pack for designer sleepwear, and our Oscar de la Renta and Eileen West [sleepwear] business is very good. All of our Calvin Klein business is very strong.” She added that Bloomingdale’s will test Shabby Chic sleepwear for Christmas.

In addition to quality and fit, the theme of luxury extends to presentation and marketing at Victoria’s Secret, said Monica Mitro, spokeswoman for the $3.8 billion lingerie specialist, who said a new pink-and-white striped packaging program for holiday gift-giving is “definitely very luxurious looking. We think it looks sexy and very high-end.”

Mitro further noted that a novelty Panty Boutique featuring undies embellished with rhinestones and feathers is “very giftable, and a new direction in lingerie.

“Customers used to buy a panty to go along with a beautiful bra. Now, they want cute, sexy, beautiful panties in multiples,” she said.

“When we talk luxury, we are not just talking product,” said Gabriella Forte, U.S. president of Dolce & Gabbana, which has expanded its lingerie collection to include corsets, daywear and slips that can be worn as rtw. “We are also talking about the methodology of presenting the product. You don’t present a $30,000 gown as you would a $250 dress.”

Regarding the impact of fashion in lingerie, Forte noted, “It’s because of fashion that lingerie has come to the forefront, and consumers are looking for it. It gives retailers the incentive to have a wider assortment to entice consumers to buy. But I don’t think the customer will just pay anything, because she’s used to paying more for fashion and quality. There has to be a price-value relationship.”

Sizing up the appetite for luxe lingerie, Roberto Cavalli said, “We’ve experienced a big demand for luxurious lingerie in Russia and the [United] Arab Emirates. The European markets are stable, whereas we’ve increased sales 20 percent in the U.S. The lingerie is the right completion to the luxury clothing line. And our customers sometimes enjoy shopping exclusively for lingerie.”

He further noted, “We’ve established a good synergy with a small Roberto Cavalli collection available at Victoria’s Secret stores nationwide, so even the client not familiar with the main line can afford and enjoy the exclusive designs.”

For Leonard de Paris, capturing a younger consumer was the reasoning behind the expansion into a high-end lingerie collection, said designer Ann Nguyen. “There’s the longtime Leonard customer, but we wanted a younger clientele as well. It’s also very much what all of the fashion houses are doing right now. The Leonard couture and prêt-à-porter customer wants a complete wardrobe, which includes luxury lingerie.”

From a young designer’s perspective, Gentry Lane of Gentry de Paris noted the value equation of luxury lingerie pays off. “Customers are instantly seduced by the tactile experience of silk and cashmere. Who wouldn’t want such softness against their skin? Dishing out $600 for a pair of pajamas you wear every day or night is a lot easier than spending $600 on a pair of shoes that you’ll only wear once or twice a month for special occasions.”

The demand for upscale lingerie appears to be untapped in the U.S. market, according to designer Irene Leroux of the Chanel-owned Eres brand, who believes American consumers need to have a better understanding of what luxury is.

“Of course, luxury lingerie sells well in the big cities in the U.S. and places like Palm Beach,” said Leroux. “But the luxury business is not growing as fast as in Europe, where the luxury education is much greater. In France, a young girl will dream of having a lingerie set by Eres and will save her money for two or three months, or ask her boyfriend or parents to buy it as a Christmas gift. Because of that, we’ll be promoting a set in special Calais lace next Christmas.”