PARIS — A battalion of European designer brands — from John Galliano to Cacharel — has recently sprouted lingerie lines emblazoned with their respective house codes.

The designs include, for example, Galliano’s newspaper-print bra-and-panty set and Viktor & Rolf’s ribbon-patterned silk camisole and shorty. Others doing collections include Sonia Rykiel, A.F. Vandervorst, Kenzo and Christian Lacroix. Even Chloé and Yves Saint Laurent are said to be prospecting licensors, according to market sources.

But how are lingerie’s traditional players facing up to the competition?

According to industry sources, the ready-to-wear invasion has forced traditional innerwear brands to embrace textile innovations and rethink their images.

“As the customer becomes more savvy about designer-brand intimate apparel, the traditional brands are taking more risks to satisfy the fashion needs of their core customer,” confirmed Mary Krug, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of intimate apparel and hosiery at Neiman Marcus. She cited a rise in cutting-edge technology entering traditional lines, with brands employing laser-cutting techniques, for instance, or the latest developments in cup pads to maintain customer loyalty. Designer brands, meanwhile, are focusing mainly on fashion and the designer name, according to Krug. But, in the world of intimates, a name — and even a great dress sense — is not necessarily enough.

“Fashion brands have added pizazz to the lingerie department, but still only represent around 20 percent of our [lingerie] turnover,” said Arielle Monnerot-Dumaine, director of Printemps’ lingerie and hosiery collections.

She claims customers have stuck by specialist brands such as Chantelle, Simone Perele and Lejaby due to their prowess in sizing and fit.

“For designer brands, managing a B cup is fine, but as soon as it rises to C or D cups — which is lingerie’s biggest growing market — it becomes technically difficult for them to follow,” she said, adding that while houses often start out treating lingerie as a fashion item, they quickly realize it’s a very technical product.

“Brands then tend to hire an in-house specialist, focus on unstructured pieces — particularly contemporary brands such as Paul & Joe and Vanessa Bruno — or find a licensor,” said Monnerot-Dumaine, citing Galliano, who, having started out in-house, sold its lingerie license to SIL in 2006.

This story first appeared in the July 31, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

For Ingred Lefebre, SIL’s director of brand image for the John Galliano and Eminence lingerie licences, overseeing a fashion brand’s transition from rtw to lingerie — a job that involves attending shows and regular visits to the house’s archives — has been useful for bringing her traditional lingerie license, Eminence, up to date. “Rendering a lingerie product fashionable involves introducing unusual colors and forms, and experimenting with new textiles such as seamless fabrics,” she said. “It’s about being more daring with design, but a lot of traditional brands have a hard time adapting.”

“Traditional lingerie manufacturers salute ready-to-wear’s promotion of lingerie both on and off the catwalk, but in reality the technical constraints of structured lingerie are not conducive to fashion,” said Ann Charlotte Pasquier, brand manager for French lingerie brand Aubade.

Catering to such a niche market, the designer pack doesn’t pose a threat, she claimed, but it has prompted the brand to modernize its product, for example by introducing seamless fabrics to its lines. “It’s encouraged lingerie to loosen up a bit and seek more sophisticated styles and forms,” said Pasquier, citing Aubade’s first fashion line, dubbed Lingerie de Luxe, or Luxury Lingerie, that will hit stores for fall. The collection features new forms and fabrics, such as supersoft Lycra and fine Chantilly lace that retains its rigidity, and retails at twice the price of the main line.

Contemporary lingerie designers, meanwhile, are surfing the new fashion wave, such as French designer Elise Aucouturier, who hails lingerie’s trendy newcomers as a breath of fresh air in a stagnant lingerie scene.

“It’s freed up lingerie in terms of new experimentation with forms, colors and textiles,” said Aucouturier, who has designed an underwear set made from bamboo fabric for spring. “Lingerie has become part of the fashion domain, and in turn brands such as La Perla and Dim are now even producing ready-to-wear lines,” she said. “It’s a healthy exchange.”

“We’ve always been innovative, using atypical fabrics and fashion-forward designs, but ready-to-wear’s arrival has only confirmed our direction,” said Loumia Hiridje, founder of Princess Tam-Tam. Italian designer Guia La Bruna said she believes rtw’s approach to lingerie has opened the public’s eyes to what the domain’s young designers have always been about: luxury and creativity. “Traditional houses never change, but thanks to designers such as A.F. Vandervorst, whose lingerie collection uses vintage shapes and interesting fabrics, the public is starting to understand that lingerie can also be about creating moods and telling a story,” she said. “And that can only be good for us.”

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