Instead of enlisting a cadre of women who mostly look alike with wind-tousled hair, long torsos and perfectly upright breasts, Rihanna, who launched her lingerie line with TechStyle this past May, selected a cornucopia of women to model her bras, undies, teddies and bodysuits. On the Savage x Fenty e-commerce site thighs touch, back fat exists and darker skin tones matter. And instead of categorizing women by body type, she’s mixed them all together to create a beautiful tableau.
“The women in the campaign come across as sexy but not objectified,” said Lulu Bonfils, an 18-year-old model, who’s signed by Muse and appeared in the campaign, which she described as intimate and empowering. “Everybody was telling you, ‘You look really good.’ We took Polaroids and recorded interviews throughout the day talking about our lives and our opinions. I felt like I was more than a model.”
The Savage x Fenty launch speaks to a bigger trend that’s been happening in underwear and lingerie marketing over the last few years. Newer intimate apparel brands such as Lonley, Thinx, ThirdLove, Neon Moon and Lively have helped normalize imperfect bodies with inclusive messaging and visuals highlighting “flaws” that are usually retouched away. And bigger brands such as Aerie and Jockey have adapted to the cultural climate. But how does this impact the industry at large and are these efforts authentic?
Heidi Zak cofounded ThirdLove, a bra and underwear company, in 2012 wanting to build a brand for all women. According to Zak, who’s steered away from using traditional lingerie models, initially it was difficult to cast diverse talent and she had to look outside of agencies to find women of different ages, shapes and ethnicities. Now, she has a growing portfolio of models that customers appreciate and respond well to.
“I think what happens today that may not have happened in the past is that we are all very busy and if you scroll on a site and you see a range, even if you don’t see someone who looks like you, you think ‘they might have something for me,'” said Zak.
On ThirdLove’s e-commerce site, Zak displays different models based on different bra and underwear sizes and has found that there are higher conversion rates if the model featured better matches the bra size a customer clicks on.
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Michelle Cordeiro Grant, a former Victoria’s Secret staffer who started her “leisurée” company, Lively, in 2016, also wanted to develop an underwear brand that touched on individuality instead of unrealistic body standards.
“From a business perspective, Victoria’s Secret was incredible. They were able to build a cohesive brand on the intent of its founder, which was to buy lingerie for his wife,” said Grant. “But it’s a lot of work to aspire to that fantasy and think, ‘I’m going to look like Candice Swanepoel if I wear this product.’ And even she wasn’t good enough because we were airbrushing her.”
Much like Zak, Grant, who introduced Lively on Instagram via brand ambassadors as opposed to models, told WWD she’s seen stronger click-throughs and conversions when Lively showcases diverse body types, but that wasn’t always the case.
“When we first started showing women from our community, it worked really well on Facebook, but when we showed them on our landing page, we would see a decrease in performance,” said Grant. “We went back to pushing our community to the top of our homepage and the results have been phenomenal. All of the amazing conversations we are having are impacting what the shopper is used to seeing.”
Siobhan Lonergan, the vice president of brand at Thinx and Icon by Thinx, underwear brands known for their bold ads that have featured a transgender model, a pregnant woman and older women, said customers mandate more unvarnished imagery from the company in a way they might not have 10 years ago.
“People are tired of being marketed to with these idealized bodies and people will call us out for not being realistic enough,” said Lonergan. “We are on the cusp of this tidal wave to redefine beauty and I’m hoping that brands are up for depicting different body types and genders and people with disabilities and showing them in a beautiful way. It has to be aspirational and create a level of desire and that first connection point with your brand.”
When speaking to curvy consumers and models, it was hard for them to remember a particular ad they identified with when they were younger. Bonfils noted the 2016 AerieReal campaign that starred Barbie Ferreira, a plus-size model, while Amanda Mull, a writer who frequently covers the plus-size market, said plus-size social media influencers such as Gabi Gregg and Nicolette Mason have resonated with her more than any ad and have pushed the body inclusivity needle forward.
“A lot of people were looking for people who look like them that nobody had bothered to cultivate that on a corporate level,” said Mull. “In general, corporate interest has lagged far behind and that’s some of the disjointedness we are seeing now with people being ready to move on from surface level body positivity and brands saying we just got here.”
Dove’s Real Beauty campaign in 2004 introduced consumers to new ideas around body acceptance in advertising. Ten years later, Victoria’s Secret received backlash for an ad campaign bearing the slogan “The Perfect ‘Body,'” which was meant to promote its Body lingerie line. They later changed it to “A Body for Every Body,” which was printed across 10 models with virtually the same body. In 2015, to promote its Cacique lingerie line, Lane Bryant created the #ImNoAngel campaign, which was a direct response to the constrictive messaging Victoria’s Secret has pushed since inception.
Three years after the Lane Bryant ad, there’s been more integration of plus- and straight-size models in underwear and lingerie campaigns and this has trickled down to how agencies operate. JAG Models, a New York-based agency that represents Iskra Lawrence, a body activist and one of Aerie’s Role Models, is one of the only agencies that doesn’t label its models by size or put them on a size classified board. Becca Thorpe, who used to be a plus-size model but now runs Muse’s Curve division, which was formed almost eight years ago, said despite having a separate board for plus-size models, everyone in the agency sits together and suggests curvy girls and straight-size girls for the same jobs, which didn’t used to happen.
“There was plenty of work in the plus market, but you would see the same girls over and over,” said Thorpe. “Now, the images have changed, the workload has increased and casting directors want to see new faces from the Curve board the same way they want to see new faces from the straight-size board. That’s an exciting place to be.”
Bigger brands have started to adapt to the messaging. Jockey’s “Show ‘Em What’s Underneath” initiative has showcased a disabled U.S. Marine Veteran and Michaela DePrince, a ballet dancer with vitiligo. Aerie, the intimate apparel retailer owned by American Eagle, was one of the first larger brands to double down on the body-positive messaging and in 2014 it declared it wouldn’t Photoshop intimate apparel and swim visuals.
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Models and consumers still believe there is a long way to go, and some of these changes are purely aesthetic and co-opt a trending language rather than actually service an undervalued market. Everlane ran into this criticism earlier this year when it launched its underwear line with a curvy model but didn’t produce any plus-size product‚ though it later said it was working on extended sizes. Mull said a lot of bra brands also conflate full bust with plus-size, which is misleading for the customer and capitalizes on a message they don’t have the product to support.
“I think we are at a point were shoppers and people who aren’t a part of media have become disillusioned with just surface-level body positivity,” said Mull, who recently wrote an Op-Ed for Racked titled “Body Positivity Is a Scam” where she argues that brands should focus on making more sizes or designing for those with disabilities and less on telling women to improve their self-esteem. “The most important thing is to lead with product and make meaningful expansions and let that be your marketing campaign.”
Franceta Johnson, who models for Thinx, felt similarly.
“Am I seeing more and more diverse marketing and media campaigns as of recently? Yes, and it’s fantastic, but nine times out of 10, these brands still don’t actually care about the well-being of said groups, they’ve just stumbled across a movement to capitalize on,” said Johnson. “Diversity is complex and in order to actually grasp all of its complexities, brands need to also hire people from these marginalized groups that have perspective on said topics to accurately and honestly run your marketing campaigns.”
Lawrence isn’t against the idea of illusions and fantasy in underwear advertising, but said brands, specifically the ones targeting young girls, need to educate them on what goes into constructing these images.
“We have social media and that is a direct way you can talk to the consumer and ask them what they want to see,” said Lawrence, who launched “The Mirror Challenge,” a body acceptance series that airs on Facebook, this week. “Let them feel involved and as if they are growing with the brand. Ask her how she wants to be viewed in underwear so we aren’t force feeding her a limiting message.”
Despite other brand’s gains — Aerie is set to open 35 to 40 stores this year and its comps were up 38 percent for the first quarter — and Victoria’s Secret’s losses — its comps dropped 5 percent during the first quarter — the L Brands-owned company has yet to budge on its overall marketing messages. Zak said conventional sexy, non body-inclusive advertising won’t die, but it does need to exist outside of the male gaze.
“It’s not about sexy advertising going away. It’s about taking ownership of sexy and empowering women to define that word for themselves rather than telling them what it means to be sexy,” said Zak. “It’s about showing women who actually feel sexy instead of trying to fit into a version of sexy that’s dictated by old standards.”