MILAN — In the 2000 movie “What Women Want,” Mel Gibson is seen trying on stockings, lingerie and makeup, suggesting that in order to understand the true desires and feelings of females, you’d better live their life.
Fast forward to 2021 and, spurred by social media and the opportunities of the direct-to-consumer business model, indie lingerie brands have fully embraced that approach, understanding that listening to women’s needs is more crucial than ever.
They began to offer an alternative to bigger and more established brands that had flourished well into the late Aughts but were regularly piling up pitfalls and snafus, not seizing new opportunities nor acknowledging the shift in consumer perceptions and dress codes.
In the past two decades, the lingerie market — valued at $42 billion in 2020, according to market research firm Statista — has markedly evolved, especially in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement and its legacy that paved the way for a new wave of feminism, represented by young Millennials and Gen Z embodying new gender dynamics, social codes and value systems.
In Europe, niche underwear brands are now capitalizing on their ethos of inclusivity, sustainability and their ability to sense consumers’ demands, setting in motion a revolution in the sector that shows no signs of abating.
Serena Rees, founder of London-based Les Girls Les Boys, pointed to a cultural shift happening on a broader scale of which new trends in the lingerie sector are just a byproduct.
“It’s not just fashion, it’s also media, the way we live, the way we work, technology, all of those things really affect how we live in different societies and different times in history,” she said. “It’s really more of an attitude and social change and having one’s finger on the pulse of social and economic and political change.”
Federica Tiranti, creative director of Italian social media-favorite lingerie brand Chité Milano, said she and cofounder and chief executive officer Chiara Marconi joined forces on the project back in 2018 realizing that “women had changed so much in the past 10 years, becoming more independent and entrepreneurial, thus changing their own perception of their femininity.”
According to Marconi, “mindful beauty” sums up the brand’s ethos, one filled with humanity and awareness for women to express uncompromisingly and freely. “If you gather five women for a chat around a table placing a lingerie set on it, the conversation naturally revolves around so many different topics such as sexuality, sensuality, period, feminism, fashion and wellness,” she said of the intimacy — both real and metaphorical — connected to the category.
As a cofounder of Agent Provocateur in the 1990s, Rees coauthored the book “Agent Provocateur: A Celebration of Femininity” exploring the evolution of underwear across various decades and noted that in the ’90s something cracked.
“We were sort of saying, ‘Hey, women don’t be afraid of your sexuality, you own it, it’s yours, you do with it what you want.’ But what we were not saying was to take off all your clothes, show everybody everything, put it all over the internet because essentially that is what happened next,” she contended.
“That message went too far, and it got misconstrued and got taken to a crazy level,” reaching a peak in 2015 and 2016 with lingerie brands “essentially pushing an ideal image and way for young people to behave that was actually dangerous for the next society of young people,” she observed.
“We’ve had enough of brands winking and leering at the female body,” concurred Marconi from Chité Milano, citing Victoria’s Secret as one such example. In contrast, the brand’s goal is to telegraph a message of self-acceptance and self-love, in tune with consumers’ overall value systems today.
Similarly, Rees described Les Girls Les Boys as a “social experiment” in that it manages to translate what’s going on in society. “A year [after founding] we had the #MeToo movement…and people did realize that they didn’t have to be this sort of idealized perfect image,” she said.
“All those old labels and old definitions were completely being watched out,” she said, echoing Marie Schott, the founder of French lingerie brand Ana Shaf and CEO of The Kooples.
Schott said she was spurred to jumpstart her brand in late 2020 by women who “were disappointed by classic lingerie brands that are really constraining both their body and mind.”
Indie lingerie brands’ owners believe that the industry has too often too little acknowledged women’s desires and needs, which as a result prompted them to be in listening mode all the time in order to avoid the pitfalls established labels have faced.
For instance, during a sabbatical year, Schott built on her 10-year’s experience in the underwear sector, as the founder of the Undiz brand and CEO of Etam for seven years, to conduct 100 interviews with French women aged 15 to 75 and send out a questionnaire that got around 4,000 entries.
Schott discovered that the underwear market was not talking to women enough, and thus was at risk of becoming more and more detached from the customers it was targeting. “It is quite surprising because we’re talking about intimacy and the body so it’s quite weird that all these brands are taking care of our body or intimacy but don’t talk to us,” she explained.
Along the same lines, she discovered that 50 percent of women either don’t wear bras at all or wear them just occasionally and only because they don’t want people to know they are braless. The former group is even more disregarded by the industry, despite accounting for 5 percent of the global population as of mid-2019 and encompassing the more fashionable, educated and younger customers, according to Schott.
“I understand that lingerie brands do not want to embrace this trend because it’s against the business itself but at the same time if you make lingerie, you cannot just avoid talking to these women and trying to understand why they reject your products,” she said.
Schott is not campaigning for a braless revolution. Rather, she’s committed to overcoming the imposition mind-set, leaving women the power of choice. The Ana Shaf brand offers cup and wire-free bras and mesh brassieres to enhance comfort, which is rapidly shaping up as one of women’s primary needs.
Les Girls Les Boys’ founder Rees also noticed that even if women don’t want to wear corseted underwear and upright pieces or undergarments, they still want comfort and support while looking and feeling good, especially in the past year marked by confinement. To wit, sales of sweats and softer bras and larger underwear pieces have increased by 400 percent.
Setting up a fruitful conversation with female customers is paying back, as these brands have built a reputation, and social media following, thanks to a loyal and engaged community. For example, Schott continues to manage her editorial website Bra Revolution and keeps in touch with customers through the brand e-commerce site, while Rees touted Les Girls Les Boys’ feedback section for allowing the brand to constantly improve.
At Chité Milano, the brand’s community prompted the founders to launch the MyChité personalization service, in response to understanding that 80 percent of women wear the wrong bra size and cup, resulting in an uncomfortable and poor relationship with underwear. The service — now accounting for one-third of the business — allows customers to select from different fabrics and colors and have lingerie sets made to measure from craftswomen based in the Piedmont region as the ultimate size-inclusive shopping experience.
Much like the beauty and fashion industries at large, representation is key for the underwear market, even more so as it entails something as personal as garments that are close to the body and speak to women’s intimacy, sexuality and identification.
“For me ,inclusion should start when you design products and choose fabrics,” said Schott, highlighting how the Ana Shaf pieces fits all sizes and boasts three different nude shades to suit different skin tones.
“I included inclusivity in my goals from the beginning, knowing it’s not only about campaign imagery but about how I run the business so that women of all sizes and skin tones will feel comfortable and included,” she mused. “Too many brands have very inclusive global communication strategies and then the offering lacks sizes and the products are displayed online on just one skin tone and one body shape. This is really like tokenism.”
Rees, too, founded Les Girls Les Boys in response to a lack of representation in the sector and with the goal of offering consumers feel-good underwear and loungewear with a “from bed to street” look, regardless of their identity.
“It’s for girls or boys, or boys or girls, or girls that think they’re boys or boys that think they’re girls or [who] don’t really know it and it doesn’t actually matter,” she explained. “The best you can ever be is to be you….It doesn’t matter if you don’t want to look ‘TikTok fabulous’,” she said.
Italy-based underwear brand Wayeröb also aimed at breaking the rules and norms of men’s lingerie. Its founder Alessandro Onori set it up in 2018 with the goal of uncovering the evolution of gender identification and sexuality, offering its customers special knitted underwear pieces including briefs and tank tops at a luxurious price point, intended for men and women alike.
“I said to myself the only way for a brand of mine to be meaningful was to focus on basic fashion pieces,” Onori said, noting he sees undergarments as wardrobe staples. He tapped into a voyeuristic theme, drawing inspiration from “Motel Voyeur,” a book by American writer Gay Talese that is inspired by the diary and notes of motel owner Gerald Foos, who spied on his guests to satisfy a voyeuristic tendency.
“I wanted my brand to fall along the same lines, to talk about sexuality by way of the garments you put on or take off,” Onori said. The brand has since repositioned by going direct to consumer and reducing retail prices. It is now enjoying a strong following, especially among male customers, proving there’s room for growth in the category.
For niche lingerie brands, it ultimately comes down to integrity in everything they do. “We’re not ticking boxes here; we’re about being honest, real, we say unfiltered,” Rees noted.
Fully embracing the needs and desires of the vocal younger communities they target, these companies approach sustainability in a different way, often viewing it as ingrained in the company culture.
Schott said sustainability can no longer be the main brand message as it will likely be a given in less than five years. “It also came out from the interviews I did, women asked me to be transparent and do my best to produce clean lingerie,” she said. Ana Shaf uses Oeko-Tex-certified fabrics and Supima cotton and has banned plastics and polybags using paper packaging instead.
In Rees’ view, sustainability also comes down to providing quality products that are manufactured locally at a reasonable price. “It was kind of getting silly, you can buy a pair of ladies underwear for $450, it’s kind of stupid. I believe we can make a sustainable product, fairly locally, in sustainable fabrics and in a way that really looks after the staff and people that are working there,” she offered. Les Girls Les Boys’ sweats and jerseys are crafted from organic cotton, while last month the brand introduced a bamboo-based collection of briefs, bras, and bodysuits.