There seems to be two paths forward in the niche world of lingerie marketing — that is, if you’re not the ailing segment leader Victoria’s Secret.
One is to embrace everyone, touting looks for all body types and all occasions, implicitly communicating that you’re not Victoria’s Secret, which has been accused of pushing too-narrow a vision of the female form that plays readily into male fantasies.
The other is to outright attack Victoria’s Secret.
The attacks — screaming on social media and through ads in major newspapers — are good for making noise and drumming up interest, but they might not be enough.
Most brands are avoiding such hand-to-hand market share combat and are opting to pitch their inclusivity to consumers. Intimates brands such as Journelle, Commando and Adore Me all point to their full range of offerings, from sexy to practical.
Kimberly Grabel, general manager, or the “ringleader,” of TellTale, said the brand is rooted in the idea that women’s bodies and their stories are continually changing.
“As women, we have so many sides to our personality,” Grabel told WWD. “Typically, when you’re starting to launch a brand you try to collate around a commonality of style. But this customer is shopping everywhere. Back in the day we used to say, ‘Oh, she’s a J. Crew girl.’ Or, ‘She’s a Banana girl.’ That doesn’t happen anymore because women are cherry picking from all of the stores.
“What this said to us is that every day she is something different,” Grabel continued. “If you truly want to express yourself, you need a range of brands.”
The TellTale brand, which launches with seven collections, moves from comfy to provocative, from cotton to lacy and see-through mesh.
That seems to be the safest bet in the hyper-competitive lingerie landscape: Companies are expanding their assortments to offer something for everyone in order to survive.
Foundational brand Commando came from similar beginnings. Kerry O’Brien started the Vermont-based company more than a dozen years ago when faced with a dearth of options in her underwear drawer. In fact, there seemed to be only two: practical and ugly or sexy and uncomfortable.
“It was almost like I deserved to wear ugly if it was comfortable,” O’Brien said. “And the super thin garments were too tight, like I’m supposed to be thinner. It frustrated me as a consumer.”
Commando, O’Brien said, is both chic and comfortable.
Meanwhile, even with all the new entrants, Victoria’s Secret is still the market share leader in the women’s intimates category with a massive $7.4 billion business that includes everything from push-up bras to loungewear to swimsuits.
“There’s still a lot of women Victoria’s Secret speaks to. It’s just smaller than it was 10 or 15 years ago,” Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, a retail consultancy group. “There’s a large number of women who want to look good in their lingerie.”
Some competitors even admit that they could learn a thing or two from the longtime intimates giant, like Adore Me chief operating officer Romain Liot.
“There was a reason Victoria’s Secret was so successful for so many years and all the other players in the industry were very bad,” Liot said. “The reason why it is such a difficult industry, and why Victoria’s Secret is so successful, is because Victoria’s Secret was the only one that really cracked it at scale. I think every American woman has worn some Victoria’s Secret in her life.”
Even so, the approach that built Victoria’s Secret — keying in on a single ideal to appeal to a mass audience — is no longer working as well.
Victoria’s Secret’s sales have fallen for two years straight. And the brand’s parent company, L Brands Inc., came under the fire of activist investor Barington Capital, which succeeded in getting the company to agree to switch up its approach in the boardroom.
Despite the recent push for inclusivity, Victoria’s Secret is still known first and foremost for its slender models sporting wings on a primetime runway.
And the company’s success and single-mindedness have made it an easy target in a social media age where “authenticity” is seen by many as akin to oxygen.
Direct-to-consumer intimates start-up ThirdLove bought up a whole page in the New York Times last fall after the Victoria’s Secret’s fashion show returned to New York City. The brand criticized the retailer for selling a “male fantasy.”
But the message could have easily been read as: Don’t buy from Victoria’s Secret. Buy from us instead, because we’re not Victoria’s Secret. By raising the profile of ThirdLove, the attack might also have nudged some curious consumers into learning more about the brand.
Likewise, plus-size lingerie and swimwear brand Viva Voluptuous has been rhetorically, calling Victoria’s Secret “a joke.”
“Victoria’s Secret is totally out of touch with reality,” said Viva Voluptuous president Liz Willis. “They should stick to what they do best, provide beautiful lingerie for very small women with small boobs. They shouldn’t try to advocate that a size four is plus size.”
The problem with this method of attack is that it alienates some women.
“Some of the [Victoria’s Secret] models that I know…some of the ones that I’m friends with, they’re naturally that thin,” said Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman, who is also an AerieReal role model for competitor Aerie. “And if you’re naturally that thin, then your body should be celebrated that you’re beautiful the way that you are.”
The noise in lingerie — from all the shade being thrown to the new launches — points to one truth, and it’s not good for the sector’s longtime leader.
“Everyone is trying to steal share from Victoria’s Secret,” said Mary van Praag, brand president of Soma and now TellTale, both of which fall under the Chico’s FAS umbrella. “Everyone is jumping on a bandwagon that they know is ripe for the taking. We’re each trying to do it in a slightly different way. And we think there’s plenty of opportunity for growth. There are a lot of new entrants [in the intimates apparel market], but we think we’re going to be able to cut through.”