I have watched with interest the travails of Victoria’s Secret. The brand, a historic market leader, as well reported is in trouble. The seminal evolution pivot of our species in the past 100 years has been birth control and its impact on the relationship between genders and women’s relationship to the world. That said, the evolution of underwear is an interesting byproduct of our social/sexual history.
Some context is needed here. For some 25 years our female researchers at Envirosell have worked on lingerie projects for both brands and stores. That work has taken us to the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Brazil, the UK, France, Italy, China, and Japan. We have observed and talked to consumers in store, interviewed sales associates, tested prototype stores and dressing rooms, run eye-tracking experiments in signage and tried to make sense of the connection between online, in catalog and in store. Here’s what we found.
Women’s Underwear has Three Drivers
The first is what we might call honeymoon or wedding night apparel. It “invites help to take it off.” Its historic roots are in courtesan boudoir traditions. From men’s magazines to racy catalogs, honeymoon lingerie tends to photograph well. How much wedding night wear does a woman need, and in practical terms, how often does she wear it? What role does it play in her twenties, versus her forties and beyond? It may play into both genders’ fantasy life, but that’s not necessarily a sustainable marketing strategy: apparel merchants thrive on ongoing purchases and relationships. Like the broader world of women’s fashion, the glamour of sexy underwear may be in Saturday night, but the money is in Monday through Friday. The brand proposition may be identified by what you lead with, i.e., honeymoon underwear design, but it’s everything else that sells in volume.
The second is what she wears to make what she wears look better. The T-shirt bra is a good example. The pairing of dresses, pants, blouses and underwear is one of the sweet spots in women’s apparel and is often a lost opportunity. Zara, Mango and others work on the visual focal points of the outfit: a top paired with a bottom, with appropriate shoes and accessories. But underwear has not made it to the mix for these retailers. The best example of integrated merchandising I’ve seen was an Israeli chain where the graphics in the dressing room focused on the basic premise of what to wear with what. For the working professional woman, purchase patterns tend to be based on a uniform mentality. Once you find the styles that work for you, you stick with them. For many professions -– the law, education, insurance, banking and professional services –- overt sexuality doesn’t work. Cleavage is for specific occasions, not for every day at the office. Looking conservatively good is the goal.
The third is driven by comfort. For whatever body shape you have, selection of underwear that is easy and comfortable for the wearer to do whatever she does is the driver. Women shop and buy for a range of personal needs, from a running bra and underwear that makes it easier to deal with menstrual cycles, to active wear for aging and plus size women. In terms of sales and/or women’s willingness to pay much less pay a premium, the number-three driver rules. It may not be glamorous nor lend itself to catalog photography, but targeting the active and mature markets is where the money is.
VSC Missed a Chance
Where is Victoria’s Secret in this mix? Having dominated the category for over 20 years, it now has many, many competitors. American Eagle’s Aerie Brand does a nice job of educating the younger customer on bra and pantie choices, and they make an attempt at pairing what’s underneath to what’s on top — because they sell both. Primark has also targeted that younger customer with good information. All of the sports brands from Lululemon, and Athleta, to Nike, Jockey, and Adidas focus on comfort and athletic performance. And none of them are making any attempt at honeymoon wear. The modern connection between beauty, comfort and health is powerful. Yes, Victoria’s Secret has a youth/yoga/running offering, but it tends to get lost in wedding night marketing and visual promotions.
For retail tour guides in New York City, the Victoria Secret Flagship in Herald Square is a regular stop. It is a temple to sensuality. The tourist traffic is heavy, but the number of visitors walking out the door with pink striped bags is not that great. We think of it as a place that inoculates visitors with the brand. I’ve heard industry figures refer to it as the Estrogen Embassy in New York City. However well that location is doing, the larger fleet is troubled. The standards of female beauty and deportment are changing. For those of us in the retail trenches, we like to think that the changes in retail are a reflection of the changes in us. And what is an Angel in 2018? Lace appears to be in remission.