By Ellie Silverman
The Philadelphia Inquirer
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Jennifer Redding, a Wedbush Securities senior analyst, says she sees the body-positivity trend as growing and long-lasting. In lingerie campaigns, words like “sexy” are being replaced by words like power and confidence.
In the Victoria’s Secret window at the Shops at Liberty Place, a thin model with parted lips and straight hair stares straight ahead while wearing a black bra and lace undies. The words plastered around her image say she’s wearing the “Very Sexy Push-Up” bra.
A block away at 1721 Chestnut Street at the intimates brand Aerie, models of all sizes show their stretch marks. One sits in a wheelchair, while another wears an ostomy pouch to collect waste. The words Change your bra! and Don’t change you surround them.
Victoria’s Secret’s sexually charged images set the industry’s standard for decades. But now upstarts are making inroads with a bold approach focused on self-acceptance. It’s fueled by women who believe sexy is embracing their bodies, regardless of size or shape, and buying bras and lingerie for themselves, not necessarily for a partner’s pleasure.
Brands like Pittsburgh-based Aerie, American Eagle’s intimates brand, are pushing a body-positivity movement and selling products rooted in comfort and a wider sense of what’s beautiful.
Victoria’s Secret still maintains a grip on the $9 billion industry. Its parent firm gets 62.8 percent of those revenues, according to a 2018 IBISWorld report. But experts said the brand’s inability to adapt to social changes is leaving room for competitors to flourish.
“These companies, now opposed to Victoria’s Secret, want to say: ‘We make for every skin tone. We make for every body type. … We’re really thinking about you and what you want,’ which I think is completely different from what’s ever gone on in lingerie marketing before,” said Lisa Hayes, director of the fashion design program at Drexel University.
Of course, brands like Aerie and Soma represent only 3.5 percent and 3 percent of industry demand, respectively, according to a 2018 IBISWorld report.
Many women continue to buy bras in department stores and at big-box retailers, said Cora Harrington, editor of the Lingerie Addict blog. What is popular in some fashion circles, like showing stretch marks, does not reflect what all women want, Harrington said. “A lot of women in middle America, they still want to wear shapewear and contour bras,” she said. “Aerie is having a much larger impact on newer brands.”
Still, Jennifer Redding, a Wedbush Securities senior analyst, said she sees the body-positivity trend as growing and long-lasting. While the frequency of the word sexy mentioned in womenswear newsletters has fallen 27 percent from January to October this year from 2016, the word power is up 60 percent and confident is up 140 percent, according to the retail technology and data firm Edited.
Experts say Aerie’s success shows how many women’s views are changing and that if Victoria’s Secret doesn’t alter its advertising, it could lose its dominant status. Victoria’s Secret did not respond to requests for comment.
“The whole shift in the attitude of what lingerie expresses about a woman has harmed Victoria’s Secret,” said Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail. “There is now room for all types of bodies to be their own version of sexy.”
‘EARLY INNINGS’ OF A LONG DECLINE
Victoria’s Secret was once a radical concept. Its parent company, L Brands, was founded in 1963 in Columbus, Ohio, during the start of the women’s sexual revolution. Bra fashion and a woman’s place in society have long been closely linked. These undergarments have been used to define to what extent a woman’s body should be covered and how it should look, and whether it’s with a corset, bullet bra, Wonderbra, or no bra.
“Lingerie advertisements include showing women who are very thin, but still curvy, and in passive poses that men would conventionally find attractive,” said Rosemary Clark-Parsons, a postdoctoral fellow at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication. Often, models will be shown as just a body with the image cropping out her head.
But there’s a new wave of shoppers who call out brands on social media for what they deem to be sexist and demand the products they want, she said.
There has also been a shift to more choices, to include different races and ethnicities in models. The intimates brand Naja launched the “Nude for All” lingerie line in 2016 with seven shades for all skin tones. And the bras becoming more popular, wireless, bralettes, and sports bras over push-up bras, indicate many women are actively choosing to be more comfortable.
Victoria’s Secret has taken a more conventional approach. Last Valentine’s Day, it advertised for women to buy lingerie for themselves, with messaging like “Me-day,” “It’s all about getting what we want! Gift your girls. Surprise your valentine. Treat yourself.”
Even so, the company’s business has taken a hit.
Shares of L Brands, the Victoria’s Secret parent, peaked at almost $100 in late 2015, but since then have tumbled to the mid $30s, a loss of over 60 percent.
Most recently, it saw comparable store sales decline every quarter in 2017 and 2018. Chief financial officer Stuart Burgdoerfer told analysts that he was “not satisfied” and is “very focused on improving performance.”
Randal Konik, an equity analyst at Jefferies, called Victoria’s Secret “still broken” in a recent note to investors. He also criticized PINK, the company’s intimates line for teens and young adults, as being in “the early innings of what we believe will be a long decline.”
“Victoria’s Secret has stayed more true to their brand aesthetic vs. having picked up on the trends of different shapes and sizes and body-positivity trends,” Wedbush’s Redding said.
Even when faced with declining shares, Les Wexner, CEO of L Brands, told the Financial Times that he still believes in the brand’s signature image. “Why lace? Why silk? Why push-up? Why these characteristics? It has something to do with the shape of the figure. Women want to project a figure.”
American Eagle, meanwhile, saw shares grow to $23 from about $15 in late 2015. Comparable sales at Aerie, its intimates brand, rose 27 percent, or $25.5 million, in its second-quarter filing in August. This was the 14th consecutive quarter of positive sales increase for American Eagle, according to the filing.
“After starting a body-positivity movement, Aerie is nothing short of spectacular, delivering record growth rates and gaining market shares in the intimate space,” CEO Jay Schottenstein crowed on a May earnings call.
Stacey McCormick, Senior Vice President for Marketing, described the company’s approach in an email: “We wanted to show our girls that shopping for bras and underwear and swim should be fun – not scary or uncomfortable. Being happy in your own skin, loving and being true to yourself, that is what is beautiful and sexy!”
Aerie’s strategy is reflecting a society shift, experts say.
At New York Fashion Week in September, women of all sizes, races, and ethnicities, along with two pregnant women and models who have been Victoria’s Secret angels like sisters Bella and Gigi Hadid, walked in Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty lingerie show. The YouTube video of the show has racked up more than 1.4 million views.
“This couldn’t be a more ripe time to say: ‘I want what I want. This is just for me. I’m proud, I’m happy the way I am, and make something for me and I’ll buy it,’ ” said Drexel’s Lisa Hayes.
A ‘NEW NORMAL’
When Bess Neiblum, 17, looks at Victoria’s Secret ads, she feels like she isn’t worthy enough to wear those bras. The women, in her view, all have “perfect” skin, bodies and makeup and none look like her. But after about a year of following Iskra Lawrence, a body positivity activist and one of Aerie’s designated role models, on Instagram, and seeing the company’s ads, Neiblum said she feels more empowered.