Ellen Lewis is a 35-year veteran of the lingerie market. She is the founder and publisher of Lingerie Briefs, a multi-faceted blog that provides insight into all things Intimate apparel.
After wrapping up my semiannual market review of the lingerie industry—including a trip to Paris for the Salon International de la Lingerie, a three-day marathon at Curvexpo NY and multiple showroom visits to discuss the current state of affairs in our industry and to preview Fall ’17 product—the mood was interesting and I sense a sea change occurring at retail that has made priorities shift at the wholesale level. Business is good, depending on the channel and the capacity for change.
The Paris exposition is an international venue. Historically, the focus is on European brands. The North American market is only in attendance if the brand has ventured into the global arena. In the past few years, politics has affected businesses that depend heavily on Middle Eastern and Russian buyers. Certain companies, like Jane Woolrich that cater to this market feel the breach, but the show is still critical for their volume. The Russian market has slowed but is still growing.
Curve, on the other hand, draws heavily from the U.S. and Canada. Traffic seems down in both arenas, but vendors aren’t complaining. The show has been good, according to the vendors: less lookers and more actual buyers. The cost of travel has forced those who used the show for “inspiration” to decline, but sales were generally positive.
The Internet has changed the entire perspective on how we sell and how we buy. Several companies, such as Braza Bra and NKiMode have re-directed their funds to online wholesale sites, eliminating the cost of doing a three-day show, and they have not suffered. Larger businesses, like Van de Velde, claim that their road sales reps cover the same stores that attend the show but achieve this at an earlier time. They would rather fund marketing efforts than incur these costs. Yet still, most of the established brands like Wacoal, Eveden, Chantelle and Simone Perele are present and busy taking orders.
The smaller companies, start-ups, adolescents and indies have a more difficult time. They see buyers who pass by their booths, take some information, perhaps write orders later. To succeed this way, they must attend the shows and garner credibility for several seasons. This is an expensive endeavor for a new label. At every show the assortment of interesting new brands shifts and it’s hard to know if they are solid enough to count on.
The brands with stellar success stories, (other than the tried and true anchors) are those that have persevered, made the investment and have the business chops to follow through with great product and great customer service. The traffic at the Montelle Intimates and the Fleur’t booth was nonstop. Buyers come to the show for two reasons: to write orders with their established vendor base and to find new ideas. I see less and less of the new ideas, particularly in the U.S.
Emerging labels & trends
The Paris show harbors a multitude of young new brands. I saw a real surge in eastern European labels with great product: Amoralle, Corporelle and Le Petit Trou. Innovation from the French, Swiss, Belgian and Italian ateliers like Lyn Lingerie, Elise Anderegg, Murmer and Paloma Casile adds real spice to the show. These countries, after all, are home to some of the best intimates factories already serving established labels. They are an extraordinary base of creative thought, but difficult for an American retailer to pursue as cost, function and practicality are such major factors in the American lingerie culture.
The major difference is the shift in loungewear focus between Paris and New York.
Although the category is robust in Paris, it has very little correlation to the American lifestyle. Remember that the U.S. fashion culture pivots on blue jeans. Gorgeous, chic, luxury fabrics designed for a sophisticated lifestyle does not do it for the American woman whose focus is on comfort, easy styling, easy care and flexible use. The value earned quotient is very different.
On the other hand, the increase in diversity and fashion savvy in the bra market, a historic factor in European corsetry, has begun to seep into American underwear drawers, enabling the increase of cut and sew bras, beautifully curated designs, options for a curvy and plus-size woman and a greater respect for the female form. Brands like Lise Charmel, Chantelle and Simone Perele that have figured out how to integrate their expertise in intimate design into a functional bra appealing to an American consumer’s needs, are growing in North America.
The vendors (and buyers) who have invested in social media platforms are the winners in the current environment. The reason smaller brands shy away from these expositions is not only cost but also their attitude toward the power of the Internet. They can reach their customer niche directly through social media and are able to sustain their creative integrity by serving a consumer who “gets them.” Store buyers are forced into gross margin goals that are necessary for expense structures not incurred by smaller brands. The major take away from this market is the absolute need for more creative product, stellar customer service and a fun shopping experience in brick-and-mortar stores.
The specialty store buyers who have accomplished this are doing well, and it’s a big plus for Main Street. As for the bigger operations, department stores and huge chains, it’s their online businesses that are robust. The brands are more excited by e-commerce opportunities than ever before. They will tell me that Nordstrom or Anthropologie placed an order and be saying it solely in reference to the online operation. Brands are fine with this. This shift of emphasis between brick-and-mortar and e-commerce was certainly prevalent at this year’s shows.
The major challenge for brands reaching outside of the box—whether it’s a small retailer trying to establish a unique product identity—or a brand developing a new design posture, is sourcing small quantities. To accomplish this, they need factories whose minimums enable a testing environment without prohibitive up-charges. The conundrum is the balance even if the source is available.
Personally, I believe strongly in trade shows. It’s a place of focus, to achieve a big overview in a short period of time and to find some new potential. If the shows could find a way to support newcomers, perhaps “scholarships” for a first attempt, they might attract a broader range of labels. Certainly, smaller shows are popping up for this purpose. The Lingerie Select is one example. Touching actual product is still the best way to buy, but the fact is that the digital generations—those whose money we will want more and more—are very comfortable with working through social media. The trade shows themselves need to raise the creative bar to attract new clients.