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In the World of Women’s Intimates, Does Sexy Still Sell?

The bright lights of the Victoria’s Secret fashion show appear to have been extinguished, taking with them the shimmering tans, lacy lingerie and of course, the Angel wings.

The brand’s steady decline coincides with the rise of a different aesthetic and altogether disparate ethos when it comes to women’s intimates. Instead of colorful, racy silhouettes that invite the male gaze, female shoppers are going back to basics.

Fit, function and comfort have become the most pressing priorities for women, along with the new class of direct-to-consumer brands that are stepping in to serve them. The modern woman no longer aspires to live up to Angel standards—finding a bra that fits and flatters real bodies is challenging enough.

Bras

According to Jane Fisher, founder of direct-to-consumer bra brand Harper Wilde, the move away from sexy is inextricably linked with an overall cultural shift.

“There’s always an evolution underway in the way that we think about female empowerment,” she explained. “During the time when Victoria’s Secret was coming about during the ‘70s, the way that female empowerment was manifesting was in celebrating women’s sexuality.”

That sexual revolution was a reaction against the prevailing social code and gender norms of the times, she said, but things have since changed.

“Now we’ve reached a point where, when I say that out loud, it’s so off base from how we think about female empowerment now—the way it’s defined, how it’s manifesting, the things we wear,” Fisher said. “Women aren’t portrayed as sex objects. In fact, that’s almost the antithesis of feminism today.”

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Fisher’s impression of modern female consumers is that they’re strong, confident and uninterested in being ogled. “Women are buying things and wearing things not for someone else, but for themselves,” she said.

Along with partner Jenna Kerner, Fisher has built a brand around this philosophy. The tagline “All the Basics. Never Basic,” encompasses Harper Wilde’s prevailing attitude: female shoppers are looking for practical bras that are comfortable, and maybe a little innovative.

“The industry had made it out that you should be wearing all these lacy, sexy bras. But on average, a woman has about 16 bras in her drawer and she wears two of them 90 percent of the time,” Fisher said, confirming, predictably, that “it’s the black and nude t-shirt bras” that get the most play.

Harper Wilde’s founders realized that statistic was representative of a broader shift that was underway at retail. “We focused on the two bras that she does wear,” said Fisher, and the line grew to include five different styles: an everyday underwire, a push up, a sports bra, a strapless and a bralette—all available in shades reflecting skin tones as well as black.

“It was a combination of the products themselves being much simpler and more functionally driven,” Fisher said, explaining that apparel trends across the board are moving more toward comfort.

Harper Wilde has also brought in some small-but-mighty innovations that promise to change the way its bras function.

Fisher painted a picture of a familiar scenario: “Your bra strap keeps falling down during the day, and then you have to ask a random colleague to adjust it, or you have to go into the bathroom and do it yourself.” A front-adjustable strap solves that problem, she said, and it was a “no-brainer” for the brand to adopt the idea.

Harper Wilde’s compression sports bra also features a back pocket for keys, phone and bank or ID cards, giving wearers a place to stash necessities while out for a run or hike.

These functional elements set the designs apart, all while maintaining an eye toward everyday wearability, Fisher said.

Underwear

Having a brand story steeped in functionality has also played out well for Thinx, which made its name as one of the first mission-driven intimates brands. Designed specifically for menstruation, the DTC brand made waves by both tackling and talking about a taboo subject in its provocative marketing.

According to CEO Maria Molland, the departure from Victoria’s Secret’s brand of sexy is a “change for the better.”

“For decades, popular lingerie brands featured supermodels across their advertising and marketing campaigns,” she said, explaining that those ads were meant to portray the types of women men fantasized about, and presumptively, the types of women that women should aspire to be.

That’s evolved over the years, said Molland, adding that “consumers are no longer interested in meeting the brand, but rather expect the brand to meet them—no matter their size, background or gender identity. People have different body types, people have periods, people have bladder leaks, and all of that is normal and worth embracing.”

The brand’s empowering, inclusive messaging and its unabashed frankness in promoting a product around women’s health are reasons why consumers gravitate to Thinx, she said. “This is one of the top things we hear from our consumers, time and time again, about why they love us as a company.”

The brand began with just a few period-proof styles when it launched in 2014, made with a signature combination of layered, moisture-wicking fabric. Now, the Thinx line has grown to include activewear and all-cotton styles in a variety of cuts.

Thinx also launched Speax, a line of bladder leak-protective panties, and Thinx BTWN, for teens.

The importance of sex appeal is diminishing in favor of products that solve problems for consumers. And above all, Molland said, it’s important for her brand to “promote body positivity and self-love.”

“Thinx was one of the brands to pave the way in this area, and we’re happy to see other brands are getting on board,” she added.

Shapewear

It’s becoming hard to envision a world without the bodysuits, corsets and bike shorts in sports-grade compression materials that have become a staple in the world of women’s undergarments.

Celebrities, influencers and everyday women have extolled the virtues of shapewear, which smooths and streamlines the contours of a woman’s body beneath her clothes.

The craze truly took off in 2010 with Sara Blakely’s Spanx, which catapulted to household name-dom with its shaping briefs and full-body suits. Blakely was named the youngest self-made female billionaire by Forbes in 2012, at age 42.

Since the rise of Spanx, the shapewear category has exploded. Perhaps the category’s most famous and influential advocate, Kim Kardashian West, recently announced the launch of her forthcoming line, Skims, which will go on sale Sept. 10.

“I’ve always been obsessed with shapewear. When everyone was getting bras and underwear, I was always getting shapewear,” Kardashian West said in a video released on the Skims Instagram account, adding that she often wears multiple shaping garments at once.

“People would write me all the time and be like, ‘Oh my God, you look so good after the baby,’ and I’m like, ‘That is three pairs of shapewear—that’s not me,’” she added.

Kardashian West said that she’s always been fond of cutting up pieces and reconstructing them on her own. “I feel like shapewear has been at least a decade or more in the making for me,” she said.

Whether the Skims line and others like it promote body acceptance or just provide a quick, confidence-boosting fix is up for debate. But Kardashian West has long been an outspoken devotee, willing to pull back the curtain and reveal that her seemingly flawless image is the result of a carefully calculated balancing act.

She refers to her line of “shape-enhancing undergarments” as “Solutionwear” on the brand’s site, adding that the highly technical solutions are made for “every body.”

“Whether the desire is to enhance, smooth, lift or sculpt, Skims provides superior options for all shapes and tones,” the site reads.

Kardashian West’s line will be size inclusive, with separates and bodysuits ranging from XXS to 5XL, and will feature a range of nude colorways to match an array of skin tones.

In a video recently released by Skims, model Mia Kang spoke about body image while wearing a pair of the brand’s Core Control Briefs and a Sculpting Bra.

“I have good days and bad days. Of course on my bad days, I feel self-conscious. I feel insecure about a lot of things, sometimes about my whole body. Sometimes I feel like I don’t want to go outside,” she said.

Looking down at her body and referencing Kardashian West’s line, she spoke about the way the garments changed her outlook.

“I feel like I’m all strapped in, and I can do anything,” she said.