Target, d-to-c upstarts spark underwear overhaul

As category interest heats up, Target enters the lingerie business with brand trio

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Credit: Target

The women's lingerie market is in a state of redesign.

A host of direct-to-consumer e-commerce brands, including Lively, ThirdLove and True&Co., have entered the $12.4 billion space in recent years while existing players expand to reach new customers: Late last month Target debuted a trio of inclusion-minded in-house lingerie labels. The rush of newcomers is also affecting Victoria's Secret, the L Brands-owned company that controls a hefty 28 percent of the industry, according to Ibis World, which is struggling with sales declines, marketing criticism and store closures.

"It's long overdue—such a vast category, but only a few players have been dominating it," says Michelle Cordeiro Grant, who founded New York-based Lively three years ago. She notes that historically, women have considered bra shopping a chore, but that there is opportunity to challenge the perception of "need" to "want" and grow the category. "It's not just taking market share, it's creating market share," she says.

Yet while the category may be growing—Ibis expects lingerie, coupled with swimwear and bridal attire, to grow more than three percent each year for the next five years—demand for Victoria's Secret is shrinking. Last fall, the 42-year-old brand came under fire for remarks Chief Marketing Officer Ed Reznak made about not casting transgender or plus-size women in the brand's shows. The comments, widely seen as out-of-touch given the inclusive, authentic messaging of competitors, prompted an open letter of criticism by ThirdLove. Shortly after, Victoria's Secret CEO Jan Singer was replaced by John Mehas, who had been with fashion brand Tory Burch.

Changing tastes

In February, Victoria's Secret posted sales declines and announced it will be closing 53 of its 1,600-store fleet, on top of 30 closures in 2018; same-store sales for the fourth-quarter were down 7 percent. On a recent conference call with analysts, L Brands CFO Stuart Burgdoerfer said the brand is taking a "fresh look" at its marketing.

"We don't typically make announcements about the fashion show at this time of year, but we're looking at all aspects of the marketing of the business," said Burgdoerfer. A spokeswoman for Victoria's Secret did not return a request for further comment. On Thursday, the company announced Hungarian model Barbara Palvin as its newest angel.

Victoria's Secret is also focused on improving its merchandise, executives have said. That could be a good strategy, according to Guido Campello, CEO and creative director of Cosabella, a 36-year-old high-end lingerie brand that sells through its website and department stores.

"If the product was good or exciting and fresh and tied to a marketing story, [they would be able] to execute it, but they're failing on both in terms of interacting with consumers," says Campello.

He says Cosabella has found success on a product level by tracking search terms and listening to consumer feedback. For example, this summer, the brand will relaunch a core product from 1989, Soire—the No. 1 search term on the brand's site.

In addition, while Cosabella is expanding into a tweens business, it's using a different website and brand so young girls shopping for bras don't see the same provocative imagery of women in lingerie when they visit "You don't want [tweens] going to," says Campello.

Funneling feedback

Similarly, Lively maintains a constant conversation with its customers to improve product and marketing. The brand uses an army of some 65,000 brand ambassadors who provide feedback. The brand, which recently opened a brick-and-mortar store, regularly hosts in-store events based on the interests of its shoppers.

Meanwhile, after debuting three brands it describes as "size-inclusive,"—Auden, for intimates, Stars Above, for lounge and sleepwear and Colsie, for lounge, sleepwear and intimates, Target is already "excited about the response" from customers, according to a spokeswoman. The lines offer "Find Your Fit" tools and sizing information online and in stores. Target also debuted a marketing push "No Body Like You" that features unretouched women of a diverse set of ethnicities and sizes.

Experts expect the lingerie disruption and marketing inclusivity to continue as more retailers start their own brands, and new players launch.

"We've been conforming to marketing, to products—we're not angels, we're not supermodels—we're human beings," says Grant.

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