Victoria’s Secret bucking bralette trend

Kim Bhasin
Bloomberg News

For Victoria’s Secret, sex sells. That may seem obvious, but the multibillion-dollar lingerie industry has been headed in a different direction of late. Now, as the mother of all underwear labels tries to figure out how best to keep women coming back to its lace-filled stores, it’s doubling down on the sexy bras that made it big in the first place.

Chief Executive Officer Jan Singer, the former Spanx head who moved to Victoria’s Secret last year, outlined her plan to reinvigorate the brand for parent L Brands Inc.

She faces increased competition as more clothing retailers dive into the lingerie business: Stores from hipster staple Urban Outfitters to fast-fashion powerhouse Forever 21 are trying to cash in on a craze for airy, less-fortified bras called “bralettes.” Earlier this month, shares of L Brands fell to a six-year low on weak profit forecasts and its report that same-store sales for Victoria’s Secret dropped 14 percent in the latest quarter.

Singer announced the brand will get back to its roots. We are “in the business of fashion and sexy,” the CEO said on a conference call. She wants to know what her customers expect from products that “speak sexy” to them and “solve her sexy.” She wants to provide “choices of sexy for her.” In sports bras, she’s trying to show women that “sexy is strong.”

That’s a lot of sex, but what does it mean? Push-up bras, the signature style of Victoria’s Secret, have been long touted for their cleavage-inducing superpowers, harking back to the busty bombshell image the brand flaunted for decades. Indeed, the label has a push-up bra collection (and a perfume scent) dubbed “Bombshell.”

A 40-year-old brand that once revolutionized how women buy lingerie, Victoria’s Secret removed much of the taboo around unmentionables by upending the old lingerie boutique model, one where fitters sized up customers and matched them with typically white, black or beige bras. Modesty ruled, and Victoria’s Secret was anything but modest, positioning itself as a fashion brand by bringing aboard supermodels and selling bold styles.

Victoria’s Secret entered the cycle quite late, and its own customers didn’t want airier designs.

The push-up bra was central to the glory days of Victoria’s Secret. But the brand strayed when earlier this year it joined the pack and pivoted to pitching bralettes, a lightweight and more comfortable version of structured bras. Victoria’s Secret proclaimed bralettes were sexy, too, calling them “sexy little things.” But it didn’t take, and now bralettes will make up less than 5 percent of the brand’s bra assortment.

“I think anybody can make a bralette, and that was a moment that will come and go and it will come again,” said Singer.“But for us, we make constructed bras best. And when we do, even in our bralette business, bralettes that have more construction in them, we get paid for that work.”

It’s a curious move, in part because push-up bras haven’t had a great run of late. Aerie, American Eagle’s lingerie chain, announced Wednesday that it saw softness in bra sales due to the lackluster push-up category. The Aerie brand president, Jennifer Foyle, conceded however that bralettes have saturated the market.

Cora Harrington, who runs the Lingerie Addict website, said the bralette trend has matured and those attracted to that style have already switched. Victoria’s Secret entered the cycle quite late, and its customers didn’t seem to want the airier designs from the brand. People go to Victoria’s Secret for the sexy push-up, she said.

“Customers have already found their favorite bralette brand,” said Harrington. “They’re not just going to change it again.”

As Harrington sees it, Victoria’s Secret’s core issue isn’t the style of bras it sells. Rather, the sexy image it cultivated for so long has grown stale because of the brand’s unwillingness to broaden how it defines beauty, she said.

Aerie, for instance, seeks to challenge beauty standards by casting a range of body types in its campaigns. Victoria’s Secret continues to latch on tothe airbrushed supermodel look. By de-emphasizing bralettes, the company is arguably stepping further back in time.

As Victoria’s Secret rejiggers its strategy, another tradition will endure. In New York City this week, hundreds of models(including Izabel Goulart and Hailey Baldwin)flocked to the casting call for its annual fashion show, eager to try out for the lingerie label’s sex-infused runway walk, which airs in November. As always, it’s sure to be chock full of angel wings, lace, and bare skin.