Seismic Shifts in the Lingerie World
We talk with Ellen Lewis, founder of the popular LingerieBriefs.com. In this podcast you’ll learn about the huge opportunity and challenge with the lingerie-as-outerwear trend, the #1 factor driving U.S. millennial lingerie purchases, why the biggest players in the lingerie business always seem behind the curve on the innovation front (and how they’re adapting), and plenty more.
Ellen Lewis, principal partner and publisher of Lingerie Briefs, has been in the intimate apparel industry for over 35 years, working on the retail and manufacturing sides of the business. Ellen spent 8 years with Abraham and Straus Department Stores and 12 years with R.H. Macy’s as a buyer, merchandise manager and VP of Intimate Apparel Private Label. During her 12 years at Nap, New York, and Bennett and Company, she oversaw product development for Victoria’s Secret as well as the launches of several brands including Crabtree & Evelyn Sleepwear and Jacalyn Bennett Lingerie. Ellen’s love of the written word and her knowledge of the intimate apparel Market inspired her to create Lingerie Briefs in 2009. Her mission is to identify quality wherever it lives.
Seismic Shifts in the Lingerie World
Brandon: In today’s podcast I’m talking with Ellen Lewis, who has been in in the intimate apparel industry for four decades now and has worked with many firms and brands in different ways, including Macy’s, Victoria’s Secret, and Crabtree & Evelyn. She launched the online journal LingerieBriefs.com in 2009 with a mission to identify quality wherever it lives.
We’ll discuss the huge opportunities and challenges in dealing with the trend towards lingerie as outerwear. We’ll discuss the biggest factor driving US millennial lingerie purchases and the reason the biggest players in this space seem behind the curve on today’s lingerie consumer trends, as well as plenty more, so let’s jump right on in.
Brandon: Ellen, how has the lingerie industry consumer changed over the time you’ve been in the business?
Ellen: I don’t think the consumer has changed as much as culture has changed, and it’s driving decisions and taste levels as it always does. Remember that I’ve been here over 40 years, so we’re looking at lingerie in a very different perspective. When I started, lingerie was something that you either wore underneath your clothes or to sleep in at night, maybe to lounge around the house, but ‘lounge’ meant a bathrobe. Lingerie today is a lot more multi-functional. It’s integrated way more into the culture.
What happens is that customers today don’t see it as a singular purpose. They see it as a multi-purpose product. It should actually bode well for the industry because there are so many opportunities to sell in outside-the-box venues. The problem is that the outside-the-box venues, like the ready to wear market, has figured it out and is actually making some of the same garments.
The consumer today is way more expanded because of the fit issues. When I started out, bras for example were size A to C or D cups, 32 band sizes up to maybe 38. Today we have a whole industry of plus-size lingerie, of curvy lingerie, of petite lingerie, and this is just in the category of foundations, which historically made up 80% of the volume of any lingerie business. Now it covers a customer type that never could buy their products.
On a personal level I’ll admit to you that I myself had tremendous trouble as a young girl because I’m larger-busted than most girls were in that day and age. Not anymore. There’s a lot broader definition of who this customer is. Today it has a lot to do with the expectations of the millennial group, which has taught us that it’s okay to be different.
I don’t like the word diversity. I like the word inclusivity. Today there’s a great deal more available in colors that work for different ethnicities and that work for different moods. It’s not a white, black, and nude market anymore, and it’s not a tricot nightgown, put it on right before I get into bed mentality.
Brandon: That’s very good. Just to follow up on that particular question, you mentioned that there are more opportunities now for lingerie companies, and yes, there’s been some competition from other aspects of the fashion world as a result. What do you think about the concept or the development of the “underwear as outerwear” and the idea that you’re actually wearing lingerie as more of a statement piece, so to speak, outside the home and outside the bedroom?
Ellen: If you’re asking me what it means to the business, it’s huge and it’s a challenge and it’s a massive opportunity, but it takes a different approach to design, a different approach to sourcing, a different approach to production than lingerie has taken in the past.
The best example I can give you to create a basis of this thought process is this. When I started out in the industry it was a revolutionary thing to make a poly satin sleep shirt in a hot pink or a bright blue color. The reason for that is it was perceived as ready to wear or a blouse. We even used to go to blouse factories to have them sew our lingerie.
The reason this is important is because even in those days, particularly in those days, when a woman purchased a blouse, they might buy a hot pink or bright blue blouse in poly satin and spend hypothetically $75 on that blouse. The same garment in the same fabric twice the size, because it had to be loose and big to sleep in, they wouldn’t pay more than $25 for, yet it contained more fabric. Fabric is 75% of a garment’s value in sleepwear, so it was a huge challenge.
Today you can sell that to somebody who uses it outside the home to wear over a pair of leggings out to dinner. She will pay a little bit more for it maybe, but she’s still buying it in a lingerie department and in her mind it should cost a certain amount of money. Therefore, the ready to wear market has been able to encroach on this concept.
On the other hand, because you can sell these things to people for outerwear use, there’s an opportunity on pricing and value that wasn’t there before. It’s really how you strategize the development of your product and 100% how you market it. That’s a big change from when I was starting out in the industry. When I was starting out there was no social media and you would never ever market a garment you bought in lingerie to a ready to wear customer. You just didn’t do it. So I see it as an opportunity. Even though brands have disappeared, I see it as an opportunity.
On the other hand, the foundations industry in the United States – and I know we’re speaking globally now – has always been a little puritanical. About 60-70% of the business done in bras in the United States are done in what they called t-shirt bras, smooth, basic, nude or black foundations. Luckily now they’re adding other skin colors to the formula. But the opportunity for really beautiful bras is coming from the European market, which is now making headway into the US market, and that’s a challenge for the foundations market in the United States. It’s almost the opposite conundrum.
Brandon: The next question is playing a little bit on some of what you said. Obviously there are a lot of different segments of the consumer that buys lingerie – different age groups, different socioeconomic status – but if you were to summarize it, is there some commonality between all the different markets for lingerie, something that the consumer for lingerie secretly urgently wants from the brands that they do business with?
Ellen: I’m going to speak predominantly from North America. Even though we are a global blog and we serve people all over the world, that’s where a lot of my information comes from.
The major trend right now, and it’s across all categories, is comfort and simplicity. That doesn’t mean that detail, elegance, all the really gorgeous elements of intimate apparel-making – embroidery, textured fabrics, all those things – are not integrated into that design concept. But what it does mean is that if it doesn’t feel good I’m not interested.
It has a great deal to do with what I’m calling the loungewear market, because it’s all about how it feels on my body, and not how my body looks to somebody else. That’s the one concept that crosses all boundaries. Having said that, there are different channels to lingerie and they serve different purposes. That’s why the industry is so big.
Brandon: That’s very interesting. To switch gears a little bit, from the sounds of it a lot has changed in the lingerie business over the last number of years. I know some brands refuse to change, some are very, very progressive, and probably a majority are somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.
Talking about the hyper-progressive brands for a minute, the ones on the cutting edge or even the bleeding edge, so to speak, at the risk of losing their customers, where is the right balance between being hyper-progressive and honoring where you came from and staying conservative? Where is that right fit, in your mind?
Ellen: This is a really interesting question and I’m going to expand a little bit on your thoughts. The lingerie business has suffered through a great deal of attrition in the last ten years. Big name brands don’t appear anymore. I think it’s because they couldn’t figure out or put their finger on what needs to be done to make life different inside their profit and loss statements. That’s one thing. The second thing is, because of social media, the rise of what we call the indie-branded world is prevalent.
What’s happening is the very progressive brands that you were talking about that are taking big risks tend to be smaller indie companies, not particularly interested in selling to department stores, finding new ways to get their point out there, and getting it out there through social media and pop-up stores. It’s a different attitude towards sales.
The bigger brands will look at those items and maybe try to integrate elements of them into their design concepts. The problem is that the bigger brands cannot afford value-wise, because of who they sell to, to survive and go way, way out on a limb the way you’re speaking.
I started working with a couple of brands some years ago whose entire mission was to bring multi skin color bras and panties to the market. One of them that’s been very successful is called Nubian Skin. It’s a British brand and they’ve been successful because they’re appealing to a very specific women of color market.
I started telling some of the bigger brands in the market at least 5-7 years ago, “You better start changing your definition of the word ‘nude’ in your stock, because nude is not a pale beige color. Nude is a skin color and there’s multiple skin colors.” It’s taken all this time, Brandon, for some of the biggest names I know to do that.
It isn’t that they didn’t get it, it’s that it’s a huge expense when you add a certain size, and producing so many units of one style in a factory overseas where the minimums are 10,000 pieces of maybe a size and color. It’s really hard to add a size or a color or both without incurring a major expense.
That is why these little brands who do it locally – it costs more money or maybe they’re not made to the ultimate quality – but they’re getting traction because that customer is so happy to get what she wants that she’s not that worried about the other aspects of the style.
Nubian Skin has grown its own huge following and I have watched big name brands like Wacoal, like Chantelle, like La Mystere, like Montelle Intimates put into their lines some other colors – maybe one, maybe two – and it’s taken them five years. It’s a much harder thing to achieve because of the way their infrastructure is set up.
I don’t think that the big brands are hyper-progressive. I think they’re careful and always looking at what’s next, and it’s just harder to move a bigger beast.
Brandon: Right, so who do you think is going to win this? Is it going to be the Nubian Skin type brands that are more responsive to their customers, or is it going to be the larger firms that have that economy of scale to be able to be more effective from a pricing perspective in the market?
Ellen: Let’s put it this way. I think the indie brands have much more opportunity than they did in the past to survive. Some of them are figuring out that they have to compromise a bit, and some of them won’t. It depends on what their personal needs are. If they’re trying to be a big business they’re going to have to compromise a lot. If they want to stay true to their roots and they’re perfectly happy doing 50 jobs themselves and not having a huge staff –
I’ve spoken to some of these owners and they’re very happy to earn a little bit of a living off of what they’re doing. They’re not looking for that mega income. They tend to be younger. They tend to have different aspirations, this generation. I think the growth of the indie business has a great deal to do with the explosion of social media and it’s a pretty young aspect of our culture. It’s like asking about a drug that’s only been on the market for 5-7 years. What are the after-effects in 10, 15, or 20 years?
Brandon: Are there brands that do have a little bit of a proper balance to them? They’re not huge and it’s not like turning the Titanic around, but they’re also not so small where the owners are still making up 50 units?
Ellen: Oh yes. I do think there are brands that get it. If you speak to a younger person than me, you’re going to hear them say, “No, they don’t get it,” but I don’t agree from my professional point of view. I think it’s brands like Wacoal, which has the b.tempt’d brand under their umbrella, which is a younger more updated customer.
Chantelle has made a huge effort and changed their entire marketing approach to something called CL, which is a conglomeration of their brands to appeal to every aspect of the marketplace. They don’t try to change the Chantelle brand itself, but the Chantelle umbrella has a whole new approach in the market. Passionata is one of their brands, and Chantal Thomass – I’m just giving you a couple – so they cover different consumer bases to achieve this. There are brands like Natori. I think a lot of them are doing it. They’re just doing it by multi-tasking in terms of branding, and they’re succeeding, by the way. LeMystere has done it.
I have to speak to the brands that I deal with. I’m sure there are many more that are just as successful, but I just don’t cover the moderate market as well so it’s harder for me to speak to it, but I can see what I see in the stores and I’m sure that Calvin Klein is successful at it, and Maidenform, because they wouldn’t be as big as they are in distribution if they weren’t.
I can tell you that when these brands do this, I watch even the parts of their companies that they try to target to a younger more progressive customer – I’ve watched them pare back some of their attempts because there’s a limit to how many of those customers there are and how big those pocketbooks are.
It’s more the bringing in of brands like Lise Charmel from Paris or Maison Lejaby into the stock assortments in the stores to accent what’s carried and have it look a little bit more forward and different.
I can tell you an interesting anecdote without mentioning the name of the brand. I got a call from a brand the other day, a rep for a brand in this country that’s a very French brand. Management in Europe is very upset because they’re only selling fashion over here, they’re not selling their basic everyday line as well.
She said to me, “Do you have anything that I can say to them?” and I said, “Yes, the buyers here are not interested in your brand for that purpose. They have plenty of it from the big brands in the United States. They’re looking to your brand for the gorgeous beautiful French lingerie,” but that’s how we get both on the table, so to speak.
Brandon: Could you give some actual examples? You’ve mentioned a couple very interesting brands and interesting things that they’re doing. What are some examples of some of their programs? Is it in social media? Is it in experiential marketing? Is it something else?
Ellen: The bigger brands are figuring out social media. I would say that for them, the big names, it’s about a year old. They’ve been on it, but understanding how to use it and respond to it, it looks to me like it’s very young for those people.
I’m watching a changing of the guard inside the companies’ personnel department, inside the companies’ employees. I’m watching much more out-of-the-box creative directors being hired and marketing heads being hired, and attempts at using different channels like bloggers. Instagram is a big deal and Instagram stories.
There’s less print. They still do print, mostly business to business print. To be honest with you, I am beginning to see what they call pop-ups, and that concept was born in the indie market, where they go and pop up a store for three days and sell things. I’m starting to see the bigger brands begin to do it.
Now if you want to swing the pendulum all the way in the other direction you have to talk about Amazon, because even the big-name expensive brands all want to be on Amazon. It’s a big risk because Amazon has its own rules.
Brandon: That’s interesting. I’ve been in the tech world for decades and I remember when Amazon first started and were originally focusing on books and then they expanded into 1,000 different ways and developed new companies within their main retail store and so on.
For a very long time, most very well-established brands avoided them because they were concerned about all these rules. So you’re telling me that this is now changing, and some of the more popular, more effective, well-storied brands are actually wanting to be in this marketplace.
Ellen: I don’t think they want to be in it. I think that some of them have figured out that they have to be in it. I also know some of these bigger brands who refuse to be in it because of the rules. I know others who will only do it on their terms, and I don’t know how successful that is at a grander level.
I do know that some of the brands I work with have pulled their goods from department stores because they don’t want them sold every five minutes on sale. In contrast to that, I know there are competitive brands that are still in the sale-oriented department stores but have established rules with them. “You can only promote twice a year when we do,” and the stores listen.
A great deal of this has to do with strategic management approaches to partnerships within retail outlets. Amazon is hard to control because there are 3rd– and 4th-party people and you don’t always have control over who’s selling your goods, but I think Amazon is working on that with people, too. I’m not as well-versed as I could be in how that’s evolving. I just know it’s kind of the gorilla in the room that you have to feed, and maybe you don’t want to be anywhere near it, and every brand is handling it from a different perspective.
Brandon: Very good. We’re running a little short on time here, but let me ask you one of my favorite questions. If you were sitting in front of a well-experienced creative director or marketing director of an established lingerie brand and they asked you, “Ellen, give me your thoughts on where the lingerie industry is going in the next 10 years that I don’t already know,” how would you answer that question?
Ellen: It’s a difficult question because one of the things that we know is that it will not be the same. How it will not be the same is difficult to assess because it has to do with generational preferences. The part about “what you don’t already know” is difficult because what I do know you probably already know, that it’s going to be more sustainable. It has to be really sustainable, not marketing sustainable.
I think there will be more understanding of value at any price. I think it will be more of an investment business, but again, Brandon, I don’t cover the mass market. I think the newer generations have a better understanding of experience and quality over quantity.
The other thing I think is that women, which is most of the lingerie purchasers – men purchase for women, but women are the wearers of lingerie – are becoming more and more empowered and self-confident and not buying lingerie for the purpose of enticing another person. They’re more interested in enticing themselves. How you do that – what makes a woman feel that she’s valuable – differs among personalities, so it’s very difficult to say what will happen.
I think there might be some 3D product development, which is a cutting edge technology right now and the hardest to achieve in lingerie because of all the fit issues. That’s something that I think is on the far horizon.
It’s very difficult to guess unless you already see seeds planted, which I think people know about if they’re smart enough and they’re paying attention to them.
Brandon: That’s great. How can people find out more about you?
Ellen: They can go to my website at LingerieBriefs.com. They could go to one of six different social media sites. We’re on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Flipboard, and LinkedIn, so we’re very, very active on social media. We have a huge following. We are not like other lingerie bloggers. It’s not about me, it’s about the industry. I’m a merchant first and foremost, so what I do is search the market for what’s happening out there, what’s important, and what’s important for the bottom line.
That’s what Lingerie Briefs is all about. It’s very multifaceted. It’s got many columns on it. We cover the curvy market, we cover the swim market, we cover the bridal market, we have editorials with our own fashion shoots. One would have to explore the site.